The truth is out there: Lucy Morgan, Pulitzer Prize-winning Florida journalist
Lucy Morgan, Pulitzer Prize-winning Florida journalist
In 1985, longtime Tampa Bay Times journalist Lucy Morgan was awarded the Pulitzer Prize (with Jack Reed) for uncovering corruption in the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, the first woman to be so honored for investigative reporting (she was a Pulitzer finalist, for another story three years earlier). In this interview, she discusses her feelings on the role of a reporter in keeping government honest and the community safe, and the current state of journalism, vis a vis social media, the decline of physical newspapers and the attendant culture of politicians crying "fake news." Morgan, who retired in 2013, is considered a pioneer - and a hero - in southern journalism.
- Morgan isn't so sure the "online-only" journalism model has been perfected yet. "You can send a lot of stuff out, but if you're not making advertising money in some way you're not going to exist very long."
- Most people, she says, aren't concerned with immigration. "They care more about whether their roads are paved and they have efficient utilities and good access to education."
- Labelling media output "fake news," she believes, is a way for a politician to discredit "news that he didn't like."
- "There are very few news organizations that set out to write something that is simply not true. The libel laws are good enough to make that a bit too risky ... everybody has got a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and you can trash whoever you want to and there is not much penalty for it."
- Morgan got her start as a cub reporter for the Ocala Star-Banner in 1965. "Go to the city council, or to the Kiwanis Club, or anywhere and write what happens was the instruction I got."
- Today's news consumers are not getting the whole picture, Morgan believes, because they limit themselves to single sources, often social media. "I look for this whole scene to get a lot more fragmented before it solidifies in some way."
- Her proudest moment: Helping bring to justice a small-town sheriff who forced female inmates to have sex with him, in his office.
- "None of those woman had any money or any power, but they knew it was wrong and they talked to me about it and we published it and made it right."
- "I've had a lot of experiences where people tried to threaten me, but it was the right of what we were doing that made me continue on."
In 1985, longtime Tampa Bay Times journalist Lucy Morgan was awarded the Pulitzer Prize (with Jack Reed) for uncovering corruption in the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, the first woman to be so honored for investigative reporting (she was a Pulitzer finalist, for another story three years earlier). In this interview, she discusses her feelings on the role of a reporter in keeping government honest and the community safe, and the current state of journalism, vis a vis social media, the decline of physical newspapers and the attendant culture of politicians crying “fake news.” Morgan, who retired in 2013, is considered a pioneer – and a hero – in southern journalism.
I think that we have created a very uninformed citizenry out there through all this fragmentation of the news. That people don't know as much as they need to know to vote in a democracy, in many instances."
Table of Contents
(00:00 – 02:10) Introduction
(02:10 – 06:31) Today’s News Sources
(06:31 – 16:22) News, Marketing, and Staying Informed
(16:22 – 19:32) Politics and Fake News
(19:32 – 24:26) Credibility and Liability of News Sources
(24:26 – 27:36) Social Journalism
(27:36 – 29:00) Lucy’s Start in Journalism
(29:00 – 30:40) Different Perspectives
(30:40 – 36:50) Journalism Today
(36:50 – 44:00) Lucy’s Pride in Stories & Risks Writing Them
(44:00 – 45:18) Conclusion
Transcription begins [00:00:53]
Joe: Joining me on SPx is journalist Lucy Morgan, who won the Pulitzers Prize, was a finalist another time, a longtime correspondent with the Tampa Bay Times, formerly the St. Petersburg Times, and then has continued her work until today. Welcome.
Lucy: Ah, yes, thanks. I’m so old I’ve been through many changes in journalism. Back when I first started with the Times I started with Ocala actually and then the times. And back then I had to dictate every story on the phone and send in every picture on a Greyhound bus. And sometimes the buses didn’t get there. I have pictures that are traveling yet in the Greyhound system somewhere, they just never got there. But now we can get pictures there in seconds and stories quickly as well with computers everywhere and satellite internet. I spend my summers in the mountains of North Carolina and we use a satellite internet service that is almost as good as the hardwired one I have in Tallahassee through a phone service.
