Now that state lawmakers have wrapped up their business in Richmond, two dozen students at Virginia Commonwealth University are breathing a sigh of relief. VCU is one of a handful of schools filling a huge gap created by shrinking budgets for state news coverage. Sandy Hausman reports on this eager army of junior journalists.
When Professor Jeff South came to Virginia Commonwealth University from an editorial job in Austin, he looked forward to working with young journalists – teaching them how to cover state government. As Virginia prepared for its annual legislative session, he would arrive early to assure a spot for his students in the press room.
“I would have to go to the capitol in October," he recalls. "I would take some police tape, and I would rope off two chairs and a small desk, because it was so packed with people beginning in late December and then into the General Assembly session,” he recalls. “You had reporters from Martinsville, Danville, Lynchburg – small news organizations that would send somebody to the session for at least a couple days during the week if not for the entire session, and now it’s a ghost town.”
The Internet and 24-hour news channels have created competition for hometown papers, so there’s been less money for ads, and news organizations have folded or cut back. Most have stopped covering state government, relying on the Associated Press and a handful of large papers with offices in Richmond. That worries South.
“There are fewer reporters chasing stories, and so a lot more stories go untold,” he explains. “Laws are passed that have a profound impact on our lives in big ways and small ways. Yesterday one of the students did a story about a bill that allows you to buy a lifetime license for your dog or your cat. That’s kind of interesting, and so from that kind of micro news to the bigger stories, we need good reporting to shine a light on them.”
Ironically, he adds, few of his students have purchased a newspaper.
“But they consume more news than I’m sure I did when I was their age, because they’re constantly online. They’re not always going to the home page of a news organization and looking for stories. A lot of the stories they get will be recommendations from friends, something they saw on Twitter, on Facebook,” South explains.
An earlier generation was wowed by Watergate and a film about how Washington Post reporters uncovered the scandal. Jeff South says Hollywood may also have inspired some of his students.
“I do believe that the movie Spotlight is today’s All the President’s Men.”
The students lack experience, but they’re brimming with energy – excited to learn and share. Amelia Heymann and Mary Lee Clark are seniors who confess they’re hooked on news.
“It’s been an amazing and very busy experience. Last week I did like seven stories, and it took up most of my time,” says Heymann.
“You get kind of caught up in deadlines sometimes, and as a student you have classes, so you try to balance homework and reporting,” says Clark.
“It’s been really great,” Heymann adds, “because I’ve gotten my work published in a lot of papers and such. Like I got a piece picked up by AP, and it got in the Washington Post, and I sent it around to my family to say, ‘Look, I’m a real boy now!’”
Now that the legislative session is over, South says there will still be lots to cover – the governor’s race, the on-going work of state agencies and some enterprise reporting. Then, of course, it’ll be time to look for work.
Undaunted by President Donald Trump’s insulting words, they will seek jobs in journalism and have a leg up on the competition with stories written and published while they were still in school.