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 Issue 15 • Jan. 22, 2019 • by Taylor Blatchford 

How a team of Florida students turned Jim Crow-era voting laws into a TV news special

Until Florida voters amended the state’s constitution last fall, policies from the Jim Crow era prevented nearly 1.5 million felons from voting, even after they’d completed their sentences.

A team of University of Florida students spent months delving into the consequences of the policies ahead of the state’s vote on Amendment 4. In “Silenced,” a half-hour special on WUFT News, the team found that the policies disproportionately affected African-Americans, and felons’ applications to regain voting rights could take years to be reviewed.

At the beginning of a new semester, we’re continuing to focus on how to put project ideas into action, with previous examples from American University and Sacramento State. Grace King, a Florida senior and an executive producer on “Silenced,” shared the months of planning and organization that went into the project.

How did the idea for the project come about?

In the spring semester, a team of student journalists and I investigated what happens to felons in Florida once they leave prison. One large component of that was voting rights: Florida was one of three states that permanently stripped felons of their right to vote for life. This particular nugget really captured my interest, as I love covering politics and policy, so a handful of us continued pursuing that segment even further throughout the summer.

On top of all of that, Amendment 4 on the statewide ballot could change this existing policy. By the time we hit fall, we knew we could produce a full half-hour special on the topic.

What did the planning process look like?

We had four executive producers on this project: Laurel Biddy, Dolores Hinckley, Meredith Sheldon and myself. The four of us were part of the spring project, Locked Out: Florida, and were very knowledgeable on the topic. We recruited about 10-15 people to help us get interviews, find data and do research/logging on the project, as well as three dedicated editors. We set our deadlines earlier than they needed to be, so we would have enough time to push them if needed.

We reached out to sources, attended relevant meetings and logged more than 100 hours of clemency hearings under Florida Gov. Rick Scott. I spent my summer interning in Washington, D.C., and was actually able to meet with the legal team behind part of the controversy while I was there to see what information they had uncovered through subpoenas in addition to what the state gave us.

Did you use any tools to plan, stay organized or streamline communication?

I'm a huge fan of Google Docs and Facebook groups. We had a master spreadsheet with a bunch of tabs: contact sheets, deadlines, progress, interviews, sources, footage logs, etc. Having one document where everything for the project was contained was super helpful to find what you needed. The Facebook group was our primary form of communication, in addition to a group chat, just so everyone could share interesting articles on the topic or ask questions and easily interact.

What did you learn about project management? What would you do differently next time?

This project was really a passion project for me: It was a topic I heavily researched in the spring and was thrilled to do a whole special on for the fall semester. However, I got an incredible internship offer and ended up spending the semester in New York City. Managing the project from a different state with a full-time job presented many challenges, including scheduling meetings, making sure everyone was meeting their individual deadlines and not being able to help our team face-to-face.

Many of my colleagues pulled numerous all-nighters in the newsroom to meet our deadlines, and I wish we had more time or planning on the front end to prevent the lack of sleep towards the end. I also wish we had time to train our researchers more ahead of time so they could have helped with the more advanced tasks toward the end.

What are you most proud of about the project?

I'm most proud of the results we got: We were able to produce our own data and statistics, such as finding that Scott denied 61 percent of restoration of civil rights cases on the spot. On election night, I received multiple messages from sources and viewers who thanked us for the work we did as Amendment 4 passed and most Florida felons regained their right to vote. I'm also really proud that as a group of students, we were able to pull off a 30-minute special tackling such a complex and important issue.

One tool we love

This week’s tool comes from Alexis Allison, a graduate journalism student at the University of Missouri. What’s your favorite tool you want to share with other journalists? Let me know!

I have an organizational tool I've been using to complete my life goals and I think it could be easily applied to a journalism project. It's called the SELF Journal, and basically it's an in-depth, small-goal-oriented, 13-week planner that allows you to pick a goal/project and break it into bite-sized chunks. Thirteen weeks also feels manageable and perfect for a heftier project. Also, there's space for mindfulness and gratitude in the morning and evening, so it helps me get into the right mindset when I wake and before I go to sleep.

(SELF Journal website)

Reading list

When former President George H.W. Bush died, the Texas A&M Battalion deployed a group of journalists to cover his funeral and impact on campus, producing a special eight-page issue on the former president. The Battalion staff had been planning its coverage ahead of time and pre-wrote an obituary. “This was the first presidential funeral in over a decade, so as the student publication of the campus Bush was buried on, it was our responsibility to have some of the best, most hyper-localized reporting possible,” editor-in-chief Megan Rodriguez said.

Have you or your publication been thinking about starting a newsletter, or are you hoping to improve an existing one? is a new comprehensive resource for journalism newsletter strategies and best practices, including types of newsletters, workflows and metrics for success. (Yes, I realize how meta this link is.)

“For more than a century, student journalists at the University of North Carolina have learned their craft a short distance from a Confederate monument known as ‘Silent Sam,’” UNC associate professor Ryan Thornburg writes for CJR. While journalists are responsible for providing fair coverage on controversial issues, they must make it clear that they support racial equality and include context and stakeholders’ voices, Thornburg writes.

Opportunities and trainings

I want to hear from you — what would you like to see in the newsletter? Have a cool project to share?
Edited by the wonderful Nancy Coleman.
This week's issue is brought to you thanks to dramatic football playoffs and Speculoos cookie butter.

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