Joe: Hm, well that long history gives you a front row seat at the evolution that news has gone through. Can you remember when you sort of saw, or even if it was somewhat retrospectively when you saw a shift in the way of journalism’s trajectory with regard to revenue, or style, or just the general business of journalism?
Lucy: Back when there was traditional advertising and traditional delivery I don’t think anybody envisioned what the ultimate way of getting news to a consumer was going to be. There were people in the ‘80s who used to predict that there would be no papers delivered on anybody’s lawn by the year 2000. That then we would be all electronic somehow, and obviously that didn’t happen. We’re still putting papers on people’s lawns somedays. And I know that in St. Petersburg for instance, and in many other areas, particularly where you have a lot of senior citizens, people really like to pick up a paper in the morning and read the paper. I confess that when we’re in the mountains of North Carolina we drive 10 miles down the mountain on Sundays to pick up a copy of the Sunday New York Times because we like holding pieces of paper to read it. But on some Sundays if the weather is too bad or something we use the internet. But this is a very fragmented theme. Some people get all their news on Facebook, or Twitter, or get what news they get. I think that there are a lot of people out there that get no real news beyond what they sort of glean off the television nightly news and that we have created a very uninformed citizenry out there through all this fragmentation of the news. That people don’t know as much as they need to know to vote in a democracy in many instances. And some of them are so busy making a living trying to raise children and do all of the things we have to do they don’t know what they don’t know. And I can’t see any means we have right now that’s going to improve that, but something may come along. When faxes were invented, I don’t think people even use faxes anymore, I think our printers have them, but back then a lot of the news people thought the fax was going to be the ultimate way to deliver news to people’s homes or offices. And I don’t think that anybody does that anymore. We use faxes nowadays more for legal documents to be transferred from one place to another and things like that. So, it may be that the medium by which we are going to communicate news simply isn’t out there yet.
Joe: Do you think that with the information age that the sheer quantity of information and also sort of the expertise that is born out of that quantity of information … and specifically I’ll say I might like a certain random kind of birdwatching. And I can go on YouTube and find people who hundreds of hours of content about just that specific bird and all the techniques for finding that specific bird and all the technics for finding that specific bird. And you sort of correlate that over to waste management in the city or that the level of sophistication that has followed the spread of information such that the experts on any given topic, even very minute civil topics, it’s just impossible for the average citizen to absorb all of that in a meaningful way. And so you run into this challenge of trying to put it into bite sized chunks and get it into people’s heads. But then you sort of can’t help but look at the marketing aspects of that when you’re forced to do that.
Lucy: Yes, and I think that there is a huge disconnect now between what you can get between getting news to consumers and developing a system of making money off of that. You can send a lot of stuff out, but if you’re not making advertising money in some way you’re not going to exist very long. As you admit, there’s just so much of it out there. And if you really want to know more about a subject my response is to Google it quickly. And I don’t know how I could function without Google, but to pick up additional information on virtually anything. But I do think that if you are only getting what you seek from Google, or Facebook, or any of the apps that are out there, you’re not developing a very well informed person because you’re only looking at what you already know.
Joe: Sure. And I think part of that coming from, I used to run a marketing agency I knew – And part of our services was search engine optimization. And one of the – depends on your perspective whether it’s a curse or a blessing, but a small company on the internet can look the same as a big company on the internet when you’re just looking at their websites, for the most part.
Lucy: Yes, absolutely.
Joe: And so, that brings in this element of being able to, you know, if you do Google it the savviest marketers are the ones that are going to get the information in your head first.
Lucy: It’s interesting to watch this year’s political advertising that’s going up. I am seeing more this year than ever on Facebook for instance. Not so much on Twitter, but much more on Facebook. And some of it is downright clever, some of it’s wrong too! Facebook has only really begun to police what’s being put up on their pages. And I’m guessing that both Facebook, Twitter, and all of these other TikTok things that are out there are going to have to develop a better system of policing what they put up. Or we’re going to continue to have a lot of badly informed people out there trying to go cast a vote. And the sad thing is that very few people will spend much time researching something themselves in a thorough fashion. They just sort of take what’s thrown at them and assume that to be true, and that’s simply dangerous for a democracy.
