Making ‘investigative a priority’ in south Florida

How the Sun Sentinel assembled a Pulitzer-worthy "I Team" in the middle of Hurricane Tribune

FORT LAUDERDALE, FL — “I’ve been here before,” I told the assistant as she picked me up at the elevator landing just outside the South Florida Sun Sentinel’s newsroom last Wednesday. That required a fact-check: “Well, not here, but in the last building, back when it was new. I was a high school intern.”

“Oh,” the assistant replied, faltering, like I’d brought up a prematurely deceased relative. A beat passed before she could find words, as we entered the paper’s inner sanctum: “It’s a little smaller, but the views are great.”

The vista certainly seems commanding for the Sun Sentinel, after the Fort Lauderdale-based newspaper earned its first Pulitzer last Monday—a public service medal for a novel investigative series on the dangerous speeding habits of the region’s off-duty police.

Yet if the major-metro paper views its competition from a catbird seat, it is a surprisingly small one. The Sentinel’s news staff was hacked in half during the Great Recession as its parent, Tribune, tried in vain to stay afloat. Daily circulation plummeted from 226,591 before the downturn to 140,468 last year. National and state coverage gave way to increasing volumes of wire feed. And over the weekend, a New York Times report confirmed the possibility (previously explored by CJR’s Sasha Chavkin) of the paper and its Tribune brethren being snatched up by Charles and David Koch, the conservative industrialists who have invested millions into an ambitious right-leaning investigative outlet called the Franklin Center and its network.

The nadir might have come in early 2012, when the Sun Sentinel had to abandon its custom-built waterfront home on tony Las Olas Boulevard—several floors of the city’s most striking skyscraper, a building that Tribune owned until the recovering real estate market proved too tempting for a corporation with $13 billion of debt. The paper’s reporters and editors schlepped down the road and roosted in a space half the size of their old Las Olas abode.

Does a Pulitzer spruce up any space, no matter the size? The paper had been a bridesmaid at the Pulitzers many times before, back in the salad days of Scarface and cigarette boats and weird Florida news, when Fort Lauderdale’s plucky daily had its own Sunday magazine and stories that jumped three or more pages. “That was the great disappointment every April when I was there: another year without a Pulitzer,” a former Sun Sentinel editor told me.

But to win only now, after the bloodletting? Could the resource-cutting suits have had it right all these years? “It’s nice that they finally snagged one,” the ex-editor added, “but unfortunate that they did so with a depleted newsroom. It seems to validate the ‘do more with less’ philosophy.”

The paper’s investigative success, however, seems less attributable to a lean, do-more-with-less journalism than to a disciplined, updated use of limited but powerful human assets—a delicate balance that could attract converts among other editors, and possibly media investors, too. “We’ve chosen to make investigative a priority out of the resources that we have,” said the Sun Sentinel’s editor, Howard Saltz.

Saltz speaks like he walks: jauntily and energetically. He should, given what his investigative staff accomplished last week. “The community is embracing this as though it has won,” he gushed, his silver-and-brown ponytail bouncing in time with his tie as he talks.

But surely the Sentinel’s scarcer resources and Tribune’s continued drunken wobble make this level of journalism hard to maintain? Saltz scoffed at that. “The stuff that’s going on from a corporate standpoint won’t be changed by one Pulitzer or ten,” he said. “That’s a business decision.”

In discussing Tribune’s South Florida purges, Saltz has an advantage: no hindsight. He arrived at the paper in August 2011 and readily agrees that he missed the worst of it. “I don’t see 150 people in the newsroom as less than what we used to be,” he said. “I see 150 people in the newsroom as more than zero.”

That freed him up to make some key strategic decisions. Many of them sound familiar to newsroom vets: The paper’s focus is local, local, local; light on original state coverage; and virtually devoid of any in-house national or international writing. “Our man in Washington is not going to cover President Obama’s State of the Union address except as far as it impacts our readers here in Florida,” Saltz said.

A few statehouse reporters in Tallahassee look for similar local pegs, which is no small feat, given that they write for both the Sun Sentinel and its sister paper three hours to the north, the Orlando Sentinel. “There’s a lot of beasts to feed,” said metro editor Dana Banker.

