United States Project

Why a Florida TV station devoted 6,000 words to its latest investigation

September 30, 2015

In the years since people in the news industry first began talking about “convergence” and the melding of traditional print and video forms online, plenty of newspapers have created video operations—national and local papers now win Murrow Awards and show up regularly on the list of Emmy nominees. And around the country, there are examples of local TV stations making big digital investments to deliver standout statehouse coverage or compete for digital subscribers against the local daily.

Still, there are limits to convergence: You don’t see many local stations turning out longform narratives, for example. That’s what makes a recent year-long investigation by Noah Pransky of Tampa’s WTSP, about the influence a private PR consultant wields in local politics, so unusual. Accompanying the station’s five-minute news broadcast was a 6,000-word story, supplemented with links to public records and online-only videos.

Pransky, who has done impressive work in the past with investigations that didn’t necessarily make for gripping footage, said the nature of the material demanded a long story.

“This was a story about a consultant’s body of work,” he explained. “It wasn’t about a single issue. We knew that if we wanted to produce a rock solid story that would be hard to dismiss, we had to show that we had looked at everything.”

What Pransky found was evidence that the consultant may be skirting lobbying registration laws, and that she has helped guide lucrative government contracts to her corporate clients while advising local officials on a volunteer basis:

[Consultant Beth] Leytham is the owner of a successful public relations firm in Tampa but provides much more than just public relations advice. Local and national companies alike have retained her services to influence Tampa Bay-area politicians, newspaper editorial boards, and tens of millions of tax dollars that were awarded despite transparency questions by concerned citizens.

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She also provides campaign-related services for politicians such as [Tampa Mayor Bob] Buckhorn and Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan. But according to local and state election disclosures, no elected official has reported paying her for political services in the last 15 years.

However, Leytham benefits from the relationships later, when the same politicians can play pivotal roles in landing her lucrative taxpayer-funded contracts. She can make hundreds of thousands of dollars from a single favor from a friend in office.

The article, based on troves of public records and multiple long interviews, isn’t the kind of investigation that makes for action-packed television. But it immediately prompted action by local officials, with one city council member calling for a review of the city’s lobbying rules and the county administrator asking the sheriff to review the awarding of a $1.35 million contract to one of Leytham’s clients, who then brought her on as a subcontractor. That’s the kind of reaction newspaper I-Teams have long valued as a measure of their effectiveness—immediate and tangible responses to whatever the investigation uncovered. (Leytham, the mayor, and county officials maintain everything was done properly, and officials say the investigation is needed to restore public trust in the process.)

Both the Tampa Bay Times and The Tampa Tribune have covered the fall-out and credited WTSP with uncovering the issue, as have the region’s alternative weekly, Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, and a local business daily, the Tampa Business Journal, which noted rather incredulously the sheer length of Pransky’s online story. 

The story is the longest he has ever written, but the station has found it resonated well with WTSP’s web readers, Pransky told me.

“Our numbers were through the roof the first couple days after the story ran,” he said. “Not just the audience numbers, but the time people were spending on the page. People were sitting there watching the videos.”

The station found people clicking on the story on desktop computers spent an average of 22 minutes on the page and people on mobile devices spent an average of seven minutes on the page, Pransky said.

In addition to the main narrative, WTSP posted the documents Pransky had obtained during the course of his investigation and unedited interviews, up to 14 minutes long, with each of the principles in their entirety.

“It took me days and days to write,” Pransky said of the text story. “But without that longform narrative, the investigation wouldn’t have had the effect that it did. The whole body of work showed that this wasn’t one contract. This was years and years of relationships. We didn’t want to leave holes where people could pick stuff apart.”

Elliott Wiser, the general manager at WTSP, said the station’s corporate headquarters supported the effort. The station is owned by Tegna, formerly Gannett Co.*

“We’ve really been encouraged to think beyond the television set to reach audiences on multiple screens,” he said.

* Correction: This sentence originally misspelled Gannett.

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.