Joe: Do you think to some extent that’s always been a little bit true in that there are always the people who avidly read the paper and they were always the sort of people who didn’t and those people mainly relied on friends, or colleagues, or people they sort of figured were like them to get their information?
Lucy: I think that television, and to some extent radio, although less, have made that change somewhat. There were people younger than me probably, but a lot of people who read a paper, virtually every household got one, and so it was there to read if you wanted to. And then as television came along a lot of people started watching for news on television and getting what it was. And I’m not sure how much that’s happening anymore. In our household we are news junkies and we listen to virtually every newscast all day. But I don’t really expect others to do it. And I mean a lot of our friends and neighbors don’t do it, they barely know the major news of the day. And I don’t know how we get this communication expanded to the people that need to get it. But it’s going to have to be some monumental change and less fragmented then we have now, although we seem to be moving only in the direction of more fragmentation. And if I had the answer to this question I could be extremely wealthy I think, but I don’t know what we’re going to do. I do think that for the sake of elections and public officials and getting information out about what they are doing we’ve got to find a better way to do it then we’re doing it now.
Joe: From my personal viewpoint is that has to be cultivated at the consumer level where you have to make –
Joe: -being informed cool. And to your point, you’re a news junkie, other people are not, but their votes count the same as yours. And unfortunately, unless you have a self-drive to go out and get that information to make the most of your vote you’re going to be susceptible to influence. And the only people who have real incentives and money to put behind driving your option are certain actors with a stake in a certain outcome. And one of the most effective things that they’ve done to achieve their goals is to attach identity, your political, who you vote for to some extent, which is evident in the polarization that we have right now in that because I feel that I’m right or I’m left that it’s more important for me to go left on something, that’s actually an affront to my actual identity versus just a specific opinion that I have about a specific issue. I think that there is people who wanted it that way.
Lucy: I’m not sure that the average citizen thinks that much about right or left. The political devotees who are down in the trenches fighting it out are very hung up on left and right. But around the neighborhoods where I live and talk to people I virtually never hear someone bring up those terms. Things are triggered by more taxes, blatant corruption, and it’s got to be pretty blatant I think before it triggers a lot of people’s anger. And the failure to be efficient in delivering services to people. I don’t hear people saying, well, they are all left-wings and they can’t do this. I think that is engrained in a lot of politicians.
Joe: Right, I think of specifically of examples like immigration, where one side Trump was big on the wall and he made that something that people got really attached to. And immigration is an issue, but it’s just one of dozens of issues including poverty and .
Joe: And so just the fact that they made that an issue, that’s where I feel like it trickles down into the masses.
Lucy: Yeah, well I think the mass of people care more about whether their roads are paved and they have efficient utilities and good access to education and an education that seems to be good. That they care more about that then a subject like immigration. If you’ve got a government that is running smoothly and delivering services and responding to problems, you go a long way in this world because I’m not sure how informed lot of people really want to be about the ins and outs of government and politics. This year more than ever I have had people say to me I don’t want to know what’s going on in the political world. They do it all, it’s just bad.
Joe: Yeah. So, then it’s safe to say perhaps then the build the wall chants and all of that sort of thing are more, you know, they get more air time perhaps, or more attention on social media, but really don’t necessarily reflect what the average citizen is thinking about.
Lucy: I think that’s true. And I think that Trump has stirred up some interest in that, obviously. And there are people, particularly middle class, and people who have less in this country, who see immigration as a huge threat to them. But if you talk to a businessman or a manufacturer of something, or a farmer or anybody, they see immigration as providing a service that they don’t get without it because many Americans are not willing to work for the kind of money that some of the immigrants worked for or to do some of the chores they do. But if you talk to builders in some areas right now they will tell you that they are very stressed to find workers to do the bottom level jobs when they build buildings and things because of the restrictions that have been imposed on immigration over the last few years. And so, I mean, it’s finding a happy medium in there I think that generates support for whatever the government is doing. And I wish I knew what was going to happen with the election because I might could tell you how much that matters to anybody. But it is very confusing to the average voter I think when there is just so much stress out there.