Yet the paper has local resources that many managers would drool over: 45 newsroom workers covering South Florida’s ever-expanding stucco- and strip-mall sprawl, including 30 35 local Metro reporters, according to Banker. And that’s enabled the Sentinel to ensconce a decent-sized investigative unit—one that’s heavy on seasoned talent and short on daily production responsibilities.

There are many kinds of investigative reporting; one kind relies on a seasoned beat reporter to use her experience and relationships to unearth insights no one else could. Depending on the subject matter, it may be hard to get a return on that much investment of time and work—as when a devastating expose of contracting abuse in Florida’s welfare system gets little traction with readers. And a beat writer also needs to keep atop daily news-breakers and quick hits, taking attention away from the big pieces.

Then there’s the approach typified in the Sentinel’s Pulitzer-winning report: The topic was essentially crowdsourced. The paper published an initial metro story about state police ticketing a belligerent local officer who’d careened down the Florida Turnpike at triple-digit speeds—and got mouthy about it. “We honestly didn’t pay a tremendous amount of attention to it the first few days,” said Sally Krestin, the writer who produced the celebrated series with her colleague, database editor John Maines. Everybody knows cops drive fast—no surprise there. But the story generated “enormous reader interest,” she said drawing hundreds of commenters. She and Maines started thinking: How do you quantify a phenomenon that everyone knows anecdotally?

The result was an ingenious multimedia package—a blend of math tricks, data analysis, long drives on the Turnpike, video, and old-fashioned narrative storytelling (see Roy Harris’s description of the series for CJR here.) And it was a topic with an already-proven audience interest.

It was possible in part because the “I team”—three dedicated investigative reporters, plus two CAR experts and a couple of outside beat reporters with heavy enterprise chops—“doesn’t do small stuff,” Saltz said. “I don’t want the I-team people to be bogged down in the daily or weekly news cycle, because that defeats the purpose.” The unit produces a major story or so every month, on average. “Our only mandate is to go out and bring back really good stories,” said John Dahlburg, the I-team editor.

Firewalling a veteran investigative unit from the paper’s cyclical demands isn’t exactly novel, but it did reemerge as a viable option for the Sentinel after some stressful daily-reporting incarnations. In the darkest days of Internet angst and economic contraction, “We really did cut out the big investigations and were trying to do more quick hits,” Kestin said. That was the “watchdog” team concept, an outgrowth of the news industry’s fever for hyperlocal and service-oriented content.

Then there was the pressure to write shorter, or not at all. “We went through our ‘chunkicle’ phase here,” Kestin laughed, describing a Frankensteinian charticle format, with a chunk of copy loosely stitched to the bottom.

It was hard for reporters and editors, and not nearly as popular with readers. So Saltz nixed it. “We’re not under pressure as we were before to hit singles,” Dahlburg said, calling Kestin’s and Maines’ series the sought-after “grand slam.”

The I team’s glee over this arrangement is palpable—and not just because of the Pulitzer. “I think there’s never been a better time to be an investigative reporter,” said Kestin. Their investigation got dozens of officers reprimanded and rules changed at several municipal departments. The newspaper, she said, “is really the only medium left that is pumping that kind of impact” into local governance.

Is it a replicable model? Perhaps—but it requires a unique blend of talent and experience, which is rare and pricey. Kestin has 26 years in Florida newspapers, including 14 in investigations; Maines has been a CAR specialist at the Sentinel for 15 years and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2006. “Sally and John weren’t content just to present a numbers story,” Dahlburg said. “They found people who had really been impacted, they wrote about police culture.”

In other words, it’s the sort of comprehensive work that blue-chip reporters can deliver in any size newsroom—if publishers have the means and the will to host that sort of talent. And that’s still a key question at the Sun Sentinel. While Saltz is generally sanguine about the future, he permits that continued reporting success may depend less on newsroom accolades than on who ultimately takes the ownership reins: “For somebody who’s going to buy the Tribune papers for X amount of dollars,” he said, “that X didn’t change” last Monday.

Correction: The original version of this post gave an incorrect figure for the number of local reporters on the Sun Sentinel’s Metro desk. CJR regrets the error.

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Adam Weinstein is CJR's correspondent for Florida and Georgia. He spent the past three years as an investigative reporter and editor for Mother Jones. Before that, he worked at The Wall Street Journal, the Village Voice and the Tallahassee Democrat. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, GQ and Newsweek. Now based in the Miami area, he can be found on Twitter @AdamWeinstein.