Murder of 24-year-old TV journalist Dylan Lyons weighing heavily on University of Florida’s Innovation News Center
The University of Central Florida is just under a three-hour drive from the University of Florida, and the city of Orlando is about two hours from Gainesville. So, when Gainesville residents and UF students started seeing reports Thursday morning of Dylan Lyons’ death, a mournful, somber cloud loomed over the city and its people.
Lyons, 24, a UCF grad who spent some time in Gainesville with TV20, was a reporter for Spectrum News 13 in Orlando. He was shot alongside Spectrum News 13 photojournalist Jesse Walden, 9-year-old T’yonna Major and Majors’ mother on Feb. 22. He and Walden were on the scene reporting on an earlier homicide. It’s currently unknown whether the suspect was aware they were media.
The effect of Lyons’ death could be felt within UF’s Innovation News Center (INC) all throughout the next day.
The INC, located within the College of Journalism and Communications, houses the College’s news, weather and sports operations for its many distribution channels — including WUFT-TV, WUFT-FM 89.1, ESPN 98.1/850 WRUF-AM, WRUF-TV 6, wuft.org and other affiliated platforms. It seats over 100 student reporters, editors and producers.
Any time a young journalist is killed, it takes a toll on the spirit of the place. When a young journalist not much older than those currently working in the INC, who graduated from a school 120 miles away, who spent time working in a newsroom less than seven miles away, is murdered on the job — it both literally and figuratively hits close to home.
“If you don’t feel something, you’re probably in this business for the wrong reasons,” INC director Denise Vickers said. “As the news director here, I feel a responsibility to making sure that our people, our journalists, are fine. Especially now, today’s news was something that hits very close to home. A young person, not too much older than, you know, the journalists that are sitting around our news meeting table — his life is over, for no fault of his own.”
Vickers was a news director for 21 years prior to coming to UF. The morning after Lyons was killed, she held a meeting in which she addressed the situation and offered solace to her student reporters.
“For young people who are aspiring to do what he was doing — he was doing his job — it concerned me that it may be weighing heavy on them,” Vickers explained. “And so, I wanted to just create a space for them to acknowledge that they may be feeling things.”
The INC currently utilizes a 24/7 card-swipe access system, where all access doors remain locked unless someone with proper identification swipes in using its barcode. This security measure wasn’t always around, though. At least not in the capacity it is today.
Ryan Vasquez, multimedia news manager for WUFT-FM and the INC, said the ID scanners used to only be active between the business hours of 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and that they would only “go to locked” outside of those hours. Around 2017-2018, though, he explained that they “started having conversations around securing [the INC]” — “they,” referring to the security commission which he was a part of at the time.
“There had been some external things that had happened. There were some concerns about, you know, some external threats that were close by. And then there was also, I believe, a response considering the atmosphere that we were in. The capital shootings made us kind of consider threats of news organizations and people taking it out on them.”
The INC, its students and its staff have been providing news coverage for over a decade now since its opening in 2012. And, thankfully, there haven’t been any attacks reported.
Steve Russell’s been the sports director of ESPN Gainesville, a role in which he supervises all sports radio and television students in the INC, since long before the facility’s 2012 opening — 1998 to be exact. He hosts a live radio show called “Sport Scene” on ESPN 98.1/850 WRUF-AM weekdays from 12-2 p.m. And, after hearing the news of Lyons’ death that Wednesday night when he got home from broadcasting a Gator baseball game, he felt the need to address it the next day.
“What the hell is this country coming to?” Russell asked emphatically in his opening segment of Thursday’s show. “What is this country coming to?” Russell said he wasn’t close to Lyons, but “ran into him a lot” doing work with TV20.
“He was universally liked, a really good reporter, asked the tough questions,” Russell continued. “I think the thing you like about anybody is what your fellow human beings think of you. And I never found anybody who thought Dylan was anything but a good guy and a really good reporter … [today’s] just a sad, awful day.”
Amongst the students, the feeling appeared to be much of the same walking throughout the newsroom’s different areas as the day went on.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s tough,” Kaitlyn Wadulack, one of six student “sports coordinators” currently working in the INC said. “It’s sad, but we have a really, really good group of people here who support each-other and make this place feel safe, like a second home.” As a sports coordinator, Wadulack works under Steve Russell and sports newsroom manager Eric Esterline editing writers’ stories and overseeing the recording of radio segments.
One of those writers, Kevin Martinez, has been using the INC as a place to take emotional refuge while the story of Lyons’ death makes its way into headlines.
“When you’re walking around the newsroom, these people are like family to you,” he said. “You know what I mean? You spend hours on end in here … You never want to see this happen to anyone, but of course it hits close to home when it’s someone in your field, the field you’re very, very passionate about.”