When twin disasters hit a Florida city, the local paper rallied to cover them

Creative accountability journalism in the midst of a crisis at the Pensacola News Journal

MIAMI, FL — First came the rain, a staggering 27 inches in 30 hours in the Pensacola region of the Florida Panhandle. The downpour caused flash floods, washed out major roads, and submerged entire neighborhoods. The storm put part of the building that houses local paper, the Pensacola News Journal, under water.

Then a jail exploded.

The blast, which was apparently caused by a gas leak, occurred at 11pm April 30, while the rain was still falling. The explosion at the Escambia County Jail killed two inmates and left 184 inmates and corrections officers injured. In the days and hours that followed, even as the paper’s small staff was rallying to serve the broader community with flood coverage, relatives of the inmates quickly learned that the News Journal was their only source of reliable information. The paper met the twin disasters of fire and flood with reporting that was enterprising, creative, and tireless.

At the jail, officials refused to give out any concrete information about who was injured and who was killed, leaving frustrated family members gathered in a cafeteria parking lot for hours, as the News Journal’s Kevin Robinson documented the day after the blast.

By then, Robinson had also begun to hear rumors that inmates had smelled gas for hours before the explosion, and that corrections officers ignored their complaints.

“It was all hearsay, from family and friends,” he said. “The county said they had no reports of gas previously.”

Reporting on the things that happen inside jails and prisons is inherently difficult, as I’ve written before, because it’s so hard to get interviews with inmates—reporters can’t just call them on the phone or shoot them an email. Even once inmates are released, many don’t want to publicize the fact that they were arrested in the first place. And amid the chaos, jail officials weren’t going out of their way to help journalists.

So Robinson got creative. He sorted through the county’s jail log to identify about 100 inmates who were released in the days after the explosion. He called every one he could find a phone number for, but mostly reached family members, all of whom said their relatives didn’t want to talk to the newspaper. He reached only one former inmate directly, but that man said he was preparing to file a lawsuit and wouldn’t talk.

Then the mother of an inmate reached out to Robinson, hoping he could find out if her daughter was okay. That opening was all the reporter needed. The mother showed him how to add minutes to her daughter’s pre-paid phone card and got word to her daughter to use it to call Robinson. The woman rounded up five other inmates who also talked to him about the explosion.

The six women told Robinson not only of smelling gas before the explosion but of corrections officers who seemed unsure of how to respond in the aftermath, inmates being left alone outside while corrections officers went back in the building to help the injured, and even the chivalry of the male inmates as the women were evacuating. (“The guys in the jail stepped up so good for the females,” said one woman.) Inmates also stepped up to help rescue injured corrections officers. The article ran with audio from each of the interviews and a headshot of each woman Robinson spoke to—a little bit of flash that made the story more intimate and immediate.

Robinson told me he has gotten some flak from readers who felt his stories were too sympathetic to criminals. That’s another one of the difficulties of reporting on issues in prisons and jails—a certain portion of your readership simply doesn’t care.

“I don’t want to call anyone a good person or a bad person. People do tend to believe the worst about people, especially people with criminal records,” he said. “I was happy to hear that the inmates helped out the corrections officers too. These are all people.”

Robinson’s coverage isn’t the only example of enterprising work at the News Journal. Reporter Will Isern exposed the official decision to deny inmates access to civil attorneys who might file lawsuits over the explosion—a policy that was reversed shortly after the story ran.

The News Journal also managed to get a grainy video of the actual explosion taken by a surveillance camera at a bail bond office across the street.

“That’s something we wouldn’t have done before,” Lisa Nellessen-Lara*, the paper’s executive editor, told me. “As an industry, we would have said, that’s not up to our standards. But readers understand and they’re willing to put up with quality that is not as good to get the information quickly.”

Her staff learned of the video the same way they first heard about the explosion itself—from social media. Sports editor Jason Blakeney and copy editor Jamie Secola were putting the paper to bed when they noticed reports on the PNJ Facebook page of an explosion at the jail. Both rushed to the scene, where Secola took some quick video of the chaotic scene and then wrote a story for the website.

Even weeks after the blast, the News Journal stayed with the explosion story—noting in a May 15 article, for example, that inmates were complaining of inadequate medical care. On May 18, the editorial page weighed in with a Sunday commentary to “demand new leadership at the jail, especially someone who understands the rights of the incarcerated.” And a few days later, Robinson was back with a new story that uncovered warnings from 2012 about keeping key equipment and facilities in the jails flood-prone basement, where the gas leak originated. The paper just won’t let up on this story, even if a few readers get annoyed.

At the same time, the paper’s staff has gone above and beyond to cover the local floods and keep getting the news out. One photographer slept in his car after he went to a neighborhood that was badly damaged and couldn’t get back out. The publisher also slept in his car one night, after trying to get to the News Journal building. Five newsroom staffers lost their cars in the flooding, but kept working. The paper’s IT director, Terri Trivett, left her flooded home so she could get generators at the paper up and protect vital equipment. Other Gannett papers stepped in to help, with the Tallahassee Democrat sending two reporters and the Fort Myers News-Press sending another.

All this happened only weeks into Nellessen-Lara’s tenure as executive editor. “This really gave me insight into our staff members that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise,” she said.

Those efforts have produced good follow-up stories on the food bank that was flooded, the highway that has to be rebuilt, and the heroes in the face of the disaster. The paper also offered an online database of flooding resources, and allowed local groups to upload their own information to it.

The response from readers has been phenomenal. The News Journal site got 4.3 million unique viewers in the two days following the flooding, compared with 272,000 during a similar period a month earlier.

Then there was this letter to the editor, sent in to counter a complaint about the paper using USA Today content.

“Seriously? Have you read the paper this week? PNJ has covered every mud puddle and washed-out road in two counties. There have been electrifying stories of death, rescue and near calamity. The paper has brought the community together with ways to volunteer and where to find help,” reader Theresa Blackwell wrote.

It’s hard to imagine a more gratifying response. Kudos to the News Journal for being a source its entire community can rely on, even—especiallyin the face of calamity.

*This article originally misstated Lisa Nellessen-Lara’s surname. CJR regrets the error.

The article has also been updated to note a News Journal article about warnings of flooding concerns in the jail basement.

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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. Tags: , ,