This week we had the pleasure of talking with the Daily Press’s state politics reporter, Reema Amin. She talks about covering state politics, starting a politics podcast with fellow Press reporter Dave Ress, her most memorable story and more.
To start, can you please introduce yourself and tell us a little about who you are, where you work, what you do there and how long you’ve been doing it.
So, I’m Reema Amin and I’m currently a city government and state politics reporter for the Daily Press in Newport News. I found my way to Virginia through Chicago, where I was a breaking news reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times.
I have been at the Daily Press for almost three years now. I started out covering Isle of Wight County, a small community just south of the James River. I got shifted to covering the city of Newport News in October 2016, and have been covering state politics since about December 2017.
This year in Virginia politics—as far as the session was concerned—was anything other than normal. What was it like covering a regular General Session turned into a Special Session turned into a Medicaid battle/stand-off, etc…? And what was it like to see the budget pass last week?
This is my first time paying close attention to state government, so it was remarkable, especially after watching how drastically the make-up of the House of Delegates changed last November (including the Newport News race that ended in a tie). I’d say the most interesting thing was watching the Democratic pick-up of 15 seats actually result in policy changes. For example, raising the dollar threshold for which petty theft becomes a felony had been blocked in the General Assembly for years, but this year, some of the most conservative and liberal lawmakers reached a compromise to change that.
Medicaid expansion was another direct result of the change in the General Assembly. It was fascinating to watch people slowly flip their positions for various reasons, but also to watch debate — for long hours — about the potential consequences of expansion. Of course, some of the long debates came from people running for Congress, which added another layer to things this year. Just to note, I didn’t cover the regular session as often as some of my other statehouse press corps colleagues, but it was still interesting to watch.
You and fellow Daily Press reporter Dave Ress recently launched a podcast centered on Virginia politics. What spurred this idea and how has it been thus far exploring the audio side of political reporting and commentary as compared to the written side?
For a while, our editors and Dave saw that, contrary to some belief, there is a solid audience out there interested in how state government works. But they also recognized that people are constantly changing how they consume news, and right now, podcasts are a popular way to do that. So that’s sort of how the idea was born — to reach a broader audience and be able to showcase our work that way.
I won’t sugarcoat it: learning how to make a podcast was stressful and hilarious at the same time. If we ever make a blooper reel someday, it’ll be golden. But with the extraordinary help of our producer, Jonathan Heeter (who is also Daily Press’s sports editor), we’ve slowly learned how to get good sound. We’re also learning how to record others properly. I’ve personally found it interesting to experiment with the structure of the podcasts. We’re about seven episodes in and we’ve done analyses with just Dave and I, full interviews with lawmakers and then a mix of both. It seems people are a little more interested in hearing directly from their state lawmakers than from us all the time. And hey, I can’t blame them.
What’s the next big story in Virginia politics that you see on the horizon?
I think it will be interesting to watch the implementation of Medicaid expansion and see how it pans out for the roughly 300,000 low-income Virginians who are now supposed to get access to healthcare. This was a huge goal for Gov. Northam, so I want to see what he focuses on next. It seems that he’s really interested in K-12 education, so that could be a big talking point during the next session.
Obviously, people will pay attention to how the U.S. House and Senate races will stack up as things change across the country. And as the state Senate elections come closer, it will be interesting to watch if the makeup there changes at all since that is also a narrowly divided, Republican-controlled chamber. But, that’s still some time away.
What’s a story you’ve written for the Daily Press that you don’t think you’ll ever forget? What made this story memorable for you?
In 2016, when I was covering Isle of Wight County, I wrote about how families were moving out of the area because their children, who needed varying degrees of special needs services from the school system, were not getting the assistance that their doctors and the Department of Education thought they needed. I found that, proportionally, there were more federal disability investigations into Isle of Wight’s school system than any other area we covered. I also found an internal audit that raised serious questions about how kids with special needs were being treated.
The story was memorable because I got to shed light on a serious issue that these parents — often moved to tears when we talked — thought no one would pay attention to. I’ve checked in with those families, and they have found better special education services elsewhere.
As a young person in the industry, do you ever get asked why you chose to work in newspapers by people outside the industry? If so, what do you tell them?
All the time, and I don’t think it happens to just young journalists. As cliché as it sounds, I tell them that every community deserves to know the truth about their government, and I want to be a part of that.
Favorite writers (can be anyone from practicing journos to Russian novelists): This is a tough one but the two I can think of off the top of my head are Jennifer Gonnerman (who for a long time wrote about prisons for the New Yorker), and, yes, J.K. Rowling. I also love Harper Lee but I don’t know if someone can be your favorite writer if you’ve only read one and a half books by them.
Best book to understand Va. politics: I’m not sure about this one yet since I’m still fairly new, but “Virginia Politics & Government in a New Century: The Price of Power” by Jeff Thomas has been an interesting read so far (thanks to Dave Ress for letting me borrow that).
One piece of writing advice you adhere to: Ditch the forced transitions. Just say what happened next.