(This was first published in PJP’s Oct. 2021 newsletter, “Inside Story: Under the Hood”)
When Prison Journalism Project (PJP) launched its publication in April 2020, it was important to us to make it accessible for anyone who wanted to write for us, regardless of past experience or educational background.
We developed a comprehensive submissions packet that includes pertinent information about the kinds of articles, stories and poetry that we accept, our editorial guidelines, answers to frequently asked questions, tips for a successful submission and four pages of detailed writing prompts.
The prompts in particular ran the gamut of topics from aspects of prison life to identity to thoughts on criminal justice reform. We invited potential writers to pick one of them and submit something, anything.
The vast majority of submissions come in handwritten via U.S. postal mail to a mail scanning service in Delaware. Some prisons allow people to own typewriters, so a small percentage of our writers who can afford them send typewritten work.
A small but increasing number of writers send in their work electronically if their prisons allow tablet devices with 4 to 7-inch screens that provide access to content approved by prison administrators. These are not directly connected to the internet and are nothing like iPads or Galaxy tablets, but they permit the sending and receiving of emails that are monitored in both directions.
On our end, we have interns that check our postal mail and prison email accounts weekly and save submitted work into our editorial drive on Google.
Our editorial process has been a work in progress. When we were starting out, we handled stories as they came in. But as the volume of submissions increased, publication lead times grew longer, and we would sometimes discover timely pieces months later. We were asking for stories on certain topics with no way of identifying them right away. We also needed to be able to weed out stories that weren’t right for us earlier in the process.
Our current system is modeled after the one at Thomson Reuters, a global news agency with experience handling a lot of copy simultaneously. Shaheen and I both spent part of our careers there as journalists and one of its retired veteran editors (and my personal mentor) Jim Marshall is on our team, so we turned to him for help.
The process starts with the taste folder where all of the stories land. A rotation of volunteer taste editors check it once a week to scan the submissions and sort them further into categories of priority. For example, stories with a news peg move through the process faster than a memoir piece. Handwritten stories are transcribed by volunteers.
We put each story through five rounds of editing. This is admittedly a lengthy process, but we’ve found it to be the best way to get as close as possible to our goal to provide a newsroom-quality edit. Because we aim to help our writers reach an audience who may be unfamiliar with how prison systems work, we not only fix grammar and structure, but we also make sure that each piece is engaging and clear in intent and meaning.
Volunteer editors with a range of experience undertake the first two rounds. Shaheen or I take the third round before Mike Givens, our copy editor and headline writer, takes a look. We give stories one last read before they are queued up for publication.
With funding, we hope to be able to provide more robust support for our writers including full time editors, reporter-researchers, fact-checkers and data reporters.