GRIT: New Reporters Cut Their Teeth Through the Rigorous Manship School News Service
Rising digital news consumption over the past two decades has resulted in steep advertising declines, furloughs, layoffs, and media mergers. The result? Between 2008 and 2020, newsroom employment shrank 26 percent, according to a July 2021 Pew Research Center analysis. The number of reporters, editors, designers, photographers, videographers, and more working in newspaper, radio, broadcast television, cable, and digital news shrank by about 30,000. Newspaper newsroom employment alone dropped 57 percent.
Among those newsroom casualties are statehouse reporters—state capitol journalists tasked with informing the public about state government issues and actions. According to Pew Research data, the number of full-time statehouse reporters decreased by 35 percent between 2003 and 2014. Alternative outlets, such as for-profit and nonprofit digital news organizations and niche ideological channels, are making strides to fill the gaps in coverage. LSU’s Manship School Statehouse Bureau is one of the only journalism programs in the country that helps fill these coverage gaps. Part of LSU Manship School of Mass Communication’s experiential journalism curriculum, Statehouse launched in 2016 under the leadership of former professor and professional-in-residence emeritus James “Jay” Shelledy with support from former Manship School Dean Jerry Ceppos, who emphasized the school’s position at the intersection of media and public affairs. The program operates in the spring semester through the field experience course taught by Christopher Drew, a 40-year veteran reporter and editor, formerly of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Times-Picayune. Stories are distributed through the LSU Manship School News Service. Under Drew’s direction since 2018, Statehouse has grown from delivering Louisiana Legislature coverage to 13 news outlets around the state to more than 80, including The Advocate, NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune, Shreveport Times, WGNO-TV, WAFB-TV, and WBRZ-TV. Some smaller outlets like The Eunice News rely heavily or solely on Statehouse for coverage of the legislative session.
“The Manship News Service is a tremendous source of trusted information for The Eunice News,” said Harlan Kirgan, editor of the semiweekly publication in southwest Louisiana. “The students do a thorough job covering legislative sessions, and it is news that otherwise would not be available to the newspaper and website, eunicetoday.com.” For undergraduate students enrolled in the course—a mix of about a dozen political communication and journalism majors—Statehouse is unlike any class or internship they’ve experienced before. It offers the rare opportunity to curate their skills in a professional setting and get an intimate look at how politics really work. Drew tells his students that curiosity, persistence, and determination to be fair and deliver the best version of the truth are what it takes to excel as a journalist.“You need to be curious enough to want to know what’s going on and be persistent enough to get people to talk to you,” Drew said. “[Journalism] is about making people think, peeling back the layers, getting fresh insights, challenging assumptions in hopes that more thought and more discussion will lead to better decisions going forward.”
Statehouse alumnus Ryan Nelsen (LSU ’21) called the program “writing bootcamp.” One reason he loved the program was the opportunity to work with Drew. “I found the relationship I had been looking for my entire life as a writer, which is an editor who’s not going to hold your hand, but he’s going to tell you to go do things,” Nelsen said about Drew. “He will encourage you, but more importantly, he’s going to show you your mistakes.”
Drew works closely with students to ensure their stories are truthful, balanced, insightful, and well-researched. His approach centers accuracy and fairness as non-negotiable. As an editor, Drew methodically engages with students, asking them questions to determine what can be published as a full, fair, and balanced story based on what they know and what they may have been hoping to find out.
“It’s kind of an intimate process, back and forth, whether we’re doing it on a shared Google doc or sitting together in past years at Statehouse,” Drew said of working with students. “I think that’s where the biggest learning comes in, too, because I’m really hands-on with them, forcing them to work at a professional level that they wouldn’t necessarily have had to do in most classes...Understanding the impact of a bad story or something being wrong in their story...that pressure forces them to work at the top of their game.”
Bootcamp with Drew paid off for Nelsen. About four weeks before the 2021 legislative session ended, Nelsen remembered thinking, “I’m doing this. Everything clicked.” Nelsen had ended a six-year stretch as a bartender just a few weeks before and was now writing up to two articles per day for Statehouse. He had started incorporating techniques from seasoned journalists into his own work and could see the improvement in his writing. He felt a sense of accomplishment.
“One of the things that I love about Statehouse is that you get students who really want to do stuff,” Drew said. “You get those students who recognize the commitment and are willing to put in extra time to make it good.”
