Florida micro-media mogul breaks news, but is it journalism?

Subscribers to “Sunburn,” an email newsletter for Florida’s political class, got a chuckle one day not long ago out of a little scoop: A state legislator was making money on the side driving for Uber.

“Sunburn” is the work of Peter Schorsch, a conservative political consultant and controversial blogger who has become, in recent years, a micro-media mogul. The plugged-in Schorsch regularly gets scooplets and scuttlebutt for his clutch of media outlets, which also include FloridaPolitics.com, a news site; ContextFlorida.com, an opinion site; and the local blog that started it all, SaintPetersBlog.com. In a reverse evolution, Schorsch has also recently rolled out a slick print magazine, Influence, which he acknowledges is a “vanity publication” for lobbyists and Tallahassee insiders.

Along the way, Schorsch has built up a strong advertising base in the politics world, even as established media face steady advertising declines. Though he says he is not a journalist, he increasingly hires people who made their careers at traditional outlets.

He has also drawn the ire, and sometimes the I-Team, of one of those outlets, and of politicos who claim he uses his various platforms to regurgitate press releases for his advertisers and to unfairly skewer his clients’ opponents.

It’s a complicated profile that yields widely varying assessments, depending on who you ask.

“In a lot of ways, what he’s doing is a glorified PR agency, with a lot of press releases and borrowed photos and a bit of news,” said Jeff Testerman, a retired investigative reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, who Schorsch once banned from commenting on his blog. “It’s clear to me that if you pay him, you get positive coverage and if you do not, he comes after you, sometimes on almost trumped-up charges. This man has never met a conflict of interest that he didn’t embrace.”

Marc Caputo, a reporter for Politico Florida—who was on the verge of breaking the Uber story when Schorsch beat him to the punch—has a different outlook. “I respect him as my opponent,” Caputo said. “While newspapers have cut back their coverage of politics, he has filled the gap. A lot of good journalists I respect and two I strongly recommended we hire came through his shop.

“What I think is kind of fun about watching Peter grow is he has the moxie and swagger and hunger of one of these old-time newspaper publishers,” said Caputo, who, in the weird merry-go-round that is political reporting in Florida, was profiled by Schorsch in the current edition of Influence. “There are some people who have concerns about Peter being transactional. He’s up front that he doesn’t play by the rules of journalists, but if he doesn’t tell the journalists working for him what to write, what’s the difference?” (Full disclosure: Caputo and I were colleagues at The Miami Herald, and I’ve worked with or for many of the people quoted or mentioned in this story.)

Indeed, respected journalists who have gone to work for Schorsch say they faced no pressure to slant coverage. He vehemently denies the pay-to-play accusations, and he points to balanced coverage by reporters like Bruce Ritchie, a Tallahassee veteran who covered the legislative session for Schorsch and was recently hired by Politico.

But I wonder if those reporters are window dressing on an operation that breaks interesting stories while also serving up news its friends and advertisers like. A close reading of Schorsch’s websites shows plenty of puff pieces about favored subjects, and as a recent case involving solar energy shows, coverage can be skewed in ways that line up with both Schorsch’s own political outlook and his advertisers’ interests.

Though he’s fond of opining on what newspapers are doing wrong (and his criticism is often worth reading), Schorsch says his own work is something distinct.

“I’ve got political and lobbying clients,” Schorsch told me. “I don’t think what I do can be construed as journalism. It’s not pay-to-play, but it’s different. Marc Caputo is not going to do work for a political campaign. I don’t think it’s respectful to call what I do journalism.”

At the same time, he defends the credibility of his sites in essentially journalistic terms, saying they rely on the trust of his audience.

“Many times,” Schorsch said, the reporters he hires “are writing against my personal views or against my advertisers. I think we do a very good job of balancing my personal views and financial interests with what’s happening in the news. My audience would evaporate if they couldn’t trust me.”

Sparring in St. Petersburg

Schorsch’s career as a media entrepreneur all started with SaintPetersBlog, launched in 2005.

“I was a political consultant at the time,” he said. “I felt there was a lot being reported that just didn’t have any insight into how political campaigns operated.”

The blog focused a lot on local issues in the Tampa Bay area, and on criticizing the Tampa Bay (then-St. Petersburg) Times.

“When you’re a blogger in your underwear in 2007, you set your hair on fire to get attention,” he says now. “Those kinds of fights are not as interesting to me anymore.”

But he still clearly enjoys needling the largest paper in the state, with snipes this year like calling the Times “childish” for running an ad promoting a columnist and “ridiculous” for launching a daily email newsletter for political junkies similar to his own. Last fall, he crowed when a respected editor left the paper. He often paints himself as a victim of the paper’s vindictive coverage, even complaining, in what he describes as a tongue-in-cheek way, that the Times left his house off the list of pretty Christmas displays.

The Times has in turn trained its sights on Schorsch. A 2013 investigation airing the pay-to-play allegations prompted an inquiry by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. Around the same time, a Times story questioned whether he was behind a political stunt involving a chicken costume. (The time Schorsch broke a “pay it forward” chain at a local Starbucks, and blogged about it, also drew coverage from the Times.)

Schorsch denied the pay-to-play and chicken accusations, though he later fessed up to the chicken incident. On the more serious case, as the Times reported, the sheriff’s office eventually closed its investigation without filing charges. When the case was closed, Schorsch whined that no Times reporters had promptly tweeted the news of his exoneration.

That’s a standard he has not always applied at his own organization. In April, Schorsch wrote on SaintPetersBlog that the executive director of an organization pushing a constitutional amendment that would make it easier for homeowners to install solar panels was improperly lobbying the legislature without being registered. Two weeks later, a reporter for FloridaPolitics.com noted an ethics complaint had been filed against the woman, Susan Glickman.

