Medill graduate student Michele Reaves (GJ01) stands outside a congressional elevator at the U.S. Capitol, pen poised. As a reporter for the St. Joseph News-Press in Missouri, Reaves knows the issues of the day for her local readers today it is the use of corn ethanol for energy and whom she has to target to get her questions answered: Missouri Sen. Jean Carnahan.
And when Carnahan emerges from the elevator, surrounded by a crowd of suited lawmakers, Reaves' chase begins. In a swarm of hurried, determined journalists, Reaves squeezes in her questions to the senator, scribbling furiously on a notepad, running to keep up and straining to hear as voices rise and fall over the din. In the end Reaves returns to the office with a notepad full of answers and the workings of the day's story playing in her mind. At age 24, Reaves has made it to a point she says "most journalists don't get to until much later in their careers" a Capitol Hill beat while not even finished with her graduate degree.
Whether the assignments are trips to the White House, meetings with senators or catching quotes from above the floors of Congress in the press gallery, it's all in a day's work for Northwestern journalism students at the Medill News Service in Washington, D.C. Medill sends almost all of its fourth-quarter graduate students to Capitol Hill for three months to jump-start their reporting careers in the news service.
And that indeed is what the program is a bona fide news service. Scattered across the country, 19 newspapers, nine television stations and a handful of radio stations and Web news sources pay for the service and team up with graduate students who are exclusively assigned to them for the quarter. In the program, which is now in its 34th year, students cover Capitol Hill and the workings of Washington for what tend to be smaller news outlets, like the Durham (N.C.) Herald-Sun, the York (Pa.) Daily Record, WDAY-TV in Fargo, N.D., and WCAX-TV in Burlington, Vt. Students work on three to five stories weekly.
"The idea is to give them full-time experience covering politics and public policy issues in a very competitive environment and to let them see Washington up close," says professor and co-director Ellen Shearer.
The service was started in 1967, and over the last three decades, the program has evolved from something tiny and solely print-oriented into a respected multimedia bureau with upwards of 25 reporters at a time.
On a typical morning students hurry in to the office to scan the papers and the news wires, looking for news items that may pertain to their individual news venues. Events that involve local constituents, such as a governor's trip to the White House or a Boy Scout troop that comes to the city to receive an award, are given high consideration. Students then contact the office of their newspaper or station to find out whether the editors are interested in any of their ideas. If the editors request a story from their end, the students look to their professors for guidance contact information or ideas for possible angles to take with the story. The students then either write or shoot their stories on camera, have their material edited and critiqued by their professors and send out the finished product electronically through an AP delivery service to their editors or via electronic satellite feed to their outlets. All of this must happen before the news venue's late afternoon and evening deadlines.
Through such experiences the program participants soak up a lot of news techniques they might not have learned in a classroom, Shearer says. First, they start to understand news judgment. Because they're working for outlets that are often not interested in the larger Washington news of the day, they learn to look mostly for stories that have localized angles. This teaches journalism students that the sun doesn't rise and set on Washington.
"You're really on your own here, trying to decide what is important to your constituents," Reaves says. "It definitely makes me think hard about what's newsworthy, and it's challenging to come up with my own ideas."
Students say the real learning experience comes in the one-on-one time they spend with their professors, who make sure the stories are print- or broadcast-worthy before they are sent out at the end of the day.
"The professors edit really well and really fast, but they don't stand over your shoulder," says print student Julia Chang (GJ01). "They don't see any of our work until the end, when we're ready to be edited. And they assume we can do it, but they offer us any assistance, which is really helpful."
Current students and alumni of the program agree that learning journalism in the Washington, D.C., environment is probably the best way to do it.
Starting off in Washington, students are thrown quickly into the whirlwind coverage of government officials, says Garson Fischer (GJ99), who was a broadcast student and is now a reporter with WLNS-TV in Lansing, Mich.
"By interviewing senators and covering events at the White House and Capitol, you learn to interact with people without being intimidated," he says. "That puts you in a really good position to do your job like you're a professional, without being scared to ask questions."
Despite the interviewees' impressive résumés, these students don't have time to be scared. They routinely cover their assigned state delegations, congressional candidates, home state governors and even the president and first lady.
Every quarter presents a steep learning curve, but few were more of a challenge than the fall session after the tragic events of Sept. 11. "This last quarter was amazing," says associate professor Mary Coffman, who directs the broadcast side of the program. "The students covered stories about bioterrorism, beefing up airline security and train security - all within the first two weeks of the quarter. They dug in with both feet to learn as much as possible about these serious issues."
But the stories are not all sadness and grief. Print student Dave Clarke (GJ01) went to the White House for the Duke basketball team's visit with the president and attended a memorable lunch with the North Carolina congressional delegation, both while he reported for the Herald-Sun. And the Washington quarter for broadcast student Alissa Havens (J, GJ01) became memorable indeed when Burlington, Vt.'s WCAX-TV, the station for which she was working, asked her to interview Jim Jeffords, the Vermont senator who threw politics completely upside down this year when he left the Republican Party, allowing the Democrats to take control of the Senate.
