MIAMI — The Tampa Bay Times’ Lucy Morgan is the Grand Dame of statehouse reporters in Florida.
Morgan was recently inducted into the Florida Newspaper Hall of Fame to honor her nearly half century in the business. But her fame is not just for her longevity. She’s a Pulitzer Prize-winner renowned for “causing trouble” for corrupt lawmen, petty politicians, and generations of governors.
Though Morgan has twice retired, she just keeps writing, logging her latest byline earlier this month. She also turned up the much-discussed story last year about how Florida Gov. Rick Scott, shortly after being sworn in, returned a rescue dog he had adopted to much fanfare during the 2010 campaign. (The governor was apparently not eager to acknowledge this, and in a black-comic touch Morgan’s digging actually forced one Scott staffer to deny he had killed the dog.)
Morgan has great stories to tell, beginning with how she got into journalism in the first place, and shared some with me in an interview this week. An edited transcript is below.
Your first newspaper job was at the Ocala Star-Banner. How did you get that job?
A woman knocked on my door and asked if I would write for the newspaper. I was a stay-at-home mom with three little kids. I had never written anything before. I asked her “Why would you come to me?” She said the local librarian told her that I read more books than anyone else in town and she thought, if I could read, I could write. They paid me 20 cents an inch. After a few months, they put me on staff because I was making too much money. I’ve never been able to write anything that wasn’t long.
The St. Petersburg Times, now the Tampa Bay Times, hired you away from the Star-Banner in 1968. Tell me about your early days with the Times.
I worked a beat that was best described as, “Roam around Florida and cause trouble.” I was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 1982 and won in 1985. We took out a sheriff. I did a background check of all of his employees. One in eight had a criminal background, and not just DUIs or traffic problems. They were real criminals.
The sheriff was running for reelection and he put out a bumper sticker. A woman called me and said he was handing out this bumper sticker and all it had on it was my name, with a nail next to it. A nail? Why a nail? I asked her, could that be a screw? The “Screw Lucy Morgan” bumper sticker became something of a collectors’ item. He lost that election, by the way.
You were once sentenced to eight months in jail for refusing to reveal a source, a case that made it all the way to the Florida Supreme Court. How did that happen?
We had done a series of stories on public corruption. The year was 1973. The state attorney took some of the issues to the grand jury. I was outside the grand jury room, watching who went in to testify. The grand jury presented a bill of particulars but they didn’t make it public. I wrote a story speculating on what might be in it, apparently quite accurately. The state attorney wanted to know who gave me the information in the story.
So a judge ordered you to reveal your sources?
Yes. I took a color-coded copy of the story to the hearing. I colored the part from a source I would not name in green. What I had observed, I colored blue. What the state attorney himself told me was purple. He didn’t like that much.
The Times appealed your sentence while you were allowed to post a bond. Reporters in Florida still cite Florida v. Lucy Morgan, the state Supreme Court case, which established a limited privilege for journalists. What do you think about the Obama administration’s efforts to force Fox News and New York Times journalists to reveal their sources?
I think it’s just terrible. It’s a horribly chilling thing to do which will probably do what they want it to do, make people scared to share information about what the government is doing with journalists. And it will make the Obama administration look like they have something to hide. We really thought I was going to have to go to jail. And I don’t know what will happen to James Risen. I guess he might have to go to jail.
What was your favorite story?
Almost always, it’s the next one, the one I’m working on.
There was one, it didn’t win any prizes, but that didn’t matter. There was a sheriff in a north Florida county who was requiring the female inmates to give him oral sex if they wanted to be a trustee or for any special favor. He seemed to think he couldn’t get AIDS if it was just oral sex. All of these women had records. No one would believe them. A judge sentenced one woman to go back to jail and she started crying and asked if she could tell him something in private. She told him what the sheriff was doing and he believed her. He called the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and they investigated it. The prosecutor assigned to it didn’t think he should take the sheriff to court over it. Some officers I knew called me. I went over there and interviewed the judge and some of the women and we did a big series on it. After it ran, the feds got interested. Twenty-two women testified before a federal grand jury. He was convicted and sent to federal prison. The day after he was sent to prison, when I got to work, there were a dozen roses on my desk. The card read “from the women you believed.” Those women didn’t have any money. I don’t know who paid for those roses.
That story was in a small, rural county, without its own daily newspaper, but the big newspapers in the state used to have large staffs that roamed the state “causing trouble.” How do you see the newspaper landscape today?
I think we’ve created a lot of dark holes all over Florida where there is no daily. When I first started there couldn’t have been many counties that didn’t have a daily delivered and many of them had home delivery. Nowadays, there’s a lot going on, particularly in small towns away from the cities. There’s nobody to shine a light on it. The little weeklies can’t do it. They could lose all of their advertisers over stories like that. And those stories are expensive to do. The sheriff’s story I won the Pulitzer on, that sheriff sued us for libel. We won, but that was expensive. I’d bet there’s no major paper doing those kinds of stories anymore. 250 people went to prison as a result of the stories we published in Taylor and Dixie counties. Nobody’s doing that kind of thing anymore. Most the time, the investigations by the larger papers are oriented toward things that affect their region. There are too few stories that have a statewide impact.
How do you see the coverage from Tallahassee?
It’s pretty spotty. The Times and the Herald combined bureaus and I think we have more and better reporters than anyone else. There’s the News Service of Florida, but their subscribers are mostly lobbyists. Sometimes the papers will pick up something they do, but they’re not really getting information out to the general public. It’s an odd thing. We have more bloggers, but they usually have some sort of orientation. We have a very right-wing, web-only publication that will not disclose who’s financing it. I worry about those publications. We have no idea who’s behind it.
Are you really retired this time?
I wrote a story as recently as last week. I had been investigating a guy from New York who was doing a mortgage fraud scheme. Last week, they convicted him and others of a $50 million bank fraud. I wrote that for the Times and the Crossroads Chronicle, a small newspaper up here [in North Carolina, where Morgan has a summer home.] Their circulation might be around 3,000. They run all of my stories above the fold on 1A. I just happened to trip over that story.
Really, I’m trying to retire. I retired as Tallahassee bureau chief in 2006 and I thought I’d stay on part time for a couple years and write a few things. All of the sudden, I realized it had been seven years and I thought I really should retire. [Morgan retired a second time in March 2013.]
So what’s your next story?
I have a few things I’m sort of looking into. If something comes up, I’ll write about it.
Also inducted into the Florida Newspaper Hall of Fame last week was Charles W. Cherry Sr. Cherry, who died in 2004, launched a media chain aimed at the black community.