The following month, when the ethics complaint was dismissed, Schorsch’s sites were silent.

Asked about that, Schorsch was defensive. “To parallel my rivalry with the TBT with our reports about Susan Glickman is apples and bowling balls,” he wrote in an email. “That said, I honestly have not seen where she was cleared. Despite me having an opposite worldview from Susan, our reporters continue to use her as a source.”

The critical coverage of Glickman, who leads the Southern Alliance Clean Energy Fund, lines up with some other coverage of energy issues on Schorsch’s sites. A story in August by a Schorsch employee for SaintPetersBlog offered glowing coverage of the fundraising efforts of a rival, industry-backed group, Consumers for Smart Solar, which is pushing a competing solar amendment. The post criticized the Southern Alliance for a lack of transparency in its funding and credulously touted the “diverse” financial support for Consumers for Smart Solar, without mentioning that 25 percent of the $463,000 raised by the group was donated by the state’s four utilities. Other substantial donations come from an organization set up by an attorney whose firm lobbies for utilities in Georgia and Alabama, and from a group that receives much of its funding from the fossil fuel industry. Given all this, it seems a stretch to run a story emphasizing the Smart Solar effort’s diverse “groundswell of support”—and outright misleading not to discuss the industry role at all.

Asked about the article, Schorsch said that Consumers for Smart Solar isn’t an advertiser. He did not mention that the utilities that support the group are.

As for Glickman, she sees the articles about her lobbying as just the type of coverage Schorsch’s critics decry. “He attacks people who are thorns in the side of the people who pay him money,” she said. “It’s not even journalism. It’s bought and paid for.”

A market for insider politics coverage

While this type of coverage is fodder for Schorsch’s critics, it’s also a sign of one of his key instincts: There was a market for insider-y political coverage that newspapers weren’t meeting, and it was potentially lucrative.

One sector Schorsch pays a lot of attention to: the lobbyists. His sites offer news on the launch of firms, and regular round-ups of who made how much. He says it’s an industry worth covering tightly.

“We now spend more money in Florida influencing state politicians than electing them,” he said. “The lobbying sector is this huge industry that nobody is really writing about. All of these food fights in Tallahassee are between a handful of lobbyists, and they decide huge policy issues.”

That big industry also has advertising money to spend, a chunk of which goes to Schorsch’s publications. Overall, he told me, he’s expecting between $750,000 and $1 million in advertising revenue this year.

It’s impossible to verify that number, but public records show a portion of his advertiser base and his broader revenue sources. Schorsch’s Extensive Enterprises was paid at least $243,000 by political campaigns for state office and political committees between June 2010 and June 2015, according to a search of campaign and committee expenditure reports filed with the Florida Division of Elections. Schorsch personally received another $10,000. Those expenditures include payments for everything from consulting to polling to advertising, and have come largely from Republicans, along with a handful of Democrats.

Breaking the information in the database down into specific categories is a little tricky because campaigns don’t use standardized terms to identify their spending. But a search for “advertising” and “ad” expenditures to Schorsch and his company turns up more than $77,000 specifically labeled that way during that period.

A search of the database shows The Miami Herald received at least $66,000 in advertising revenue from state office candidates and political committees during the same period. By contrast, during the prior five-year period, from 2005 to 2010, the Herald received $245,000 from those sources.

The database is incomplete in several ways: It covers spending only for state races, and it doesn’t include ad spending by media buyers, which many campaigns use to place ads. Still, the comparison is striking.

With the money he makes, Schorsch has hired a number of well-known reporters and editors, mostly as freelancers. In August, he signed up former Tampa Tribune food editor Jeff Houck, a popular writer with a loyal following who had left the Tribune to work for a local food entrepreneur, and Bill Rufty, who wrote on politics for decades at the Lakeland Ledger before retiring earlier this year.

He also recently announced another notable hire: Jim Rosica, who left his role as Tallahassee bureau chief for The Tampa Tribune to work for Schorsch full-time. Rosica, who has worked for newspapers and The Associated Press in Tallahassee since 1997, with time off to attend law school, told me he made the jump primarily because Schorsch was able to offer him more money and because Schorsch seems to get digital media. The precarious finances of the Tribune also factored into his decision. After talking to Schorsch, Rosica said he was confident he wouldn’t be asked to skew stories.

Tom O’Hara, a widely respected editor in Florida, said he never had trouble working for Schorsch. After a career in newspapers, O’Hara edited Florida Voices, an online opinion site, until it closed when O’Hara’s wife, the site’s founder, took a job as the opinion page editor for the Sun-Sentinel. When Schorsch launched ContextFlorida along the same lines, O’Hara became the editor.

“He just let me run the show,” said O’Hara, who left Schorsch’s operation to teach at Florida Atlantic University. “He never meddled in it at all. People have asked me about it before and all I can say is that in my dealings with him, it was always straight up.”

O’Hara added: “Despite the questionable ethics people accuse Peter of, he is smart, he is connected, and he writes all the time. He never sleeps.”

He also has ambitious plans to keep expanding, even breaking out from the inside-baseball politics niche.

“We’re going to use the 2016 election cycle to establish the brand as a statewide reporting site,” Schorsch said. “Our focus is politics, but we’ve got some sports, food, hopefully some technology, even longform stuff.”

As Schorsch’s media business grows, his claim of not being a journalist can sound like an excuse to ignore the ethical conventions of the trade when it’s convenient.

But he’s also making money, attracting a devoted audience, and paying for some real journalism. While he may not be someone traditional media outlets should emulate, he’s certainly someone they should pay attention to.

Love news about local news? Then sign up for the United States Project weekly email.

Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida and Georgia. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith.