This week we are bringing you something a little different. Capital News Service, which is housed in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University, is a student-run wire service that focuses on providing coverage of the General Assembly.
Students clips consistently run in both small regional newspapers, as well as in major national newspapers paper such as the Seattle Times and the Washington Post. Below, course instructors Jeff South, Karen McIntyre and former RTD newshound Tom Kapsildeis talk about what it’s like seeing young journalists flourish, helping curb a coverage void at the General Assembly, watching students react to having their stories picked up by national publications and a lot more.
Can you please tell me about the origins of Capital News Service—the idea behind it, how it got started at VCU, how many General Assembly sessions its covered, etc.
Jeff South: CNS was created in 1994 by Wilma Wirt, a legendary VCU journalism professor who has since retired from the mass comm faculty. Wilma established CNS for two reasons:
- To give VCU’s journalism students an opportunity to actively cover and write about the General Assembly.
- To give the state’s community newspapers better access to the legislature — something Wirt deemed important in the everyday lives of all Virginians.
This year, CNS covered our 25th regular legislative session — and we’ve reported on special sessions over the years as well.
When Wilma started CNS, stories were printed out and snail-mailed to clients — or transmitted by that revolutionary technology called a fax machine. Now, of course, it’s all digital: We distribute our stories electronically to our clients, with links to photos, videos and other multimedia, and we produce a steady stream of social media content as well.
When CNS began, the subscribers were most weeklies and other non-daily newspapers. Now, we have more than 90 clients. They include community newspapers like the Henrico Citizen, dailies such as The News Leader in Staunton, digital news platforms like Inside NoVa and television and radio station websites. Moreover, the Associated Press selects some of our stories and distributes them to its subscribers.
How does CNS work? When do students file stories, who edits the stories and how are they put on the wire? Is it focused almost exclusively on coverage of the General Assembly?
Karen McIntyre: CNS students each typically produce about one story a week. This past semester, we had 28 reporters in CNS, and they were churning out stories almost every day, including weekends.
Tom Kapsidelis: Students covered stories during the winter and spring breaks and late in the semester even after they had met their course requirements. CNS students reported, literally, from a winter ice jam in Chesapeake Bay to the budget gridlock at the Capitol.
McIntyre: The students write their stories in Google Docs. When a story is filed, an instructor will edit it, typically alongside the reporter, in an interactive process. After the student and professor are finished editing the story, it goes to a second editor for another review and suggested revisions. Once the reporter and two editors sign off on a story, we send it to our clients using a listserv.
Kapsidelis: The process and pace are remarkably similar to those of professional newsrooms. The clients we serve have all kinds of deadlines, so this further acquaints students with the demands they may face after graduating.
McIntyre: The students focus their reporting on the General Assembly, but they occasionally cover stories unrelated to politics. This spring, for example, CNS reporter Ahniaelyah Spraggs published a text and video story about a hot glass studio that hosted a fundraiser for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society; Alexandra Sosik wrote about “The Bachelorette” filming in Richmond; and several students collaborated on a package of profiles about Virginians competing in the Winter Olympics. Also, after the session ended, the students produced long-form enterprise stories on subjects ranging from cryptocurrency to fake service dogs.
Kapsidelis: Our students showed good instincts in sensing how national news trends were developing — the cryptocurrency and service dog stories were good examples of that, as was an end-of-semester piece that dealt with human trafficking in Virginia.
South: Planning is key. We use a Google Doc for our news budget — a list of the stories that students are working on on any given day. By 1 p.m., we send the budget to our clients so they’ll know what’s coming. We also send the budget to the AP, and the editors there typically select a few stories that they’ll want to size up as possibilities for the AP wire.
During this past semester, the CNS staff wrote more than 275 stories, and about 80 of them were picked up by the AP.
When it comes to covering the General Assembly, what are some things you try and prepare the students for? What type of teaching goes into showing young journalists how to spot the “news” in a given committee or subcommittee meeting? If one has never covered such an event, I imagine it could be somewhat arcane at first.
Kapsidelis: The challenge for beginning General Assembly reporters is mastering the procedure while staying focused on the impact of the legislation. We try to help them cut through the jargon and urge them to background themselves as much as possible on the issues they’re reporting. Despite its formalities, the legislature is a place where citizens go to air their concerns and seek change. And with a large number of new delegates this year, the legislature was a different place in many ways. So it was a good time to be a new reporter at the Capitol.
South: The skills students must master in covering the General Assembly transfer over to covering any governmental body. Reporters must answer the question, “How will this affect people?” They must cut through the jargon and process and political posturing, and get to the heart of the issue.
What’s the reaction of student reporters when they first start covering the GA? Do you see a change in them after they’ve covered the session for a little while?
South: This is a sink-or-swim class. It can be intimidating at first — walking up to senators or delegates or calling them on the phone, explaining you’re a reporter working on a story and “I need to ask you a few questions about …?” But this is what reporters must do, and it only gets easier through experience. We prep students about etiquette and best practices for contacting and interviewing news-makers. But ultimately, it’s their responsibility; we don’t have the time or resources to do a lot of hand holding.
We see the students change almost like it’s time-lapse photography. They grow in terms of journalism skills — reporting and writing. But more than that, they grow in terms of self-confidence and poise. One of this year’s “Capsters,” Logan Bogert, said CNS is “like you’re whitewater rafting, you’ve hit a rocky patch, you flipped upside down in the water thinking you’re not going to make it and you’re terrified, but then you pop back out of the water and excitedly scream, ‘That was awesome! Let’s do it again!’”
