From Jessica DaSilva: The Alligator made me a better legal journalist and lawyer

Name: Jessica DaSilva

College publication: The Independent Florida Alligator (Gainesville, Florida)

Where I am now: National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Resource Counsel

The Alligator made me a better legal journalist and continues to make be a better lawyer.

I spent three years working at The Independent Florida Alligator, starting as a stringer and eventually becoming editor-in-chief. Although I couldn’t seem to crack into the industry in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, my writing and research abilities are what got me into law school and succeed as a legal writer.

Eventually, I made my way back into journalism as a senior legal editor for Bloomberg Law, where I wrote about the criminal justice system for a legal audience.

My experience at The Alligator is why I was able to hit the ground running at Bloomberg and successfully cover U.S. Supreme Court oral arguments, political movements affecting criminal justice, and delve deeper into the minds of policy experts to provide analysis unparalleled by other organizations covering the same issues.

This depth of knowledge and ability follow my curiosity to find answers is what led me into advocacy. I use these skills to support the criminal justice reform movement in a way that all people can understand the importance for change.

From Adam Lichtenstein: I wouldn’t be who I am today without The Alligator

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Name: Adam Lichtenstein

College publication: The Independent Florida Alligator (Gainesville, Florida)

Where I am now: Sports Reporter at Palm Beach Post

I didn’t get to college dreaming of being a journalist. I wanted to work for a sports team in some capacity. I had worked on my high school newspaper, mostly to bolster my college resume. But after half a semester at the University of Florida, I realized I missed writing and that I really didn’t have a career path in sports. So I figured I’d give journalism a shot.

After a couple semesters in the journalism program, I basically idolized The Alligator. The writers, particularly in the sports section, were insightful, witty and, most of all, really good. After a few tries, I was hired onto the staff. I spent my last two years of college working for the paper, and they were an amazing two years. I wouldn’t be the person I am today, and I certainly wouldn’t be the journalist I am, without The Alligator.

From Colleen Wright: ‘There’s nothing like producing professional work with your best friends’

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Name: Colleen Wright

College publication: The Independent Florida Alligator (Gainesville, Florida)

Where I am now: Education Reporter at the Miami Herald

I credit my time at the Independent Florida Alligator as not only a springboard to four internships and a job offer in college, but also as the cornerstone of my entire college experience. I grew as a journalist and as a person in my three years at the Alligator. In addition to providing real-world opportunities at the student level, it gave me a social scene and a support group. I’ve made friends for life at the paper. There’s nothing like producing professional work with your best friends five nights a week. Student newspapers are the real college journalism learning experience, ones that employers look to for real-world and leadership skills. They are the biggest asset to budding journalists everywhere. #savestudentnewspapers!

From Katelyn Newberg: ‘Student journalism is hard but we do it because we’re passionate.’

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Name: Katelyn Newberg

College newspaper: The Independent Florida Alligator (Gainesville, Florida)

Where I am now: Incoming intern at the Las Vegas Review-Journal (Las Vegas, Nevada)

When you tell others about your experiences at a student publication, you don’t normally talk about the bad stuff.
You say that it was the best four semesters of your life. You gush over the life-long friends you met and the important stories you were honored to write down. You laugh when remembering the late-night coffee runs and scrambling to make deadlines.
But in all honesty? Student journalism is incredibly hard. It’s not fun to try and balance homework, studying, exams, keeping up relationships and just maintaining your life when you spend all your time working for a student paper. You probably don’t get paid well. You’re lucky if you get paid at all.
So why do we do it? For me, I spent four years at the Independent Florida Alligator because it ignited a passion for journalism that no class assignment could. I barely knew anything about journalism when I stumbled upon the paper in a dilapidated fraternity house in Gainesville, Florida. But over the next three years I would go on to serve as a staff writer, university editor and, finally, editor-in-chief.
Student journalism gave me the chance to tell stories I never dreamed I would be able to. I’ve talked to survivors of sexual assault, a U.S. senator, an Olympic ice skater and protesters in Washington, D.C. I’ve seen everything from student government scandals to a white supremacist on our campus, and I’m incredibly thankful for the chance to cover all of it.
More on that white supremacists: I have never seen a group of college students working so hard on a common goal than when Richard Spencer came to UF. We were there with the national newspapers and the professional journalists from across Florida. We chased after groups of protesters, never knowing if the situation was going to get dangerous. We made a paper that I was incredibly proud of and covered the story from the perspective of our audience, the students at UF. That’s what student journalism can do.
So student journalism is hard but we do it because we’re passionate. Unfortunately, passion doesn’t always cut it. As editor in chief in Fall 2017, I oversaw the paper from printing five days a week to three days a week for the first time. My staff had pay cuts to their already bleak paychecks. I was afraid that if I really screwed up, the paper would suffer even more. Maybe we wouldn’t be able to print at all.
Student journalists need help, and sometimes we have to admit we can’t save ourselves. So next time you see an article online that looks interesting, give it a read. Pick up a copy of the paper on your way to class. Get a subscription if one is available. Donate to your local student publication if you’re able to. We’re the future of journalism and while we’re not going anywhere, we really could use your help.
Looking back on my time at the Alligator, I wouldn’t be the person I am today without it. I probably wouldn’t have an internship when I graduate in less than two weeks without it. All I can hope is that when the next nervous sophomore walks into the paper’s office, they will have the chance to learn and grow as much as I did.

