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Making headlines: VCU journalism students are covering the General Assembly for 90 news outlets and feeding stories to the Associated Press

Feb 6, 2017

Posted in: News

On a recent morning at the General Assembly, a Virginia Senate subcommittee considered legislation backed by the oil and gas industry that would keep chemical recipes used in fracking confidential as trade secrets. Among the lobbyists, activists and others observing the debate, Virginia Commonwealth University senior journalism major Tyler Hammel was listening carefully and taking notes.

Hammel, who was covering the meeting as part of the Capital News Service program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture, quickly filed a news article about the meeting, “Panel amends and OKs bills on hiding fracking chemicals,” which was published by The Daily Progress in Charlottesville and RVA Hub in Richmond.

“Covering the General Assembly is pretty hectic but rewarding,” Hammel said. “It’s almost like triage in a way because there’s no way you can possibly cover everything, so you have to make decisions about what is most important to you and what you think will get the most attention.”

Launched in 1994, VCU’s Capital News Service, a three-credit course at the Robertson School in the College of Humanities and Sciences, sends VCU journalism students to cover the General Assembly and other political and government news in Richmond for newspapers, TV stations, news sites and other media outlets across Virginia.

Today, Capital News Service provides coverage to roughly 90 news outlets throughout the state. 

Senior journalism major Tyler Hammel covers a Virginia Senate subcommittee as it debates legislation that would keep chemical recipes used in fracking confidential as trade secrets.
Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs
Senior journalism major Tyler Hammel covers a Virginia Senate subcommittee as it debates legislation that would keep chemical recipes used in fracking confidential as trade secrets. Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs

Media outlets that don’t have the resources to send a reporter to Richmond on a daily basis receive coverage of Virginia state government news. For students, they get the opportunity to cover major news stories coming out of the legislature, while gaining real-world work experience and clips that can help them land a job in journalism after graduation.

“The goal of the program is two-fold: To provide citizens of Virginia with the information they need to make good decisions about who to vote for and how their state government is operating. And then, of course, the secondary goal is to help student journalists get a toehold in the profession and develop a portfolio,” said Jeff South, director of the Capital News Service and associate professor of journalism in the Robertson School.

Feeding articles to the Associated Press

This semester, for the first time, select stories written by students in the Capital News Service are being distributed by the Associated Press, resulting in their work getting published in major national media outlets, including The Washington Post.

Steve McMillan, Mid-Atlantic news editor for the AP, said the wire service is excited to be working with VCU’s Capital News Service this year, following a similar arrangement that launched in the fall between the AP and the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service.

“So far, the students are doing an excellent job of identifying stories at the legislature and producing them on a fairly tight deadline so we can get them on the AP wire here in Virginia for use by our newspaper and broadcast members,” McMillan said.

“One of the aims of the partnership is to give the CNS stories broader distribution and distribution to larger news outlets than those stories have right now,” he added. “But from our standpoint as a wire service, it benefits us by providing additional news content to our members. It never hurts to have more journalists, including journalists-in-training, at the statehouse gathering news, especially in this time of smaller news staffs industrywide.”

A few stories by Capital News Service students that have gone out on the AP wire have reached a national audience.

On Jan. 27, for example, VCU junior print/online journalism major Megan Schiffres’ coverage of legislation targeting the opioid crisis ran in The Washington Post, The Charlotte Observer, The Chicago Tribune, the San Antonio Express-News, The News Tribune (Tacoma, Washington), the Huron Daily Tribune (Michigan), a now-defunct news website in Georgia, Federal News RadioCBS 6 in Richmond and elsewhere.

“This was my second article to get picked up by the AP and Washington Post,” she said. “I was thrilled it got so much coverage, especially because the opioid crisis in Virginia is a serious issue deserving of public attention.”

Hammel, meanwhile, saw his coverage of legislation seeking to end the photo ID requirement for voting get published in The Washington Post on Jan. 17. His work has also been picked up by The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, InsideNoVa.com8 News and NBC12 in Richmond, the Culpeper Times and many other news outlets.

“It’s pretty cool,” he said. “I’m not getting paid for anything I write, so it’s really great to [have it be published] as far out as I can.”

Hammel had previously covered the General Assembly from time to time while interning with GayRVA and RVAMag. This semester, he’s visiting the legislature two to four times a week.

“A lot of people don’t understand how the General Assembly really works,” he said. “It’s weird. I know that’s not a great way to describe it, but a lot goes on pretty fast. It’s hard to cover it all, and it’s all pretty important. So CNS is a cool opportunity to cover and talk about something that I’m interested in, while also getting class credit for it.

“There was a bill that was proposed that would have repealed the requirement to have a photo ID to vote, [but] it got struck down,” he added. “I’ve also covered a couple of LGBT workplace protection bills, which also got struck down. And I covered Del. Bob Marshall’s bill that would have prevented transgender people from using the bathroom of their choosing.”

Jesse Adcock, a junior journalism major, said covering the General Assembly for the Capital News Service is “a lot like swimming in the ocean.”

“Professor South is a great mentor and kind of points which way to swim,” he said. “Other than some basic requirements for the number of pieces and multimedia, he doesn’t require we swim in a particular direction or any farther or harder than we ourselves want to. I feel he works very hard to make sure that we have all the tools we need to work as hard as we want to. It’s a very individual thing and I like to do things on my own so I think I’m getting along splendid.”

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