In the summer of 2022, the story count on the Prison Journalism Project’s website surpassed 1,500. More than 500 writers had contributed stories, poems or art, and many others wrote regularly to the PJP asking for help with learning how to write like a journalist. The PJP had been running journalism correspondence courses with selected incarcerated writers almost from its inception in 2020, but it recognized that the need for journalism instruction was much greater than a few people and was growing all the time.
Enter The Mighty Pen newsletter. Modeled after the PIT (aka “The Point Is This”) journalism explainers created by veteran journalist and editor Jim Marshall, The Mighty Pen is emailed twice a month to hundreds of incarcerated writers around the country. We reach our writers through the major email systems used by the federal government and the 50 states: JPay, Corrlinks, Securus, Connect Network and GTL Getting Out.
Our goal for this newsletter is to help incarcerated writers develop their journalistic skills and get published in PJP and elsewhere. To our knowledge, this is the first such initiative in American prisons.
The newsletter has five sections:
- Journalism Basics, in which we offer crash courses in fundamental journalistic notions such as newsworthiness, story genres, story framing, quoting, fact-checking and attribution. Each observation comes with a concrete example.
- Reporting Tips, in which we discuss interviewing techniques, research, converting idle chats into story ideas and managing the journalist-source relationship.
- Writing Tips, in which we tackle story structure, anecdotes, grammar, punctuation, AP style, effective language and editing techniques.
- Try This! in which we challenge the writer to complete a basic journalistic task, such as listening carefully for sounds for two full minutes and then describing in one paragraph all they heard, collecting five anecdotes about struggling with allergies behind bars, or identifying the “signs of summer” in prison.
- Ask Raz! in which we answer all manner of journalism-related questions from our writers.
The newsletter’s primary author is Razvan Sibii (Raz), a longtime PJP faculty member and a senior lecturer of journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.