From Ron Thompson: ‘This independence must be preserved going forward.’

Name: Ron Thompson

College newspaper: The Independent Florida Alligator

Where I am now:  Senior Photo Editor, Tampa Bay Times (retired)

I came to the Alligator as it was moving from the old freezers behind the Purple Porpoise to the location on University Avenue that was recently sold. The newsroom was filled with eager young journalists who took pride in their work, and were not afraid to step on toes at the University when necessary. Many of those students went on to become leading journalists working throughout the world. There are numerous Pulitzer and World Press Association award winners in those alumni. Most, if not all, can point back to their days as student journalists working in a newsroom independent of strict university dictates as the invaluable first step in their careers. This independence must be preserved going forward.

From Emily Cochrane: ‘Independence meant you fought for every story and challenged every authority’

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Name: Emily Cochrane

College newspaper: The Independent Florida Alligator (Gainesville, Florida)

Where I am now: News assistant at The New York Times

It was the first day of class, and I already felt behind.

The professor took an informal poll to determine everyone’s journalism experience. Hands shot up: newspaper editors-in-chief, yearbook editors-in-chief, freelancers for the local paper.

Me? I had two weeks of journalism camp and a gut feeling that journalism was what I wanted to do. But I didn’t have much more than that.

The Independent Florida Alligator was the first place where none of that mattered, where engineering majors could become masters of AP Style and age was only a problem when the election watch parties were in a bar. It only mattered that you worked hard and wrote the truth.

I lost track of the sunrises I watched from the back parking lot, the ones I caught because I was there so early, or stumbling out so late. I knocked on doors, figured out how to read police reports and attended funerals for strangers so their names were more than a line in a press release. I found my best friends in a blur of late night transcripts, deadline coffee runs and election night pizza.

Independence means you get to experiment. Cover the women’s golf team for a semester? Go for it (and realize you never want to do it again). Experience college football games from the photography sidelines (and have your family watch on TV when a linebacker runs into you by mistake). Keeping the paper from going to print until the moment when you can slip the final election results? Do everything in your power so the newsstands carry the full story.

But most importantly, its independence meant you fought for every story and challenged every authority. Questioning professors and the administration doesn’t jeopardize your education. The student government leaders become politicians and lawyers, and they do so knowing what it’s like to have a press holding them accountable.

To borrow a phrase from one of my mentors, the Alligator was the place where I fell in love with journalism and with its people. Independence, outside of a classroom, is what made that possible.

From Jordan McPherson: ‘It was the best decision of my life.’

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Name: Jordan McPherson

College newspaper: The Independent Florida Alligator (Gainesville, Florida)

Where I am now: Sports reporter at The Miami Herald

When I think back to my time at the University of Florida, the memories almost always flash back to the Independent Florida Alligator. It makes sense, considering I spent more time there than I did my dorm room, in classes or sleeping.
But walking into that fraternity house-turned-newsroom at 1105 W. University Ave. two weeks into my freshman year was utterly terrifying.
On one side of the conversation were the editors, upperclassmen who seemed so confident, so ready to take on whatever challenges might come their way. On the other side was me, an 18-year-old wide-eyed newbie who knew he wanted to be a sports writer … Yeah. That’s about it.
I wholeheartedly expected a “Thanks for stopping by. Come back next year.” Instead, the staff took me in with open arms. Even when I doubted myself. Even when I made amateur mistakes early on. Even as I experimented with my writing.
So I continued making that walk a couple blocks off campus. Each time I walked into the newsroom, I felt accepted. I didn’t want to leave.
For three-and-a-half years, I didn’t.
It was the best decision of my life.
I grew as a writer and an editor. I learned how to craft features, write breaking news stories and deal with stubborn sources.
But just as important, I became part of a family that extended far beyond whoever was on staff any given semester.
We bonded over ledes and nut grafs, sleepless nights and endless caffeine, Election Night pizza and fried chicken potlucks. We pushed each other to get better every day. The high-quality journalism followed suit – just like the staffs before us and the staffs that will come long after us.
Even when the paper moved from that former fraternity house two summers ago due to financial setbacks, we weren’t fazed.
The physical home changed. Our purpose didn’t.
We laughed. We cried. We succeeded. We failed. We made a newspaper. We made a difference.
The Alligator and student newspapers everywhere are still making a difference. They need to keep making a difference.
Student journalism is not just the future of journalism. It is journalism. And most of the time, it’s damn good journalism. It needs to be supported.