Joe: So, then, but just following along the lines then with the immigration issue in a sense do you feel like the folks who are at the lower income levels that feel threatened by immigration, they are actually threatened by immigration, or they’ve had this perception of this threat put into them for political purpose?
Lucy: I think it’s more of a perception than anything else. If you talk to the people who are hiring immigrants to do work, they will tell you that they need them because they can’t get others to do it, they don’t want to pay enough to get it. And some of the labor is extremely intensive labor that nobody wants to do unless they have to.
Joe: We originally dug into a little bit about the trajectory of the business and I don’t want to escape that, because I think that there is some interesting events that happen there. Do you remember how you experienced Craigslist when it first started?
Lucy: I’m not sure that I’ve ever paid attention to Craigslist. I know what it is and I have been on it rarely. It’s not something that I ever figured in my own scheme of things.
Joe: Well, the big sort of take on that is that Craigslist is a free classified platform, it became the go-to place for job postings. And it was the first sort of big bite out of newspaper revenue –
Lucy: Newspaper advertising.
Joe: Yeah, because I think they stole – I don’t remember the exact number, but it was in the billions of dollars in aggregates of classified postings for jobs and it became the go-to place. And obviously more places came along after that.
Lucy: Yeah, I was going to say there are a lot of those now out there that are siphoning … And of course the one little thing that the legislatures have taken away in recent years has been legal advertising that used to always be in newspapers.
Lucy: And that’s sort of a political kick in the pants that a lot of legislators like to give their utmost unfavorite news organizations.
Joe: Yeah, so let’s talk about that. You know, obviously, the fake news thing has bloomed. You know, it’s always kind of been around but it’s really bloomed in the last few years to the point of truth of power, you on your full serve for digging into some stuff at the Sheriff’s office. Do you feel that the – we’ll call it just the generic establishment – has got an upper hand on really kneecapping media?
Lucy: It depends on the publication. Some publications, particularly the big city publications, are not as dependent on the legal advertising that the government provides as others are. And I think from market to market that may vary a lot, but I do think that certain politicians see it as a way to punish a story they didn’t like that was either broadcast or printed. That’s a mechanism that they have to get even. And they have in recent years used that quite a lot. It hasn’t always worked. I think it’s working more now because newspapers as an entity seem weaker than they did years ago. There’s so many different sources of news out there that people aren’t as dependent on the morning paper or the afternoon paper as they used to be.
Joe: Right, so they’ve attacked the revenue side through legislation and other tactics, but what about the credibility side with promoting fake news and things like that?
Lucy: Well, you know, there’s always been attacks on particularly on the editorial positions of news organizations. And people who think well there is some underhanded reason that the newspaper supports one thing and not another. So, I’m not sure that that’s increased any, at least not in the arena I’ve been swimming in. But there has always been a distrust I guess you could say between editorial writers and politicians particularly. But I really do think that this fragmentation where so much information comes to people on Facebook, or Twitter, or all the other electronic means of transmitting it that it’s hard to pinpoint one particular segment of it and do something to them. I hope that I live long enough to see where all of this sort of winds up, how news gets delivered, and whether people believe it. I think Trump has done a real disservice to all of the news media. You could take his labeling things fake news. My interpretation of that would be its news that he didn’t like.
Lucy: But most of it is indeed true and if it weren’t he’d be suing everybody’s head off. But the phrase “fake news” in my mind has become more news that a politician didn’t like then news that is just made up. There may be news organizations, I’m sure there are a few some of them particularly the smaller ones, who make something up about a public official or a politician, but you’re not seeing that in the major publications. It’s too risky.
Joe: Perhaps the real damage though is in, you know, again, if you have consumers of information who kind of generally understand objectivity, but their leaders are constantly telling them that it doesn’t exist and that just fake news and they are being fooled. Then really what it does is, you know, again, not for the news hounds and the people that are really watching, but for a lot of the middle masses, perhaps just degrades their trust in it which in turn sort of the same logic as oh, my vote doesn’t count, so why bother? It’s probably going to be fake news so why bother reading it? Kind of, you know, I think that’s the greater damage perhaps.
