‘Oh my God, we broke it.’ Student journalism flexes its muscle with huge scoop in Trump-Ukraine coverage

ARIZONA— News broke Friday night that Kurt Volker would be stepping down as U.S. Special Envoy for Ukraine after appearing in the recent whistleblower complaint involving President Donald J. Trump and a telephone conversation with the president of the Ukraine. 

But this report didn’t come from the usual national players; rather it came from The State Press, the student newspaper at Arizona State University, Phoenix.

Namely, it came from managing editor Andrew Howard, a junior who’s worked at the paper since his first semester on campus. He first reported Volker’s resignation on Sept. 27, beating the heavyweights of the Trump-Ukraine coverage — The Washington Post and The New York Times.

As a tsunami of praise was flooding into The State Press’ social media feeds soon after the scoop, Howard thanked those who made it a point to support student journalism in an interview with the Student Press Law Center on Friday night.

“It just felt good to get recognition. I think student newspapers often don’t get a ton of recognition and it was good to get that today,” he said. “We put in a lot of really long hours and hard work to do what we do, and we don’t get paid a lot. It just feels really good to see people supporting us.” 

About an hour later, The New York Times, published a report on Volker’s recognition came but contained no attribution to The State Press. That unleashed criticism on Twitter. An updated story credited the student newspaper in the 25th paragraph, and on Saturday, The New York Times, published a full story about The State Press’s scoop. On Saturday, The Washington Post and on Sunday,  The Associated Press weighed in with how Howard tracked down and broke the story. 

Howard said he was just happy to see his paper get a line in the story.

“I’m happy it’s there. We did good work today and it’s great to get the recognition,” he said. “I don’t have hard feelings toward other news organizations. They’re doing their jobs. It feels great that line is in their story.”

Volker was named by the whistleblower as one of the officials trying to “contain the damage” by advising Ukraine officials on how to abide by Trump’s suggestions to look into former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter.

Howard also made it a point to credit The State Press staff for being on the Volker story with him.

“I will say it was not only me that did the story. I have to be the one with the byline,” Howard said, “but really it was a lot of collaboration between my other editors who talked about it last night.”

The process for how this scoop came to be wasn’t much different for Howard, who said by sticking to their reporting instincts, The State Press could get the story first.

“We saw that Volker was a director, or is still a director of an ASU program — the McCain Institute, and so we just decided to pursue the story and began asking the university what his future would hold here at the school, or at the State Department, and that was really it,” Howard said. 

“We knew something was there and we wanted to find out what it was,” Howard added. “We just pursued it the same way as we would do any other story, and I think that’s why we were successful, because we didn’t try to take a different approach, because it was a big story or because we thought it had the potential to be a big story, we did it because we were trying to serve the community.”

Howard said when he was posting the story to the website and Twitter he felt business as usual, until soon his notifications lit on fire and CNN was airing details of the paper’s report.

“I sort of just realized like, ‘oh my God,’ we broke it,” Howard said. “Like, we were the first ones, and it’s a big deal, and I was just really proud of all of us and of the paper.”

SPLC reporter Joe Severino can be reached by email at jseverino@splc.org or by calling 202-974-6318. Follow him on Twitter at @jj_severino

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