FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA — Few states have been hit so hard by the newspaper downturn as Florida. In 2009, The South Florida Sun-Sentinel cut 20 percent of its staff. The same year, McClatchy’s Miami Herald cut nearly 200 jobs and stopped distributing its international edition in South America and the Caribbean. Then, in 2011, the paper killed another fifteen jobs and announced it would not fill thirty-five open positions. Two hundred St. Petersburg Times employees took early retirement in 2008, and as for The Orlando Sentinel, a blog devoted to that paper’s troubles began in 2008 called The Amazing Shrinking Orlando Sentinel.
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Dan Christensen has been through the churn and tumult of these changes. A journalist in south Florida for “longer than I care to remember,” Christensen was the Herald‘s investigative reporter for Broward County, Florida, and had moved on to cover the County Commission before the paper let him go in April 2009. He’d seen what downsizing was doing to investigations across the state and had been thinking about starting a website devoted to investigative reporting to fill the widening gap in coverage. But it took being part of that downsizing himself to nudge him along. “I knew right away what I wanted to do,” says Christensen. “So I set up the Broward Bulldog, incorporated in June, and went online at the end of October. I’ve been going at it ever since.”
The Broward Bulldog covers Broward County, at the southern tip of the Florida peninsula, with a focus on the county seat of Fort Lauderdale. Christensen began as the site’s only reporter–with a deputy editor, Alan Cherry, associate editor, James Kukar, and development director, Kitty Barran–filing about one report a week on everything from unethical hush payouts to corrupt Floridian judges. His is an old-school view of what makes a headline. “I started this because there were a lot fewer reporters out on the street and the way I look at this is it’s our job do to the stories they’re not,” Christensen says. “We don’t cover traffic accidents, we don’t cover the murder du jour, and we don’t cover flower festivals.” One of his favorite quotes comes from Bill Moyers: “News is what people want to keep hidden and everything else is publicity.”
This hard-nosed vision was enough to enlist the help of a number of friends and colleagues he met in his travels through Florida’s turbulent newsrooms. Miami-based Hunton & Williams lawyer Thomas Julin, a First Amendment specialist whom Christensen grew to know reporting on the state’s legal system, pulled together some of the firm’s partners and provided legal services pro bono, including helping the Bulldog incorporate as a 501(c)3. Christensen hooked a big funder early, too: crime author Michael Connelly (The Lincoln Lawyer), who had taken over Christensen’s cop beat at The Miami News). Connelly provided a significant amount of seed money and ongoing support: he gave his friend a box full of signed first editions to auction off at a fundraiser last November.
The Bulldog has grown in its first two years. In January 2010, the site drew 4,000 unique visitors. By January 2011, it drew 12,000: modest figures, but enough to lure a little bit of display advertising and for Christensen to add two part-time reporters. The difference today is noticeable: there are more bylines and more stories. On any given day they range from a congressional aide cheating the IRS to the prisoner administered anti-psychotic drugs that left him with a “boner” for five days.
A number of Bulldog reports are sold to papers like the Sun-Sentinel and Miami Herald and newswires like the Sunshine State News Service, and the Bulldog was one of thirty Investigative News Network members to sign on in March to an agreement with Reuters that will see their content circulated to publishers around the country and the world. But not all of the Bulldog’s investigations attract buyers or partners, despite their quality. Christensen’s report on the Florida Supreme Court justice who, shortly after approving a controversial pro-business ballot petition, joined a law firm aligned with it, can be found only on the Bulldog website, despite being nominated for an SPJ Sunshine State Award in the Civil Law Reporting category. Christensen says that fact proves the necessity of an alternative to the major papers. “It’s part of the reason we’re here.”
But accolades won’t keep the Bulldog floating, and Christensen knows he has to start pulling in more money. That’s why in May he attended the Knight Digital Media Center’s News Entrepreneur Boot Camp at USC’s Annenberg School. And he acknowledges it can be frustrating doing investigations with few of the resources and less of the time he had at larger outlets. There are a couple of major projects he hasn’t been able to do, but hopes to work on soon. For now, he says, “The most important thing to achieve is sustainability. We have to be an entity that can continue. If we can do that then I think we’ll keep being able to break stories and keep the public informed. Because the papers just aren’t doing it.”
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