Fadel Allassan, News Editor
Few journalists have a grasp and understanding of Virginia like Mechelle Hankerson and Sarah King — two former Commonwealth Times executive editors.
Hankerson was born and raised in Virginia Beach, and spent the majority of her life in the state. She graduated from VCU’s Robertson School in 2013, after studying mass communications. She worked at The Raleigh News & Observer, in North Carolina, and The Virginian-Pilot. In 2018, she returned to Richmond to cover state politics for The Virginia Mercury.
King, a political science major who graduated in 2016, hails from Alexandria. She works at Richmond Magazine, where she covers local and state affairs.
In an interview with their former paper, Hankerson and King talked about the recent scandals in Virginia, covering the state’s political scene and staying focused on policy issues when the news cycle gets hectic.
How did your workload change after Feb. 1, when Gov. Ralph Northam’s scandal first broke?
Hankerson: The amount of work I was focused on after Feb. 1 didn’t change much. So much of this broke over weekends, and there was such an influx of interest from national media, it felt like it would better serve our readers to stay focused on the day-to-day stuff happening.
There’s a distinct difference between politics and policy. Sometimes, it’s hard to distill which politics affect which policies and I think we’re still in that phase with Northam. The scandal is absolutely changing the questions we ask but it hasn’t become front-and-center for me as a reporter.
King: Being the only staff reporter for the magazine, my day-to-day workload was relatively unaffected after putting together my story about Big League Politics‘ ties to the failed Roy Moore Senate campaign on a breaking news deadline.
Particularly after it became apparent that Northam would not be resigning immediately, the news cycle seemed to take a deep breath, and things seemed to significantly quell — in reality, and on Twitter — by the weekend.
Is there any news you felt got overshadowed by the developments over the last couple weeks?
Hankerson: Absolutely. Virginia was working on a massive tax policy change that affects how much money people get in their pockets. They made some changes that haven’t been made in 30 years. That’s huge and has a tangible difference in people’s lives — not to say the controversies don’t.
Aside from that, Virginia is working through possible redistricting reform, which hasn’t been completed despite years of most politicians saying it needs to get done.
King: Yeah, lots of less sexy stories like tax reform; energy policy; or the simple fact that EBT card allowances are still affected by the government shutdown, and cardholders have not received stipends since mid-January and won’t receive more benefits for at least two more weeks.
What was it like having reporters come from all over the country?
Hankerson: It was interesting to see their workflow and ways of approaching lawmakers. It was always interesting to watch temporary transplants try to quickly digest and explain Virginia’s history, too.
King: Frenzied. I felt like for the first time I had a better understanding of the “biased mainstream media” perspective that took shape around the 2016 election. Especially after Northam’s now-infamous Saturday press conference, a lot of the media narrative began to sound like an echo chamber across the nationally syndicated networks, in my view.
But there’s so much institutional knowledge and Virginia-specific history that beat reporters in Richmond, particularly those working the Capitol, know because they live and work here and interact with legislators and politicos on a regular basis.
I’m also pretty sure I’m in the background of some CNN clip …
Are you surprised that these events took place in Virginia given that the state’s politics have a reputation for being typically scandal-free?
Hankerson: No. Virginia, as most reporters have pointed out, has a complicated racial history. That doesn’t excuse any behaviors, but it’s not surprising that these things happened and elected officials genuinely didn’t know it was wrong.
As far as [Lt. Gov. Justin] Fairfax, I don’t think we should expect anyone to be above any behavior. That’s how a lot of things go unchecked or undiscovered — we think someone would never do that when in reality, anybody can do anything.
King: I think everyone was surprised … Although, personally some elements of the timing and rapid-fire succession of events is a little curious. At the same time, I think it would be naive to neglect the fact that much of the state’s GOP “establishment” grew up at the same time and, in some cases, the same places as Northam.
What do you find different from what you expected having covered the state in college through Capital News Service and The CT?
Hankerson: So much of what happens at the state level can seem boring on the surface, but that’s usually the most important information people need.
I used to be drawn to the most exciting topics but now I try to find some of the more boring topics because that’s almost always something important in there.
King: I can not think of a better paradigm to describe covering state government than “it’s not what you know; it’s who you know.” Covering the [General Assembly] is different from other types of reporting, in my view, because so much relies on relationships and sources who trust you enough to share the right, relevant, info and insights on a given topic or issue.
This is why in some ways, I think, the flurry of revelations earlier this month leveled the playing field among local, state and national reporters, because it seemed like everyone — left or right of center, legislators, staff, pundits and journalists alike — were all trying to navigate the situation minute by minute, hour by hour.