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Blugold has front-row seat to Washington, D.C., on-screen and real-life dramas

| Judy Berthiaume

When people say that timing is everything they could easily be talking about Samantha West, a UW-Eau Claire journalism student who is spending her Winterim working in the newsroom of The Washington Post.

Since arriving in Washington, D.C., earlier this month, she’s had a front row seat for the White House’s reaction to the newly released book “Fire and Fury,” the Donald Trump-Steve Bannon feud, a “bomb cyclone” hitting the East Coast, the latest twists and turns in the Russian investigation, and a Golden Globes speech that launched an “Oprah for 2020” movement.

Not to mention this week’s nationwide release of “The Post,” a star-studded movie telling a powerful story that centers on The Washington Post and some of its iconic leaders.

“Well it certainly hasn’t been boring,” says West of her short but head-spinning time in the nation’s capital. “I’ve seen a ton of big news happen while in D.C., where much of it is actually taking place. The greatest part of it all is seeing some of the best journalists in the country cover it. It’s beyond enthralling to see how a large, national newspaper covers these events in dynamic, creative ways.

“I am very fortunate to be here, and I am reminded of that every single moment of every single day.”

West is UW-Eau Claire’s 20th Devroy Fellow, a prestigious fellowship program that honors the late Ann Devroy, a UW-Eau Claire alumna often described as one of the best journalists to ever have covered the White House.

A partnership among UW-Eau Claire, Devroy’s family and The Washington Post, where Devroy was a reporter for many years, the fellowship includes a three-week stint in Washington, D.C., working in the newsroom at The Washington Post.

“It is a true honor and so incredibly humbling,” West says of being a Devroy Fellow. “To be associated with Ann’s name is an honor in itself, but to also go to a newspaper as prestigious and invaluable to preserving the democracy of this country is incredible.

“It didn’t really sink in at first, and it still doesn’t feel real. I’m sitting on the Metro after having left the newsroom about 10 minutes ago, and I still can’t believe I’m here and this whole experience is real.”

West is in D.C. at a time when The Washington Post itself is making headlines thanks to the release of “The Post,” a movie directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks that opens nationwide Friday.

While West is looking forward to seeing the movie, which is garnering exceptional reviews and generating Oscar buzz, the film already is a bit of old news to her newsroom colleagues.

“On my first day, whether I had seen ‘The Post’ was one of the first questions I was asked,” West says. “But for the most part, it’s just business as usual with the paper. I don’t hear tons of chatter about it.

“From what I’ve heard, the hullabaloo was kind of over after an earlier staff screening at the National Geographic office in D.C. Though I guess everyone was freaking out when Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep were casually wandering around the building a few months ago.”

Much like the highly acclaimed “All the President's Men,” the latest newsroom drama also shines a spotlight on the journalism profession as well as The Washington Post.

While the movies are interesting and entertaining, West says some reporters are voicing concern that they do not reflect the reality of being a reporter, even a reporter working in a place as famous as The Post newsroom.

“In reality, if a reporter makes some crazy discovery in government documents, it might cause a frenzy in the newsroom to some extent but there isn’t loud music playing dramatically in the background to emphasize the journalistic greatness about to ensue,” West says. “Journalism isn’t glamorous, but sometimes I forget that myself while I’m watching a journalism movie.”

While not perfect, movies like “The Post” do serve as powerful reminders about the critical role the media play in a democracy, West says.

“Whatever your political affiliation, we all need to be informed,” West says. “We all need the news, and we all need someone to dig it up and make sure our political representatives are doing their jobs.

“There’s this sense here that everyone hopes this new movie will make a statement about what the motives and goals are behind journalism and The Washington Post. The movie, obviously, hits close to home to the journalists I’m working with now and that’s exciting to see.”

Her stint in the real Post newsroom also is reminding her that despite the glamour of having their newspaper showcased on the big screen and their bylines recognized worldwide, the reporters working at The Post are not very different from other journalists she knows, West says.

“It’s cool to humanize The Washington Post by seeing it firsthand,” West says. “Like any other newsroom I’ve been in, the journalists are typing away. They’re chugging coffee. They’re praying they’ll make their deadline. They’re jumping when someone brings food to the newsroom. We’re all the same. We all work hard.”

Still, she knows she has a lot to learn from working alongside some of the most respected reporters in the world.

“It’s not about getting as many bylines as possible, but it’s about experiencing a major daily newspaper,” says West of her goals for her fellowship.

With an interest in pursuing a career in arts and entertainment reporting, West asked to be assigned to The Post’s style section.

As a student journalist, she has written entertainment-related stories for a local newspaper and UW-Eau Claire’s student paper, but writing about pop culture at the national level is a new and invaluable experience, she says.

And, with pop culture and politics more intertwined than ever, it is an especially interesting time to be part of the style section reporting team, West says, noting that she also will shadow reporters in the national and metro sections in the coming weeks.

West had visited Washington, D.C., twice before her fellowship, once for a school trip and once for a higher education journalism summit.

It is a completely new experience, however, to be there as a working reporter, she says.

“It’s absolutely thrilling,” West says. “Every journalist I’ve met has been serious about their work and dedicated to informing the public and preserving journalism as the fourth estate.”

While always confident that her time in the newsroom would go well, she was — understandably — nervous heading to The Post her first day.

Fortunately, for the Centerville, Minnesota, native, a Green Bay Packers fan was on hand to help settle her nerves.

“I was about to cross the street to get to The Post building on K Street when I saw someone in front of me with a Green Bay Packers hat on,” says West. “Maybe it sounds a little silly, but I felt like Ann Devroy, who grew up in Green Bay, was with me. Then I remembered all the people on campus in Wisconsin and at home in Minnesota supporting me. Most importantly, I remembered Ann.

“The nerves — somewhat — went away and I was ready to just work hard and be dogged in my pursuit of the truth as a journalist, just as Ann had done.”

After a couple of days in the newsroom, West says she stopped shaking from nerves and excitement, but she still is awed to find herself sitting among the many accomplished journalists working at The Post.

“There’s absolutely no way to describe how it feels to be in this newsroom,” West says. “I have a feeling I’m going to leave more energized than ever about becoming a journalist.

“I can’t wait to bring that energy back to my last semester as a Blugold.”

Photo caption: UW-Eau Claire’s 20th Devroy Fellow, Samantha West is working in the newsroom of The Washington Post during the Winterim session.