NASHVILLE — Middle Tennessee State University unveiled an innovative federal judicial system reporting project Sept. 19 that will allow students to be immersed in daily coverage on federal law-enforcement operations in Nashville.
Seven students from the College of Mass Communication will spend eight hours a day, five days a week, supplying coverage of the U.S. District Courts and other federal entities for print and web publication by The Tennessean.
They will operate out of The Tennessean’s newsroom for the semester.
The effort will be known as the Seigenthaler News Service, named by MTSU in honor of journalism icon John Seigenthaler, who worked closely with the university, federal court officials and Tennessean executives to create the hands-on learning opportunity.
The seven Seigenthaler Scholars, all seniors, are Emily Kubis, Amanda Haggard, Christopher Merchant, Richel Albright, Kate Prince, Kylie Kolz and Alex Harris.
“It is fitting that this endeavor, which we believe to be the first of its kind devoted to coverage of federal courts, will bear the name of John Seigenthaler, a legendary journalist and defender of the First Amendment,” said MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee, who announced the project at the national conference of the Associated Press Media Editors.
Seigenthaler was a reporter, editor, publisher and CEO of The Tennessean, where he remains chairman emeritus. He also served as an administrative assistant for U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy from 1960 to 1962.
Seigenthaler was founding editorial director for USA Today, and in 1991, he established the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center in Nashville.
“We are honored to partner with MTSU and help lead this innovative endeavor,” said Maria De Varenne, Tennessean executive editor and vice president/news. “It will allow us to provide more coverage of federal issues, agencies and courts for our print readers and digital audience.”
In 1986, MTSU established the John Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies, honoring the veteran journalist’s lifelong commitment to free expression. The Seigenthaler Chair, housed in the College of Mass Communication, supports a variety of activities related to free speech and free press rights.
The Seigenthaler News Service will be directed by MTSU journalism professor Wendell “Sonny” Rawls, a 35-year journalism professional. He will be assisted by Dwight Lewis, former editor of The Tennessean’s editorial page and a former federal beat reporter.
“Only a handful of journalism schools are doing anything similar — and none are reporting on the federal courts and other federal law enforcement agencies as this project is envisioned,” said Rawls, who also serves as chair of MTSU’s Seigenthaler Center.
Dr. Roy Moore, dean of the College of Mass Communication, said students in other disciplines at MTSU, such as political science, business and criminal justice, will be eligible to apply for future slots in the program.
Moore said the students will prepare daily coverage, in-depth articles, profiles and long-form feature articles, as well as video and audio pieces, for The Tennessean. Their work will be provided to Gannett Tennessee operations in Ashland City, Clarksville, Dickson, Gallatin, Murfreesboro and Springfield.
The students will also cover the U.S. Attorney’s office and the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, along with the federal public defenders’ office, the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. Marshals service, the federal grand jury and civilian defense attorneys.
Students will have daily reporting and editing sessions and instruction on reporting and cultivating sources and will have weekly lunches with leaders at the newspapers and the various federal offices they cover as well as with leading defense attorneys.
Rawls said that U.S. Magistrate Judge William Haynes, chief judge of the U.S. District Court, Middle Tennessee District, and the other federal district judges and their associates committed to help with the project. They are offering access to the federal court’s electronic records computer system as well as to the law library.
The judges also have provided a private room for students to use for writing and filing stories and will make themselves available for information on court procedures, testimony and court rulings, Rawls said.