Every Tuesday and Thursday this legislative session, 12 BYU journalism students have risen early to brave the bustling Capitol.
These students make up Capital West News, a BYU-powered news service covering the Utah Legislature. Cap West News, an arm of the campus newspaper the Universe, provides political content for the Universe and pitches some of those stories to local newspapers throughout the state.
“It’s just been a different experience, I think, from the mainstream BYU Universe. We’re kind of our own entity, so that’s been cool,” said reporter Aaron Endy. “It’s like an exclusive club.”
Cap West News reporters were thrown head first into the world of state government. They learned the language of bills, floor debate, and standing committee meetings. They interviewed legislators and lobbyists for bill preview stories, profiles, and same-day reports of political goings-on both on and off the hill. They became part of the regular crew at the Capitol building, recognizing lawmakers as they passed them in the hall and never growing tired of snapping pictures of the striking rotunda architecture.
“Being an international student and getting the opportunity to come and know how politics work in Utah is a great experience for me as a journalist and a student,” said senior Karma Hammouz, who grew up in Jerusalem.
Sam Clark says going up to the Capitol every week helped her to learn about the legislative process hands-on.
“I have a lot more respect and appreciation for the representatives and senators that make the laws and decisions for the state of Utah,” Clark said.
The 2016 legislative session had its fair share of quirky surprises for Cap West News reporters, with public transit being a common factor in many of them.
Mariana Chrisney came to an early morning rural caucus, famous for its breakfasts, only to get sick afterward from the food.
Caitlin Thomas, while covering an off-the-hill event in downtown Salt Lake City, accidentally wound up on the bus without money outside the no-fare zone. Before she knew it, homeless people on the bus were pooling their change to pay for her, and a man even escorted her all the way to her destination when she got off the bus, claiming that he didn’t want anyone to hurt her.
Ryan Morgan, worried about getting into Mitt Romney’s address at the University of Utah, flashed his Capitol press pass and was shown in without questioning.
Many of the Cap West News reporters are first-semester news media students, and covering the Legislature gave them experience and confidence in a professional environment.
“You feel like a little fish in a big pond up here when you’re a tiny student journalist,” said Lauren Hanson.
However, Hanson says she learned to be much more confident in her skills at the legislature. Once, at a committee hearing, she was shyly taking photos on the sidelines when someone told her, “Get up there! You’re with the media!” She latched onto that, now describing herself as “up here with the big legislators.”
The team of reporters enjoys a tight camaraderie after a semester of off-campus political reporting.
“We’ve all been able to learn together and struggle together,” Thomas said.