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.”