Training Watchdogs for the State House

Training Watchdogs for the State House

A UF journalism trailblazer ensures government officials operate under media scrutiny.
By Liesl O’Dell (BSJ ’92)
“In an era in which we need more reliable sources of news so that citizens can be informed about the facts and truth of the most important issues that affect our lives, Fresh Take Florida has stepped up to fill a significant need.”

Ron Sachs (BSJ ’72) knows a thing or two about journalism and media, ethical practices, courage and accuracy. After all, his entrance into the industry as a student journalist almost 50 years ago was marked by two of his own newspaper articles ­that centered on equity. One of those stories brought justice to a Gainesville family and the other changed the face of journalism for the University of Florida.

Today, Sachs is once again influencing the journalism industry by supporting Fresh Take Florida, a new program that grooms student investigative journalists as they cover a myriad of Florida state government entities, from higher education and health care to environmental protection and regional programs.

“State government … has the greatest importance in people’s daily lives, (yet) it’s by far the least-covered level of government in America,” said Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of information, a UF program that promotes open government and participatory democracy through education, laws and policies. “Our [Fresh Take Florida] goal is to help fill the growing gap in coverage that’s been left by years of attrition in statehouse press corps.

“We hope the students who spend a semester covering Tallahassee come away with the know-how to unearth the untold stories of state government, and a sense of excitement about the impact they can have.”

Sachs’ $10,000 gift will fund travel expenses for students in the program over the next five years.

Before Ron Sachs (left and center) became a media consultant to multiple Florida governors and other powerful leaders, he made a name for himself as a UF student investigative journalist and editor whose actions led to the Alligator newspaper’s separation from university control.

In its first year, Fresh Take Florida’s 16 writers, photographers and video journalists accomplished quite a bit: Despite working from home through phone and video conference calls, they contributed valuable stories about the COVID-19 pandemic, which were made available to – and picked up by – news organizations throughout Florida and across the U.S. Their stories illustrated the pandemic’s effects on religious institutions, sales of guns and ammunition, immigration courts, price-gouging investigations, closures of state and federal courtrooms across Florida, risks to prison inmates, and the governor’s order to close bars and restaurants in Florida.

Sachs said he’s pleased with the program’s results so far.

“In an era in which we need more reliable sources of news so that citizens can be informed about the facts and truth of the most important issues that affect our lives, Fresh Take Florida has stepped up to fill a significant need,” said Sachs, CEO of Sachs Media Group. “As a former student journalist who went on to a career in media, I’m so impressed that these current-era student journalists are demonstrating strong, trustworthy professional talents that serve the high purpose of providing significant hard-news coverage where it’s needed most. We’re so proud to support that vital mission.”

High praise, indeed, considering Sachs’ impressive entry into the field. In 1971 he was the Alligator student newspaper’s editor at the University of Florida. His pursuit to cover healthcare inconsistencies around women seeking abortions influenced UF President Stephen C. O’Connell to release the publication from the university’s control.

At that time, Florida law prohibited abortions and the dissemination of information on where one could be obtained. Yet, some local doctors were performing abortions without penalty. Sachs with several other students inserted a list of abortion clinics into the Alligator. The next day, he turned himself into police and was arrested.

When Florida’s Attorney General determined that Sachs’ actions fell under the First Amendment’s right to free speech, talks with O’Connell resulted in removing the Alligator from the university’s publications office and establishing it as a truly independent student newspaper.

In another Alligator story, Sachs investigated a report from local law enforcement that a jail inmate had committed suicide in his cell. Sachs’ findings revealed that the man had been murdered by a cellmate and jail staff had lied to cover up their negligence.

Sachs went on to become an Emmy Award-winning television producer in Miami and later open a communications firm in Tallahassee. In the latter capacity, he coordinated public relations for former governors Reubin Askew and Lawton Chiles.

Diane McFarlin, dean of the College of Journalism, said the UF students who will benefit from Sachs’ gift are indeed grateful for his encouragement.

“As a former editor of The Alligator, Ron Sachs knows firsthand what an important role student journalism plays,” said McFarlin. “So this gift has meaning for all residents of Florida and beyond.

“Ron’s support of Fresh Take Florida is a wonderful affirmation of the program, while at the same time enabling young reporters to fully capitalize on the opportunity.”

The best is yet to come

Go Greater was a determination, embraced across campus. To continue that pursuit, the university looks to caring philanthropists — the people who feed ingenuity and exploration and create doers and bring ideas to life, imagination to fruition, promise to fulfilment and potential to exceptional. It’s those partnerships with far-sighted leaders that will make UF even more spectacular and enable the university to touch the lives of Earth’s 7 billion people.

So we can all Go Greater, together.

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