After Steven Sotloff, a freelance journalist who wrote for TIME and other publications, was threatened by Islamic state fighters Aug. 19, the editors at his former student newspaper scrambled to get the news out. The Central Florida Future — the weekly at the University of Central Florida where Sotloff had worked as a senior staff writer — was coming up on its Wednesday production deadline, and it had big news to report.
The day before the paper was due to go to press, GlobalPost photojournalist James Foley was executed on video by the Islamic State. Militants threatened to do the same to Sotloff, who had written for the student newspaper through 2004, before he left UCF in his junior year.
“You don’t usually see a connection like that in an international story,” said Ryan Gillespie, a senior at UCF and editor of the student paper.
Working late, Danielle Hendrix, digital producer for the paper, posted a story online Tuesday about Sotloff. The next day was busy. Gillespie juggled proofing the paper, conducting an interview for a story about Sotloff and dealing with journalists who were contacting the paper seeking information about Sotloff’s time there.
With the paper’s 4 p.m. production deadline looming, Gillespie turned his editing duties over to other staff members and began cobbling together a story from his own notes and reporting from two other staffers.
“That was the most hectic day since I’ve worked here,” he said.
The resulting article, which was finished 45 minutes before deadline, featured an interview with Sotloff’s college roommate and was quoted in The New York Times and the BBC. It was also republished online by USA Today and appeared in the pages of Gannett-owned Florida Today.
When Sotloff was executed Tuesday, the staff resumed reporting on the story. They reserved the front cover of Thursday’s newspaper for coverage of Sotloff and planned to report from a student-led vigil held for him Wednesday night.
The last few weeks have reminded Gillespie of the reality beyond the confines of college life, he said.
“It was kind of surreal because most of what I’ve done for the last three years is write about sports and football,” he said. “But this is real life.”