"I felt completely honored, and it was almost surreal," says Havens, who spoke with Jeffords the day before the congressional recess. Havens asked him about everything from his current relationship with Republican senators to his favorite Ben and Jerry's ice cream flavor.
Students in the program are often pleasantly surprised by their easy access to Washington bigwigs, but it's no surprise. The news service is respected on Capitol Hill, and lawmakers look upon the student journalists as they would any professionals in the field.
"You're treated like any other reporter," says Clarke. "You have full access to senators and congressmen, and you're oftentimes reporting for a small paper in a district, so these guys give you lots of personal attention and actually call you back."
Other student journalists say the best learning experience is watching professional Washington journalists in action journalists who are arguably the roughest and toughest in their field. "You go to press conferences that are aired on C-SPAN, and you sit next to reporters from really big, prestigious places who ask great questions," Chang says. "This kind of experience is why you come to journalism school."
Aside from the lights and excitement, the students also learn an enormous amount about the workings of D.C. politics and techniques for covering the scene. One way the professors help students with their assignments is by offering a seminar-style class once a week on how Washington functions. One lecture offers details on the legislative process, another covers the role of the media in Washington politics, and so on.
"It is aimed at having the students get a better understanding of how political reporting is done," Shearer says. Another useful teaching tool is having the students participate in team research, such as the Y Vote 2000 Project. In Y Vote students explored why members of Generation Y (those 23 and younger) tend to be so apathetic about politics and often do not cast a ballot. After conducting their research, the students started a campaign to attract young people to political news by experimenting with news reporting techniques.
"The project got a lot of publicity around the country, and the students were really lucky to get that kind of exposure," says Jan Schaffer (J72, GJ73), now executive director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, also in D.C. "I think that young people covering the campaign for other young people was a great way to break out of the box."
The program's focus on politics was a major plus for recent alumna Rena Havner (GJ00), who now works for the Mobile Register in Alabama. Attending a State of the Union address by former President Clinton was one of the greatest thrills she has ever had. "I was a political science minor in college and had always followed state and national politics, so it was neat to see it taking place, and hands on, to be able to participate in it by being a journalist," Havner says.
Even students who have little or no interest in politics say the quarter in Washington was an important experience. "I generally hated politics, but now, while I still dislike it, I understand it better," says broadcast student Jeremy Ross (GJ01). "But the experience got me used to going to a new place and learning about it from scratch, which is what will happen in my future."
One of the best things about the program, students and alumni say, is that it sets them up for immediate careers following graduate school. Writing almost every day of the quarter gives print students enough clips to put together solid portfolios. Access to the service's professional photographer makes the broadcast students' packages and résumé; tapes highly polished.
Starting in 1994 the Medill service vastly upgraded its broadcast capabilities. "Our biggest technological change has been the conversion to digital editing, which has been a huge industrywide advance in last couple of years," says Coffman.
"We now are equally or better equipped than many newsrooms in the country," she adds.
When it comes to the all-important job search, the students feel that their experience in a working newsroom in the capital gives them a step up over their competitors. "Being able to put on a résumé; that I reported on Capitol Hill will give me a hands-on edge over other people applying for beginning reporting jobs," Havens says.
The service's clients newspapers, television and radio stations and Web sites alike seem to agree. They come to Medill, they say, because they find determined students who work hard to find the local angle and to familiarize themselves with their particular venue. Often, after the student's quarter has ended, the news outlets make an offer for a full-time position. The Herald-Sun in North Carolina has hired eight Medill students and WCAX-TV in Burlington has hired four over the last few years.
"The news service is one of the truly superior programs offered by any journalism school anywhere," says Bill Hawkins, vice president and executive editor of the Herald-Sun. "Unfortunately, because of the quarter system, about the time someone starts hitting stride, we lose them. But we hire kids from the service as often as we can."
Alumni who are already in professional journalism careers agree that the skills they picked up make them much more marketable.
Havner says her government experience on Capitol Hill prepared her well for covering local government in Mobile. "It helped me so much to have been in D.C., covering big-scale government," she says. "When I came down here, I saw how issues I dealt with in D.C. affect people here every day. On a much smaller scale, I see a lot of the same."
The news service gave James Rosen (GJ96), who works for the Fox News Channel in Washington, the expertise that has helped him secure a great career in a city he always wanted to return to. "I learned things like good locations for standups and how to deal with press secretaries," he says. "By the time I came back to Washington professionally, a lot of elements that would have otherwise been completely new to me were not, and I understood how the whole Washington machinery worked."
Emily Ramshaw (J03) of McLean, Va., is an editorial intern at Northwestern magazine. Last summer she worked as an intern at the Dallas Morning News' Washington, D.C., bureau.