They were trying to find a local angle to a national story. Instead, journalists at Arizona State University’s student newspaper beat every news outlet in the country to the latest twist in the burgeoning controversy over President Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.
It was the State Press that broke Friday’s news that Kurt Volker, U.S. special envoy to the Eastern European country, had resigned. Volker, whose departure followed the release of the whistleblower complaint alleging Trump abused his office by seeking the Ukrainian president’s help in the 2020 election, is executive director of Arizona State’s McCain Institute for International Leadership.
The student paper first tweeted the news at 6:10 p.m. Friday, setting off a race among national political reporters to confirm it and racking up thousands of retweets along the way. At 6:18 p.m., the article hit the paper’s website, published alongside dispatches on the university’s clubs and teams. For a little while, the State Press was the only publication that had the story. The Associated Press, New York Times and CNN followed with their own reports about an hour later.
“It’s funny because usually we’re competing against local outlets, not competing against the New York Times and Washington Post,” said State Press managing editor Andrew Howard, 20, who wrote the article. “When I was worrying about publishing the story, I was worried about who in Arizona was going to beat us. I wasn’t thinking about nationally.”
The scoop brought a whirlwind of attention to the State Press, which operates independently of the Phoenix-area university’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and employs dozens of journalists in training. The paper got upward of 100,000 hits on the story, one of its editors said, and won accolades from the likes of CNN’s Brian Stelter and the New York Times’s Maggie Haberman.
“It’s amazing to see so many people coming to the support of student journalists around the globe,” said editor in chief Kimberly Rapanut, 22. “I think it’s easy to forget that student journalists are real journalists also.”
Howard picked up about a thousand new Twitter followers and made his television debut with a live appearance on the BBC — an experience he described as both “cool” and “terrifying.” He called his grandmother after finding out CNN was talking about his paper, telling her, “Gram, turn on CNN — you’re going to want to see this.”
The recognition thrilled the young journalists, whose story received mentions in most major news outlets. It also kind of stunned them.
“We knew that it was news and that we wanted to be the first to break it,” said 20-year-old Adrienne Dunn, another managing editor at the State Press. “But none of us had any idea how big of a deal it would be for everyone in the newsroom.”
Tom Blodgett, the editorial adviser to the State Press and a former staffer himself, said he is “bursting at the seams” with pride for the students, whom he called “excellent young journalists.” He said that although the paper has been cited by major publications in the past, he could not recall a bigger scoop.
In a Friday night message to the staff, he wrote: “Feel good tonight. Feel great tonight. You’ve earned it. And then back to work because we build our reputation from great days but even more from what we do every day.”
By Saturday afternoon, the students had found a little time to celebrate between papers and exams and were considering ordering pizza when they go back to work next week. They were still fielding calls from reporters — and excitedly watching readers flock to their site.
“Nothing is more important to our newsroom than for people to read what we do, especially as a student newsroom,” Howard said. “We work a lot of long hours, we don’t get paid very well, and we do it because we love what we do and we think what we do is incredibly important.”