“Seeing the students’ reactions to their stories getting published by national news outlets is one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching this course. For example, I couldn’t stop smiling when we received one student’s email after he found out the Washington Post picked up his story: ‘Thank you so much for everything. I’m shaking. My family is so excited.'”
What have been some of the most memorable stories (meaning they either had unique subject matter, or made some type of impact, or both) you all have seen be produced out of CNS over the years? Cite a few specific examples if possible.
McIntyre: A story by reporter Jessica Wetzler in February alerted Virginians that the Senate had passed a bill allowing drunken driving on private property. The story was published widely — more than 60 news outlets picked it up, including USA Today and U.S. News and World Report. That publicity may have been one reason why the bill was later killed.
South: In March, CNS staffer Yasmine Jumaa wrote a story about approval of legislation to establish a cancer research and treatment center in Halifax County named after Henrietta Lacks, a Halifax native who was the source of an immortal cell line that has been crucial in medical research since the 1950s. That story was published everywhere from the Richmond Free Press to the Chicago Tribune, and it was a teachable moment about Ms. Lacks’ legacy.
A lot of the stories I’m especially proud of don’t necessarily get widespread play. They’re about the General Assembly’s approval of a city charter change determining when elections are held in a particular locality, or a profile of a newly elected legislator. It may be that only one or two news outlets are interested in those stories — and that’s fine. CNS has its roots in hyperlocal, community-based news. We’re as pleased when a story makes a big splash in one community as we are when a story ripples across the global internet.
What has it been like to see some of the students’ stories get picked up by bigger publications like the Washington Post and the AP? Has the program been growing in its “notoriety” and “prominence” over the years? It’s crazy to think that a journalism student can graduate from j-school and already have a byline in a national publication.
McIntyre: Seeing the students’ reactions to their stories getting published by national news outlets is one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching this course. For example, I couldn’t stop smiling when we received one student’s email after he found out the Washington Post picked up his story: “Thank you so much for everything. I’m shaking. My family is so excited.”
South: I’m immensely grateful to Steve McMillan, the AP’s senior editor for Virginia and neighboring states, for giving CNS this opportunity. It’s an arrangement any j-school would die for. And it raises the stakes on everything CNS staffers do, from writing budget lines (don’t undersell or over-promise) to producing complete stories (which will be parsed for accuracy and balance by readers around the world). Having clips in top-tier publications across the U.S. is exhilarating; it definitely raises the profile of CNS and gives our students a leg up in the job hunt.
It’s common to see a CNS byline in smaller papers around the state. Do you see CNS as filling a coverage void for smaller papers that do not have enough staff to have a General Assembly reporter?
McIntyre: Yes, absolutely. We have a team of 28 reporters dedicated to covering the General Assembly. That number of reporters all dedicated to one beat is almost unheard of at national news outlets, let alone statewide outlets. Considering the number of layoffs and newspaper closures that have occurred since CNS started, we see our students filling a huge void in political coverage and we think their efforts are needed now more than ever. This season, our students provided more General Assembly coverage than the Washington Post.
South: When I first started working with CNS about 15 years ago, I’d go to the press room in the basement of the GAB — the General Assembly Building — in October with police tape and rope off two or three chairs that our students could use during the session that would begin in January. Back then, small newspapers and out-of-town TV stations sent reporters to Richmond for the legislative session, and there was competition to get seats in the press room and do stories about legislative issues. Those days are long gone. A lot of newspapers have closed or cut back on legislative coverage. To some extent, CNS has picked up the slack — especially for lean newsrooms that would not be able to send reporters to Richmond.
Where are some places former CNS reporters have gone on to work?
South: They’ve gone to news organizations across Virginia and at the national level. I’m especially proud that CNS alums have won VPA’s Outstanding Young Journalist of the Year award two of the past three years: This past year, it was Chris Suarez of the Daily Progress in Charlottesville; in 2016, it was Ryan Murphy, then at the Daily Press of Newport News, now at The Virginian-Pilot. Our grads are at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Richmond magazine, Virginia Lawyers Weekly — and at many broadcast outlets. Craig Carper, the news director for WCVE, the PBS station for Central Virginia, cut his teeth on CNS.
We also have CNS grads at national news organizations. Amir Vera, for example, recently joined CNN after stints at the Progress-Index in Petersburg and The Virginian-Pilot. Some Capsters have gone to work for Google, entered law school, joined the Peace Corps and done other cool things.
Where do you hope to see the program in the next three years?
South: We’d like to offer CNS in both spring and fall, and possibly during the summer. There is definitely a need: Virginia holds elections every year, and even when the General Assembly isn’t in session, there’s a lot happening in state and local government. We have a content-sharing agreement with the Capital News Service program at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, and we often look there for inspiration and aspiration. At Maryland, CNS counts as six or nine credits — while at VCU, it counts as a standard three-credit course.
We’d like to do more investigative reporting, data journalism, multimedia presentation and solutions (or constructive) journalism — highlighting how to address the problems in our society and our political system. The trick is balancing that with our focus on breaking news and community-oriented news. We could broaden our focus if CNS counted as a “double course” and if students could take it more than once.