“ [Journalism] is about making people think, peeling back the layers, getting fresh insights, challenging assumptions in hopes that more thought and more discussion will lead to better decisions going forward. ”
Statehouse alumnus Adrian Dubose (LSU ’21) was one of those students. He graduated from college before finishing high school, earning a technical certificate in a residential electrician program one week before graduating from high school. When he learned about Statehouse from some of the program’s alumni, he was in. And he loved it. Dubose ended up reporting on a range of topics, from legislation to regulation of legal advertisements to LSU Athletics funding to LSU faculty’s push to require vaccinations.“The only regret you can have is saying that you didn’t do it,” Dubose said about joining Statehouse. “That’s what I live by.”
“I’m always telling students just look around and take advantage of the opportunities,” Drew said. “Don’t just go to class and do the minimum...Do student media. Join the public relations organization. Do the digital advertising competition. I mean those are the things that get you jobs...Grab every good opportunity, and run with it.” For Nelsen, Statehouse led to a defined career path. He graduated on May 7, wrote his last piece, a wrap-up of the spring Louisiana legislative session where legislators made changes to the tax code, public education funding, and criminal justice reform for Statehouse on June 11, and started a fellowship as City Hall reporter for New Orleans public radio station WWNO 89.9 on June 14. Like Nelsen and Dubose, alumna Katie Peppo (LSU ’21) was willing to put in the work. She could have graduated in spring 2020, the same semester she first participated in Statehouse. In fact, she’d already been accepted into law school. But after one semester in the program, she’d discovered a new love: Louisiana politics. And she wanted more. Peppo decided to stay another year at LSU, in large part, to participate in Statehouse a second time.
Without a writing or journalism background, Peppo had a lot to learn, which she did in the prerequisite public affairs reporting class with LSU Professor Michael Henderson. She learned the fundamentals of Louisiana politics from him, and Drew taught her how to write for publication. The tight deadlines forced her to get more comfortable with contacting politicians and state officials for interviews. Her confidence grew.“I’ve learned the importance of being bold enough to pick up the phone and make the call,” she said.
That confidence—a career and life skill cultivated in Peppo and other Statehouse reporters—landed her piece about House Speaker Clay Schexnayder’s love of racing cars on the front page of Hammond, Louisiana’s daily newspaper, The Daily Star. That story ended up being one of several front-page bylines in her two years with Statehouse. “Manship Statehouse/Manship School News Service’s student reporters’ articles are accurate and useful, often having relevance to the readers of my newspaper,” said Lil Mirando, editor of The Daily Star. “The material needs little editing, and the accompanying photos are helpful. This very worthwhile service is a credit to LSU, and as a public service, it is a very justified utilization of a public institution’s resources.”
“It’s rare when something works so well on all levels,” Drew said. “It’s hard to find something the school or university could do that works so well for student learning, real-world experience, job creation opportunities, as well as provide a public service for readers of the state, lawmakers, and then all these newspapers, especially the smaller ones, that have declining revenues and don’t have staff. We help keep them afloat.”
Kirgan echoed Drew’s sentiments, also referencing the Manship School News Service’s in-depth stories about racial and criminal justice produced in the fall through the LSU Cold Case Project, the fall semester component of Drew’s field experience course. Students investigate hundreds of thousands of FBI files obtained under the Freedom of Information Act with the goal to bring closure to unsolved Ku Klux Klan murders in Louisiana and Mississippi during the 1950s and 1960s. “The coverage goes beyond state government,” Kirgan wrote. “For instance, they have produced stories about the Civil Rights Movement in the state. The stories were deeply reported and something readers would not get if not for the Manship News Service.” Manship School News Service Cold Case reporters won first place in features, print, and online in the 2021 Diamond Journalism Awards for a four-part series on the Deacons for Defense and Justice, a group of armed Black men formed a half-century ago to protect Black neighborhoods from the Ku Klux Klan in Louisiana.
The news sites that run the Statehouse and Cold Case articles were asking for even more stories, so Drew also sends out stories each fall from his In-Depth Reporting class. Since 2018, these stories have earned top awards in enterprise, investigative, and sports enterprise reporting categories from the Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press Broadcasters and Media Editors. For Drew, the most rewarding part of running Statehouse is seeing his students blossom. Program alumni—often just out of college—cover or have covered the state legislature for some of Louisiana’s largest news outlets, including The Advocate, Nola.com/The Times-Picayune, 89.3 WRKF, WAFB-TV, and Gambit. They remind him why he loves journalism.
“When you see younger college kids share the passion for doing this, you want to help them, and you want to teach them all the things that made you love journalism,” Drew said. “You want to give them as much of a leg up as you can...Now, more than ever, we need people who can dig through the surface layers and get to some central truths...That’s one of the most satisfying things about journalism: peeling back the layers and making people think differently.”