United States Project

How two Florida papers partnered for a harrowing probe of state mental hospitals

November 5, 2015

In an unusual partnership, the Tampa Bay Times and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune rolled out a joint investigation this week exposing horrific conditions in Florida’s public mental hospitals.

The stories are devastating: staffers alone on the wards being brutally beaten or stabbed by patients; patients with no protection being killed–in one case stomped to death–by other patients; patients with life-threatening injuries ignored until it was too late to save them; 1,000 patients who have injured themselves or others over five years; and the relentless bureaucratic neglect amid draconian budget cuts that enabled it all. Not to mention the “wall of secrecy” protecting the hospitals and abusive workers that the two papers spent more than a year trying to penetrate.

It all amounts to the kind of hard-hitting watchdog journalism readers have come to expect periodically from both papers. The Times won the Pulitzer Prize in local reporting last year for an investigation into a program to house the homeless, and the Herald-Tribune rang that bell in the investigations category in 2011 for a probe of insurance industry financing.

But it is unusual for two papers with different owners and different but almost neighboring circulation areas to team up on this kind of reporting, even if they’re both leaders in it–maybe especially because they are both leaders in it. It’s really unusual for a paper like the Times, the largest in the state, to team up with a paper less than half its size.

For years, of course, papers in Florida—as elsewhere–have turned to partnerships, sometimes with their erstwhile competitors, as a way to keep offering readers solid coverage with reduced staffs. The Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times combined their statehouse bureaus in 2008. The Herald and the South Florida Sun Sentinel just up the road have been sharing daily content for about as long. And, like the partnership I wrote about last year in Atlanta, news organizations are beginning to leverage the manpower available at local universities, giving journalism students experience in digging up dirt.

So why haven’t more of the big metro dailies teamed up with smaller counterparts? The situation in Sarasota and St. Petersburg, where the Tampa Bay Times is based, is a bit unique–beginning with the people involved and their criss-crossing work histories.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

The Times’ investigations deputy managing editor, Chris Davis, used to be the Herald-Tribune’s investigations editor—a post that was filled by reporter Michael Braga, with whom Davis was a Pulitzer finalist in 2010, when they both worked in Sarasota. And one of the Times’ investigative reporters, Anthony Cormier, was hired away from the Herald-Tribune while the investigation was ongoing. Along with Davis, Braga and Cormier, the main reporting team was rounded out by one of the Times’ narrative writers, Leonora LaPeter Anton, and Times photographer John Pendygraft.

There was a lot of trust built up on both sides. The investigation began when Braga and Cormier, while still at the Herald-Tribune, started trying to mine a massive state database of criminal records that Davis had helped get when he was in Sarasota. They found they just didn’t have the resources to handle it.

“It was a big honking thing,” Davis said. “Cormier called me up. They didn’t have anyone who could do the data work on something that big. I didn’t want to sort of take the data from them, or go get it on my own, which I guess I could have done.”

Bill Church, executive editor of the Herald-Tribune, appreciates the level of trust between the two papers, even if that relationship means he’s often in the market for fresh talent to replace someone the Times poached.

“There was a lot of regard on both sides,” he said. “They’ve hired three of our journalists in the last few months. We must be doing something right. There were no aspects during the planning process where we felt like we were being left out or our folks were not contributing.”

Actually, Braga tells me he sometimes did feel the Times’ weight.

“We definitely felt like the smaller paper,” Braga told me. ”The thing was, we were all comfortable working together because we’d worked together before. Chris knew our work and knew we could handle it. He was really grateful we were willing to let him lead us.”

The Tampa Bay Times designer Jennifer Wright came up with the page design concept, which the two papers shared, “which is probably unprecedented,” Church told me. The Herald-Tribune opted to blow up the story over its entire front page, even reducing the size of the nameplate and giving their front page more impact, I think, than the Times’ version. It also shows the two papers were flexible in catering to their specific readers, while sharing resources.

Front page images courtesy of Tampa Bay Times and Herald-Tribune.

The package also included an excellent short documentary put together by the Times’ Pendygraft showing gruesome surveillance video from within the mental hospitals. And more is coming to print this weekend, with a narrative story about life inside one of the state’s mental hospitals. (It’s live online today.) The scope of the package, and particularly the abuses engendered by understaffing, is reminiscent of the old days of mental hospital investigations that uncovered horrific conditions suffered by a uniquely vulnerable population. That we’re no longer in 1950s Milledgeville, Georgia, make them even more shocking.

All three reporters and Davis noted that the patients locked away in mental hospitals really have no voice. The state’s confidentiality laws and the simple stigma attached to mental illness made the package more difficult to report. Cormier said the investigation was the hardest he has ever done, simply because “climb[ing] the wall of a mental hospital” was so daunting.

“People don’t want to share that they or their family members are mentally ill,” Anton said. “It was really hard to find people who would open up.”

The resulting package hasn’t only run in Tampa and Sarasota. The Miami Herald, the Times’ partner for statehouse coverage, also published the first two installments, as did Sarasota’s sister paper, the Gainesville Sun.

“It really expanded the scope and reach of the story,” Davis said. “This is a statewide issue. There isn’t a mental hospital in St. Petersburg or Tampa, or Sarasota.”

Reporters at both outlets told me how they benefitted from the experiences of others on the team. Cormier, for example, called Anton “an enormous help to hard-nosed investigators like us” and credited her for teaching him “to look for details as a writer would.” For Anton, this sort of investigation was a first, and she appreciated learning the ropes from Braga and Cormier. Braga told me that Cormier, who both reported and edited on the project, kept the team moving forward when Davis had to break off to edit another impressive Times investigation, the resegregation of Pinellas County schools I wrote about back in August. Braga also appreciated the opportunity to work with the Times’ editor, Neil Brown. “It was like being in the presence of a master,” Braga said. “He really had the vision and ability to dissect what we had produced after all that work.”

And perhaps that’s the takeaway. Partnerships like these can allow two news organizations with different readerships and interests to pool resources and deliver powerful investigations. They can also help both grow into better papers.

Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith.