A woman holding a cell phone in front of her recording another woman speaking.
Capital News Service reporter Kaina Lee interviews voters at a Henrico County polling place on Nov. 7. (Contributed photo).

How the ‘Newsroom at VCU’ covered Election Day in Virginia

In the field and with General Assembly control at stake, student journalists serve audiences statewide on digital and broadcast platforms.

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Hollyann Purvis, a senior digital journalism major at Virginia Commonwealth University, and classmate Kofi Mframa arrived at a Petersburg polling place at 7 a.m. Tuesday and got to work. As journalists for VCU’s Capital News Service, they are among the students who cover news in Richmond and across Virginia – in this case, Election Day – and distribute content to more than 100 news outlets.

“We interviewed voters and made observations at the polls, practicing our man-on-the-street interview skills along with our live-tweeting abilities,” Purvis said. “This was my second year covering Petersburg polls. Actually being able to go to the polls is a very rewarding experience as a student journalist — I love introducing VCU to the Petersburg community every year, whether it be through interviews, photos or poll updates.”

Purvis was one of 22 students in capstone journalism courses in VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences who spent Election Day covering the polls in key districts in Petersburg, Stafford County and Henrico County. They provided social media and online news updates throughout the day and into the evening, when they covered Republican and Democratic watch parties as all 140 seats in Virginia’s General Assembly were decided.

Students in Capital News Service have been providing Virginia election stories to media partners across Virginia before, during and after Election Day. Students in VCU InSight — a weekly news program produced by VCU broadcast journalism students that covers stories around campus and the Richmond area — had a pre-election show that highlighted first-time student voters, featured interviews with Richmond voters and provided expert analysis by VCU political science professor Alex Keena, Ph.D. A post-election show is in the works.

A photo of two people high fiving each other.
Hollyann Purvis and Kofi Mframa celebrate finishing Election Day coverage, which saw them travel to Petersburg to interview voters. (Contributed photo).

These efforts are part of the Newsroom at VCU, a new collaborative production space at the Robertson School in which students work together across broadcast and digital platforms to publish multimedia stories in a fast-paced environment that reflects professional news practices.

“This allows us to offer students a more experiential learning opportunity, and one that is aligned with industry standards,” said Alix Bryan-Campos, assistant professor of digital journalism and director of Capital News Service. “Their portfolios are more robust and elevated when they start looking for work. They can point to the newsroom opportunities that prepared them for the expectations future employers will have.”

Ryan Nadeau, a senior double-majoring in digital journalism and political science, spent Tuesday evening taking interviews and statements from the field and weaving them into an election wrap-up story — Virginia Democrats celebrate legislative ‘blue wall’ built from Election Day victories — for Capital News Service.

“I was doing a lot of that collecting and curating. I also helped monitor the competitive/featured races on VPAP so we could push updates on social media” – which student colleagues Nicole Staab and Emily Richardson helped direct,” Nadeau said. “I absolutely love covering politics, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working in the Newsroom this semester. I think we have some incredibly passionate journalists in Insight and CNS, and I’m so happy to work with both them and our professors.”

Brian Fritz, a senior broadcast journalism major, covered the GOP watch party for Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, who was defeated by Democratic Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg in a Henrico contest that was one of the most competitive races statewide.

“As far as the experience as a journalist, it was mostly a ‘hurry up and wait’ operation, which was expected,” Fritz said. “It was really cool to watch the local news teams set their equipment up and plan their segments. The videographers from NBC and ABC were really helpful in advising where I should set up my equipment and ensuring I had audio equipment set up for an impromptu press conference.”

Fritz added that while reporting is not his career goal, Election Day was nevertheless a great opportunity to cover an important political event. “This experience – going out alongside professionals, watching how they conduct themselves and prepare – is incredibly valuable,” he said.

A photo of a man on a TV set. To the right is a camera and a woman sitting in a chair.
VCU InSight directed a studio interview segment with Alex Keena, Ph.D., an associate professor of political science, to ask questions about the upcoming election. (Contributed photo).

Vali Jamal, a senior double-majoring in political science and digital journalism, covered the state Democratic watch party until after midnight.

“The experience was intensive. The party was attended with various delegates, delegates-elect, party officials and organizations all across Virginia,” Jamal said. “The event had announcements of various races as they were called and were met with wild cheers from the crowd. All in all, the experience was certainly unique, and the energy was really high throughout.”

Brigette Kelly, a senior broadcast journalism major, covered polling places in Chester, interviewing both longtime and first-time voters.

“The experience as a journalist was honestly so much fun. I love being out in the field reporting and talking to so many passionate people about various issues,” Kelly said. “It truly is great experience for me as I soon begin my career at a news station once I graduate. This is real stuff — these are real people with real opinions, some that may be varying from your own. But it’s your job as a journalist to share these opinions objectively.”

Having the chance to cover an election, Kelly said, was a fantastic preparation for her future career in TV news.

“I am really thankful for this experience — it made me feel like I was an actual reporter working at an actual TV station,” Kelly said. “I am so glad that [VCU Insight instructor] Ashley [Poerstel] and Alix give us these opportunities –  they really care about our careers and want us to succeed.”

Poerstel said Tuesday’s election provided the student-journalists with real-world experience and an opportunity to cover many of the same stories local and national journalists were working on.

“One of the goals at VCU InSight is to get actual newsroom experience,” she said. “The students are the reporters, producers and directors for our weekly newscast on VCU InSight’s YouTube channel. We air a new show every Thursday. They have to pitch the stories, find the interviews, check for accuracy, produce the show and direct it. Being able to cover an election is an extension of that goal to make sure these students are ready to work in any newsroom upon graduation.”

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The Newsroom at VCU provides the capstone courses an opportunity to collaborate on news coverage. Pictured are CNS and InSight students with WTVR CBS 6 news guest journalist speakers Tyler Lane, a VCU alum, and Melissa Hipolit (third and fourth from left, front row). (Contributed photo).

As part of the Newsroom at VCU, the Robertson School has redesigned some courses, such as a copy editing class that is now the Copy Desk, in which students edit Capital News Service stories.

“It also means we integrate our broadcast and digital news production more frequently, from a CNS News Minute that airs on the InSight newscast to pairing up reporters to cover big stories, like on Election Day,” Bryan-Campos said. “We can send broadcast packages through the CNS newswire service, something that didn’t happen for the past 25 years or so.”

Looking ahead, Bryan-Campos said the team is planning to include other students’ talents at the Robertson School by asking “how could the public relations students use the Newsroom to understand more about working with reporters?” or “how could media production create show graphics?”

“By combining forces, students gain more resources throughout their time in our school,” Bryan-Campos said. “I have a chance now to also help mentor Copy Desk students, broadcast students, media production students – anyone who gets involved in the Newsroom outside of just taking Capital News Service with me.”