A Journalist’s Guide to Covering Jails — St. Petersburg, Fla.

TEACHING DATE: March 12-13
LOCATION: The Poynter Institute
COST: Free for selected applicants

Applications for this workshop closed Feb. 1.

Local jails are the gateway to the U.S. justice system, but they are overloaded, overused and under-covered by resource-strapped journalists.

While local jails were intended to house people who were deemed to be a societal danger or flight risk before trial, they have become warehouses — often for people who have not been convicted of a crime and cannot afford to bail themselves out. In many cities, jails are increasingly filled with women, juveniles, immigrants and people who suffer from addictions and mental illness.

This intensive two-day workshop will focus on understanding the causes and consequences of local jail incarceration and explore some ways that communities are addressing the issue. Poynter’s experts and experienced journalists will help reporters find engaging stories and reliable data so they can provide aggressive and thoughtful coverage of this vitally important topic. The sessions will be practical, inspiring and non-political.

For the second year in a row, Poynter is partnering with The Marshall Project and the Vera Institute of Justice to bring this workshop to journalists in different cities across the U.S. This work is again made possible through the support of the MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge.

“This seminar has not only changed the way I’m covering jails, but changed the way I’m covering news in general. I’m more inclined to see what the bigger issue is on a story and what are some ways that elected officials can be held accountable.”
— Leslie Rangel, Fox44 KWKT

Al Tompkins, senior faculty for broadcast and online at Poynter, will lead this training in 2019 in four cities:

  • St. Petersburg, Florida, The Poynter Institute, March 12-13
  • New Orleans, Loyola University New Orleans, April 9-10
  • Detroit, Wayne State University, June 25-26
  • Phoenix, The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, Sept. 18-19


Workshop Participants in 2018


Percent Who Rated the Workshop
“Exceptional” or “Above Average”


Host Cities Across the U.S.


Al Tompkins, Senior Faculty, Broadcast and Online

Al Tompkins
Senior Faculty of Broadcast and Online
The Poynter Institute

Leslie Eaton
Senior Editor
The Marshall Project

Nancy Fishman
Project Director
Vera Institute of Social Justice

Tracy Sheehan
Retired, Circuit Court Judge
Thirteenth Judicial Circuit, Hillsborough County

Lipi Roy, Ph.D.
Clinical Assistant Professor at the Department of Population Health, NYU Langone Health
Former Chief of Addiction Medicine of New York City Jails

Four workshops around the country

We will take our workshop on the road to four cities to make it easier for you to get to us. Each location gives us the opportunity to include local experts and focus on unique issues. For example, during our Oklahoma City workshop in 2018, we heard from the Chamber of Commerce which became involved in reforming jails because the burden of the jail system was taxing local government.

In St. Petersburg, you will hear from a local judge about their experience with the people held in jails, the police who arrested them and the prosecutors charging them.

What you will learn

  • Who’s in jail and why
  • Recent trends, including how certain vulnerable populations are disadvantaged
  • The impact of overflowing jails on everyone, from the taxpayer to the person held behind bars
  • How local jails perpetuate the opioid crisis
  • The sources and resources that even small newsrooms can access
  • Case studies about excellent reporting at the local level
  • How you can surface meaningful solutions in your community


This schedule was updated in January 2019. Sessions are subject to change as we add more instructors.

9:00 a.m. — Goals and introductions
9:15 a.m. — The pathway to jail: Who’s in and why?
10:30 a.m. — Break
10:45 a.m. — Incarceration trends: rural and small, big and metro, juveniles, women and the immigration impact
12:15 p.m. — Lunch/The Opioid Crisis in Jail
1:45 p.m. — Break
2:00 p.m. — Local examples: Inspirational stories of journalists who have done great work
3:30 p.m. — Break
3:44 p.m. — First-person account: hear from someone who has had a personal touch with the system
5:15 p.m. — Closing thoughts

9:00 a.m. — Pathways out of jail: Seeking alternatives
10:15 a.m. — Break
10:30 a.m. — How to approach enterprise reporting on jails
12:00 p.m. — Lunch
1:00 p.m. — Participants share their story ideas
2:15 p.m. — Closing thoughts/conclusion

“This seminar was so extremely valuable to me. It had fabulous information that helped me rethink how we cover courts, jails and criminal justice. I find myself repeatedly mentioning bits I learned from the seminar to my colleagues. Beyond that, it provided a great respite from the daily grind that reinvigorated, inspired and excited me about my work as a journalist.”
— Susanne Cervenka, Asbury Park Press


Thanks to a grant from The MacArthur Foundation, tuition, hotel costs and most meals will be covered for those whose applications are accepted. You or your organization will cover any flights or transportation.


This workshop will take place at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Who should apply

The workshop is open to professional journalists of all descriptions in the United States. This includes reporters who cover criminal justice, assignment editors, government reporters, general assignment, health (mental health) reporters, photojournalists and editors. We will look for a rich mix of applications from various media, market size and years of experience.

Participants in 2018 came from 40 states and from news organizations as diverse as the Idaho Press-Tribune, Associated Press, Univision, CNN, Huffington Post, BBC, the Texas Tribune, Mother Jones, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post.

We will receive far more applications than we can accommodate in these programs. Our goal is to be as diverse as possible, including job title, market size, big cities, rural areas, ethnicity, etc.

Apply as soon as you know this learning would benefit your coverage and can get the time away to attend. If you are a good fit for the program and we can’t offer you a seat for your preferred city, we will make an attempt to move you to another city.

“I thought the amazing part of this workshop was the focus on being able to localize jail reporting in any market. I also appreciated the focus on the justice system in general as jails are just a small part of a larger pipeline.”
— Niccole Caan, Investigative Reporter, KVII-ABC 7

Application process

The process to apply is straightforward and simple. No letter of recommendation or reference is required. Please be prepared to answer questions about your professional experience, areas of interest and basic demographic information. We’ll give preference to those most likely to cover these issues, so if you have story ideas or the interest of your editor, please let us know.

While we are hosting four workshops in 2019, please only apply for one. If there is an overwhelming reason that you want one location/date over another, let us know in your application, and we will do the best we can to get you the training you want.


We’d love to hear from you. Email us at seminars@poynter.org.

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