Attending the graduate journalism program at American University can also mean working in a major newsroom on the biggest issues of our time.
Indeed, this school year – in the midst of the roiling presidential election -- students in the signature Washington Post Practicum course tackled work that gave them a front-row seat to history.
The Practicum course, launched in 2013, lets graduate students spend as long as a year in an elective class that takes them inside the investigative team of one of the nation's leading newspapers.
Students work under the supervision of Pulitzer Prize-winning, embedded SOC faculty member John Sullivan. Partnered with Post journalists, the students learn how to research, write, and fact-check major investigative stories. Acceptance to the class is competitive. On non-pandemic years, students have dedicated desks in the newsroom.
This year, five Journalism and Public Affairs MA graduate students tracked and reported on hundreds of legal challenges during the 2020 election. This hands-on work allowed Anna Brugmann, Keith Newell, Oluwatobi Raji, Aaron Schaffer and Maya Smith to gain invaluable work experience.
This was no small feat: the students reported on more than 400 news alerts regarding every legal challenge on voting and voter access as well as other legal challenges related to post-election developments.
The students set up the alerts, reviewed them, and flagged the critical cases which they sent along to Post writers, sometimes at 4 a.m. The Post journalists used their findings and included the students in dozens of contribution lines and bylines published in Washington Post articles.
“It was an important job that required a lot of diligence and the students did a masterful job,” said John Sullivan, who runs the Post practicum and is the Investigative Reporter in Residence at AU and a member of the Post’s investigative team.
Six former practicum students have been hired full time at the Post, demonstrating how valuable they have become to the paper, said Sullivan.
Students valued the experience.
“The practicum has exposed me to an incredibly talented group of people,” Raji said. “Working with and reporting to them about the top news story in the country has accelerated my growth as a writer, reporter, researcher, leader and teammate. This would not have happened without the Washington Post practicum.”
Brugmann pointed to the big picture.
“Aside from our coverage of post-election litigation, the five of us also provided analysis for an investigation into how federal judges were deciding on pre-election cases that invoked the threat of fraud. We also contributed to day-of election coverage for the Metro desk.”
The Practicum course routinely focuses on major topics. Past projects include developing and maintaining a database about police-involved shootings, which led to a series of articles that gave voice to dozens of families who would otherwise have none. The series, and an SOC student who worked on it, won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting as well as the 2015 George Polk Award for National Reporting.
Top editors at the Washington Post praised the work of this year’s Practicum students and credited them for playing a vital role in the exceptional election coverage.
Student recognition is key.
“For me, the most satisfying part of covering the 2020 election has been having the chance to contribute to articles that are among the ‘most read’ on the Washington Post website,” said Keith Newell. “We wouldn't have that opportunity in any other program."