The Florida Current

Exhaustive statehouse reporting and research in the Sunshine State

FloridaCurrent.pngTALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA — Florida statehouse politics has found a new home in The Florida Current, a news site that aims to provide concise, neutral, and accurate reporting on politics and policy in the Sunshine State.

Originally billed as The Florida Tribune, the site began as an arm of LobbyTools, a Tallahasse-based legislation tracking and data curation service for lobbyists, businesses, and other parties interested in up-to-the-minute happenings in the state capitol. As the recession took its toll and Florida newspapers began to curb or eliminate statehouse bureaus, LobbyTools jumped from data into the news market.

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    • The shrinking capital press corps “left big gaps in coverage for state politics; it was one of those divisions that got cut fairly early,” says Sarah Iarussi, president of Lobby Tools and associate publisher of The Florida Current. “It left veteran political reporters on the street, so great talent was available.”

      On the other side of the coin, Lobby Tools staffers felt that while the company provided great research and data, it didn’t provide context for it. “Without that journalism arm, we couldn’t say ‘This legislator is interested in filing this legislation because’ or explain who’s for and against a piece of legislation,” says Iarussi. “That’s the primary reason why this company chose to invest in original reporting when everybody else was doing something else.”

      LobbyTools created the news division of the company in February 2010 as a service to their paid subscribers. By February 2011, the public news site was fully up and running. Initially, staff thought a staid news name like The Florida Tribune was the way to draw readers for the news organization, while The Florida Current (a rather staid name in its own right) was billed as the information funnel for time-conscious LobbyTools subscribers. The Florida Current ended up emerging as “the brand with legs,” says Iarussi. The Florida Tribune home page remains as essentially a splash page directing readers to The Florida Current, but in the near future, the entire operation will likely exist under The Florida Current’s banner.

      Even as a fledgling news operation, The Florida Current is well-staffed. Four full-time reporters take on beats such as environmental, education, and health care issues. In the beginning, one reporter served as the editor as well, but when that reporter was “snatched up” by the Associated Press, the company decided to hire someone who would focus solely on editing. They recently hired full-time managing editor Bill Prescott, who has thirty-five years of experience with The Tampa Tribune. The Florida Current also employs a photojournalist and has a team of LobbyTools researchers to help with data collection. (Three of the researchers work full-time for the company, and three more are brought in seasonally for legislative sessions.)

      “Frankly, we have the biggest team in the state of Florida, which is great,” says Iarussi. “These guys are really good.” The Florida Current posts four or five articles on an average weekday. But “When the legislature is in session, there can be as many as ten a day,” says Iarussi. “A reporter can stand in a room and have stories fly by their heads.”

      As an arm of LobbyTools, The Florida Current is entirely self-funded through subscriptions to the company’s bill tracking and data aggregation service, but Iarussi says the staff is exploring ways of extracting revenue that are exclusive to the news-gathering operation. Currently, they are using the site’s banner space to pitch their site to advertisers who want to reach decision-makers and other key players on the Florida scene. LobbyTools is also partnering with a company that will broker ads for the site. Additionally, Iarussi sees a potential for licensing The Florida Current’s content, particularly to specialty publications such as business journals.

      Iarussi says that the company has been toying around with the idea of implementing a paywall down the road. Already, the system set up with LobbyTools allows subscribers to access The Florida Current’s original reporting the moment it’s published, whereas the public arm of the site employs a next-day delay before the general public can access the news. She sees the public site as a way of introducing new customers to LobbyTools as well. Given the climate in journalism, says Iarussi, “there’s not just one model. It’s the mix that makes you successful.”

      The site’s readership, however, is still small, and Iarussi believes that attracting new readers is a key component of any revenue building. Presently, the public site attracts about 42,000 unique visitors a month, up from 2,300 in February, according to internal numbers. Thus, any paywall that is introduced would likely keep a good deal of content publicly available and, hopefully, keep non-subscribers coming to the site. The site is also toying with the idea of providing shorter versions of articles to the public while producing more in-depth versions for subscribers.

      “We have to do a better job of marketing that this site is available,” Iarussi says, adding that the focus thus far has been on building journalism team and honing the LobbyTools product. “That tends to be the culture, frankly, of our business,” she says. “We put our heads down and do a really great job, and we forget to pick our heads up and say, ‘Hey, we’re doing this really great job, you should read us.'”

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Paige Rentz is a contributor to CJR.