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 watchdog.org 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.