Lucy: Yeah, it does not help the reputation of any news organization to have that label applied to them. But, I mean, I don’t remember anybody using that term years ago, but there were people who were mad at what we wrote, but they were more inclined to buy a bumper sticker or something like that and rail at these news organizations. The sheriff I wrote about years ago bought a bumper sticker with my name on it. And I had an elderly woman call my house and tell me he was handing out bumper stickers with my name. And I said what else is on the bumper sticker? I couldn’t figure out why he would want to promote me. And she said well, after the left of your name there’s a nail. I said could that be a screw? And she said that’s it. So, he was slandering me with bumper stickers that he handed out with his campaign letter to her. And I don’t guess that they have to do that any more – they just call it fake news or something. But it’s another example of how things have changed over the years.
Joe: One of your contemporaries, Gilbert King, recounted a similar story with Sheriff McCall, the reporter in the town that had kind of turned against him. He was making sure that none of his cronies and leaning on people to not advertise with her and to really just hurt her business at her paper.
Joe: Do you think that the concept of objective journalism has evolved, or moved, or sort of parallel lanes of objectivity have opened up? Or is it pretty much that it has to stick to the same principles as it has in the ‘50s and ‘60s and on?
Lucy: I think that those of us who worked for major news organizations see what we do as objective. That sometimes it gets painted by one side or the other whose ox was gored or wasn’t gored and when it comes out and thus becomes somewhat tainted, but I don’t think it becomes any less true. I mean, there are mistakes that everybody makes in every field. There are very few news organizations that set out to write something that is simply not true. The libel laws are good enough to make that a bit too risky, but it’s easier nowadays I think because everybody’s got a platform. Everybody has got a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and you can trash whoever you want to and there is not much penalty for it even if it’s not true. But it becomes very easy to take a phrase like “fake news” and apply it to a perfectly true story because you want to try and discredit it and you can’t factually discredit it, so you insult it.
Joe: And to some extent the folks on the other side of that are actually getting away with putting out the information that you would get sued if you came at them, you know, they don’t have those same requirements for credibility or consequences for not being creditable, so it’s sort of an unfair situation where one side can throw out whatever they want and the other side cannot.
Lucy: It’s interesting because there are probably not many houses, certainly not middle income or better these days who don’t have several computers running around the house, and lots of television, and just access to this broad spectrum of information. And I don’t remember a time in my life before the last few years when it was just so easy to find a piece of information no matter how obscure it was. I had a guy call me last week wanting to know if I had any information about Justice James Adkins, a former Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court who I covered many years ago when he was a circuit judge in Levy County, Florida. And then again covered him again when I was Tallassee Bureau Chief for the Times and he was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. So, I gave him the name of one of the people at the Supreme Court that keeps track of history of all things. And within a minute he emailed me a copy of a story that I had written in 2005 about that Chief Justice when he died. He Googled it up. So, there’s just so much information that’s easily accessible out there, it’s amazing to me. And most of it – I shouldn’t say most of it – a lot of it is quite accurate and has been published somewhere and is just lurking out there to be found. But years ago you had to really work to find that kind of information on somebody or something.
Joe: Yeah, and that sort of brings me to social journalism. You know, at a big part of the craft historically of journalism was getting that information. You know, I make the parallel because we see social media and what it’s done is specifically more like in the YouTube realm, or whatever, is that it’s brought this knowledge and these processes and to some extent the tools and the average person in their basement now can make a production that probably rivals “Star Wars” or something from 15 years ago. And so, what we’ve essentially done is given the memes for the individual an elevated media. And you actually got your start not intending to be a journalist, the lady who ran the local paper just showed up at your house and said hey, we need a writer and I heard you read a lot, come be our writer. You know, so is there a way forward where we give the tools, and the processes, and the information as you pointed out is available via the internet, and we can elevate journalism amongst individuals in the same way that we’ve elevated media?
Lucy: Well, I think that there probably is. Getting circulation among people that might read it would be more difficult.
Lucy: I mean, Joe Smith out there (unclear) can look up stuff and write it, but how he gets it circulated at the moment is dependent on places like Twitter, and Facebook, and all of the other social media, and there’s no money in that.
