A photo of two ment sitting at a seks with comptuers and sound editng eiquiment on it. A woman near them is standing to the right, and another is sitting in a chair on the left.
VCU InSight students take the lead on every aspect of the program’s regular newscasts. (Thomas Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Capital News Service and VCU InSight, two powerful proving grounds for journalism students, reach notable milestones

The long-running programs not only prepare students for careers in journalism but also serve as vital sources of local and regional news for audiences throughout Virginia.

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For decades, Virginia Commonwealth University’s journalism students have taken on the mantle of local and state news coverage, reporting on real issues for real readers.

Now, as the award-winning Capital News Service and VCU InSight programs celebrate important milestones, educators are more focused than ever on introducing budding reporters to the realities of the industry.

CNS, which began in 1994 to cover the General Assembly, is a student wire service that produces stories – about 40 per semester – for more than 100 news outlets throughout Virginia. In 2019, the program, which is now in its 30th year, was expanded to include a fall semester in addition to the traditional spring classes.

InSight, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, was launched in 2003 as a 30-minute TV news show produced by undergraduate students. Newscasts air regularly on the program’s YouTube channel, covering stories from around the city and in nearby counties. Students take the lead on everything from writing and editing to directing and reporting. In addition to the weekly newscast, students also turn out longer-form stories and packages.

“If your story goes through the news wire, it’s going to be published on anywhere from five to 20 different news sites, and sometimes more,” said Alix Bryan-Campos, an assistant professor and director of Capital News Service. “It’s going to be read by politicians, it’s going to be read by nonprofits, it’s going to be read by other journalists and people in the community. That’s an experience level a lot of people don’t get until grad school or until they start their job.”

Bryan-Campos and Ashley Poerstel, an instructor and director of VCU InSight, are two educators in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences teaching journalism’s next generation. Before coming to VCU, Bryan-Campos and Poerstel began their careers as multimedia journalists, giving them a unique perspective as they guide students toward their eventual careers.

A photo of a woman wearing glasses sitting at a news anchor desk with a sheet of paper in front of her. Behind the woman is a monitor that says \"INSIGHT AT VCU\" in yellow and black letters.
VCU InSight offers students the invaluable opportunity to grow comfortable in front of the camera during newscasts. (Thomas Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

“We bring a lot of our own working experiences into how we teach,” Poerstel said. “That’s an element for our students that you don’t always see in the academic world. [On one hand] we understand that [students] need to get the story, have great storytelling and have great writing. But we also understand what these students are going through when it’s frustrating trying to get someone to talk to you or if you hit a wall and you’re not sure which direction you should go with a story.”

Last year, CNS and InSight joined forces to start a newsroom concept that helps to facilitate more frequent collaboration between student broadcast and digital reporters. The students now have the opportunity to work together on semester-long projects, with one CNS student pairing up with an InSight student to cover a topic that relates to Virginians.

“These two capstone classes used to do their own thing and they were very focused on that type of [separate] production,” Bryan-Campos said. “But news doesn't really operate in that type of silo anymore. In that vein, reporters who are up and coming need to be more familiar with multi-platform reporting.”

Both programs have become a proving ground unlike what most journalism students experience as undergraduates. Mass communications major Emily Richardson called her time with CNS “integral to my development as a journalist and a highlight of my VCU career.”

Richardson, who graduates in May, will continue to pursue journalism this summer as she joins Carnegie-Knight News21, a national reporting initiative headquartered at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, armed with the tools she learned with CNS.

“[Writing for CNS] was a chance to hone the hard skills like writing, interviewing and putting together data visualizations,” she said. While covering government and policy, she explained complicated information in a digestible way and collaborated with her fellow journalism students. She said those skills position her for success throughout her career.

During her time with InSight, mass communications major Brigette Kelly learned to be a reporter in a working newsroom, adhering to tight deadlines and getting comfortable in front of the camera, which she knows will be critical as she embarks on a career in broadcast journalism.

A photo of twenty two people sitting in chairs watching a man speak in the front of the room. At the back of the room a woman is standing against a wall. The walls of the room are yellow and the carpet is green.
Students from the VCU newsroom took a tour of the Virginia State Capitol. VCU journalism students have become a crucial source of state government news. (Photo contributed by Alix Bryan-Campos)

Following graduation in May, Kelly will begin a new job at WSET-ABC13, a Lynchburg-based television station, where she will pitch, shoot, write and edit her own stories as a “one-man band.” She credits InSight with helping her prepare for the task.

Countless Robertson School graduates are now in journalism positions around the country, including Mechelle Hankerson, news director of WHRO Public Media, a PBS member television station located in Hampton Roads.

“CNS was a great way to get a sense of what a real newsroom is like while still in school,” said Hankerson. “It taught me and my classmates the demands of daily newsgathering and writing under the demands of strict deadlines, [which] was incredibly valuable preparation for my career coming out of college, and mimicked the rhythm of professional newsrooms.”

In her current role with WHRO Public Media, Hankerson called CNS a “key partner” in statewide news coverage as well as a program that, along with InSight, helps to shape future journalists.

“There are fewer options for small newsrooms – which are many of the newsrooms in Virginia now – and CNS helps provide more coverage to everyone in the state,” she said. “It also helps create a pipeline of journalists who will hopefully see the value in serving their state through their work and build connections between journalists coming into the workforce and newsrooms.”

Both programs have earned a host of accolades over the years. Most recently, at the Society of Professional Journalists Mark of Excellence awards, InSight staff won Best All-Around Television Newscast for their election coverage while CNS reporter Anna Chen took home the top honor for Regional Political Reporting for a collection of her spring 2023 General Assembly reports.

The continued recognition confirms “the excellence we see from our Robertson School students every day and the effort they put into reporting important stories,” Bryan-Campos said. “The work we do is hard but it’s worth it to look back and see how these students appreciate government, how they appreciate community, how they appreciate multiple perspectives and they have confidence that they can contribute to that.”

Each issue of the VCU News newsletter includes a roundup of top headlines from the university’s central news source and a listing of highlighted upcoming events. The newsletter is distributed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. To subscribe, visit newsletter.vcu.edu/. All VCU and VCU Health email account holders are automatically subscribed to the newsletter.