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.