A watchful eye on Washington: UW Comm alum Walker Orenstein continues his legislative beat

Walker OrensteinFor someone without political aspirations, recent UW Comm alumnus Walker Orenstein (B.A., 2015) has spent a lot of time in the shadow of the Washington state capitol dome.

Orenstein first moved to Olympia in 2015 as an undergraduate participating in the Department of Communication’s annual legislative reporting program. Today, he walks the grounds on assignment for the Associated Press (AP) as its temporary legislative relief reporter in Washington.

In his work for the AP, Orenstein continues to practice what he learned as an undergrad of keeping tabs on the everyday developments of the state government. He writes daily stories and weekend features on pressing legislative issues, as well as smaller news updates and managing social media duties.

He is also one of increasingly few reporters dedicated to reporting on legislative issues from the capitol.

“I gained valuable experience and clips,” he said of his undergraduate internship in Olympia. “I was able to publish front-page work and learn from professional editors and reporters who treated me like a professional, rather than an intern doing busy work. They taught me necessary skills that have translated into my current job.”

“It was because of my work there that I was able to join AP,” Orenstein added.

For the duration of winter quarter 2015, Orenstein lived in Olympia with four other undergraduate journalism students and reported on state government for the Seattle Times.

According to Andrea Otanez, a journalism lecturer and director of the Olympia program, the internship has been giving students like Orenstein an understanding of “real world” journalism and the skills necessary to thrive in the industry for over 40 years.

“It’s about getting to the point quickly and in an engaging way — and that root instinct of being interested and curious,” she said. It’s also about “staying in touch” with connections made throughout the program, including an extensive network of mentors and editors.

“It’s more than your average internship because you literally just report on state government, which is what you do in a job as well,” Orenstein said of the program. “So learning how to report on complex issues, write balanced coverage, interview vague and unhelpful lawmakers, and more were immensely helpful in learning to be a reporter.”

Additionally, students in the program get the resources they need to adapt from the demands of a classroom to the demands of a real news agency.

“The experience was challenging, but rewarding,” Orenstein said. “I had to fight hard to raise my writing and reporting ability to match the standards of the Olypaper. But with guidance and help from the editors, I was able to publish things I was proud of.”

In addition to the benefit it provides Orenstein and other students, Otanez stressed the value the program offers to readers and concerned citizens across the state.

“There are so few journalists covering government period,” she said. “So students are a huge presence. The [UW Comm Olympia program] triples the number of journalists in the capitol and having that many more eyes and brains helping readers understand is crucial.”

Orenstein agrees. “Without reporters [in Olympia], the stream of information would be news releases from politicians,” he said. “Having an unbiased voice there to tell the story of what’s happening is crucial to people understanding what is happening at the capitol.”

The dwindling numbers also place an undue burden on the reporters left behind, pushing them to go “above and beyond,” Orenstein said.

“For the numbers they have, they do an astounding and outstanding job covering the capitol,” he said. “Being a part of that is inspiring and definitely pushes me to work harder.”

Written by Eleanor Cummins