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Journalism major Ryan Murphy is a member of The Working Press — literally.
That’s the name of the newspaper chronicling the events at a national conference being held this week in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., by the Society of Professional Journalists and the Radio Television Digital News Association.
Murphy was among a dozen college journalists selected from across the United States to serve on the staff of The Working Press, which produces a daily newspaper for the 1,300 people attending the Excellence in Journalism 2012 conference.
The high-profile honor is an opportunity to write about news industry trends and to network with some of the biggest names in the business.
One takeway: The bar has been raised for breaking into journalism. “You can’t just be a good writer,” said Murphy, a VCU Honors student who will graduate in May. “You have to know how to compose a photo, edit video, use Web platforms; you have to do everything — or at least several things — well. If you can’t, you won’t be attractive as a job prospect.”
Murphy, who is from Chesapeake, Va., and wrote for The Virginian-Pilot while in high school, already is demonstrating that versatility. While tourists were enjoying the beach and sun, he was working on several stories for The Working Press, which will be published and distributed on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. His stories include:
¶ An overview of the conference and how it differs from previous SPJ conventions. One change, Murphy said, is the emphasis on digital skills, such as analyzing data for news stories or using social media to disseminate or promote stories.
¶ A look at why billionaire Warren Buffett’s company, Berkshire Hathaway, has been buying newspapers, such as the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Through persistence, Murphy landed an interview with the head of the company’s newspaper division, who said that high-quality, community-focused newspapers are still a good investment — despite the scary headlines about the industry’s financial troubles.
¶ A feature about an auction to raise money for SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund, which supports journalists and news organizations protecting the First Amendment. Among items on the auction block are the issues of newspapers on the days of historic events, such as President Richard Nixon’s resignation and Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination.
¶ A examination of how newspapers are covering politics in a time of leaner staffs and budgets. Murphy noted that The Washington Post has responded by using student journalists, including from VCU. (Initially, The Post chose VCU junior Samra Khawaja for its team of college journalists covering the 2012 election in 12 swing states. When Samra moved on to an internship at CNN Newsource, The Post selected senior Mechelle Hankerson, the executive editor of VCU’s student newspaper, the Commonwealth Times.)
Positions on The Working Press are also highly competitive. SPJ, the nation’s largest journalism association, received more than 60 applications from college journalists hoping to work on the convention newspaper staff. Applicants had to submit a cover letter, résumé and published portfolio samples.
Murphy’s application stood out: He is the founding president of Mesh Media, which publishes the online magazine Rams Review and campus-oriented websites about food, music and fashion; he did internships for the Virginia Press Association and Richmond magazine; he is the news editor for the Commonwealth Times; and his stories have appeared in newspapers ranging from The Progress-Index in Petersburg to the Daily Press in Newport News.
The students selected for The Working Press hailed from such school as the University of Nebraska, Indiana University, San Diego State University, the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and the Rochester Institute of Technology.
In producing the convention newspaper, the college journalists are being mentored by professional journalists from newspapers including The New York Times and the Miami Herald. Overseeing the operation is Reginald Stuart, whose journalism career spans five decades — as a newspaper reporter and editor, a television reporter, an author, a consultant and now a recruiter for McClatchy Newspapers. Stuart, a former SPJ president, has received numerous awards for his journalism and his work promoting diversity in newsrooms.
“We operate like real newsroom,” Stuart said as members of The Working Press staff worked on laptops on tables in a meeting room of the convention center, the Harbor Beach Marriott Resort & Spa.
He said the students work under intense pressure to file their stories and photographs promptly and design the newspaper pages for each issue. Convention activities — ranging from skills seminars and panel discussions to SPJ elections and other organizational business — start at 8 a.m. and run as late as 10 p.m.
Around midnight, the staff of The Working Press sends its digital pages over the Internet to the Miami Herald, which prints 1,000 copies of each issue. The copies then are trucked to Fort Lauderdale so that the conventioneers can read the conference news in the morning.
Murphy is the third VCU student in recent years to be chosen for The Working Press. Fletcher Babb served as a copy editor for the publication at SPJ’s 2010 convention; and Josephine Varnier Stone, who died in a traffic accident last year, was a reporter for The Working Press in 2009.
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Updated: October 2, 2012