Joe: Right, but what about a world where, you know, a news platform – And again, I’m speaking strictly to the catalyst because this is what we’re aspiring to be. You know, our vision is potentially that. We could have our pro journalist and then give the tools and also the same rules to citizen journalists, and you know, the same way an insane amount of content is put up on every social media platform every day, this might be a good outlet for the right kind of journalism or content.
Lucy: I mean, if somebody has time to play with it, to play with social media and put stuff up on it and do it and not get paid well for doing it, I wonder how much of it will exist.
Joe: And the way that works now is there are monetization. You know, people can make just millions of dollars if their content garners that attention on social media platforms. How social media platforms have worked is to monetize that content for the individual through rev shares. So, what that looks like is you put your content up if it attracts an advertiser we share in that revenue. So, I think the same sort of logic would hold true for a platform that was going to really be able to scale.
Lucy: Well, it would be interesting. It might be hard to manage, but I mean a whole lot of time at news organizations goes in to editors who essentially manage the product, who makes sure the words are spelled right, and the facts are right, and that it’s done on a deadline, and those kind of things, which aren’t very glamorous, but necessary.
Joe: Right, so you’d need that layer of utility and quality control really to make it work?
Lucy: Yeah, I think you would. You know, we would probably have a better educated group of people out there trying to do these things than we might have had many years ago. You still can’t trust people to do things correctly without somebody reading over their shoulder.
Joe: Do you remember when you got that knock on the door and you said yes? Do you remember the first few stories that you wrote and what instruction you got?
Lucy: “Go to the city council, or to the Kiwanis Club, or anywhere and write what happens” was the instruction I got. Go to the scene of every fatal accident or murder and write us what occurred there. And I to this day have never had an editor tell me that they wanted me to write a story and slant it to make a certain person look better or worse than whatever you saw in front of you.
Lucy: It was the simple suggestion that you should write what you see.
Joe: Sure. And in traditional news organizations didn’t, you know, unless the editor for whatever personal reason had a massive slant, you know, their businesses suffered if they did that. You know, and the difference now is that businesses don’t suffer if they do that, they actually thrive if they do that.
Lucy: I think I’d have a lot of trouble trying to write for instance political ads for politicians that might not be true, because my mother always told me that when I was a little girl and she tried to read me a fairy tale my first question when she opened the book was is it really true? My sister on the other hand loved fairy tales and she didn’t care whether it was true or not. But it has always mattered to me most of all whether whatever I was writing was true. It’s not always glamourous.
Joe: That brings up an nuisance to the whole discussion about truth and that is that multiple – You know, when you look at a house, you can look at it from the front, you can look at it from the back, you could look at it from the inside, you can look at it from the Google satellite image and it’s all the same house. You know, to me it seems like a lot of the problems that we face are just people looking at the same house from different perspectives and then really not being able to reconcile that it’s the same house, just from different perspectives. You know, I look at an issue like – I had a conversation about off-shore drilling, and, you know, off-shore drilling poses a threat to the environment, it poses a threat to tourism, it is an asset for companies, it does build wealth, it does bring in tax revenue which in turn helps run our cities. All of those things are true and they’re also in opposition to each other. So, a lot of times it becomes a discussion about which of the perspectives is brough to the forefront, or is the most important, or is the most represented.
Lucy: Well, and what’s the most important to the individual that’s looking at it? Do you need a big yard? Do you need a big garage? You know, all of the qualities that may or may not be in what you’re looking at and a lot of it would depend on what you need and want.
Joe: Right, and that goes back to trying to serve a disperate audience with one piece of content because if you’re not putting forth their particular perspective on off-shore drilling then they’re going to say that’s not right or that’s slanted or that’s – You know, because it’s just not their biggest interest. Are you seeing any innovations? You know, you’re still active, you’re still watching what people are doing, has anything jumped up on your radar as far as cool innovations that you’re seeing local news groups doing?
Lucy: I have enjoyed working … The Florida Phoenix which I write columns for now, mostly columns, occasionally a news piece, but mostly columns, occasionally a news piece. But I find it fascinating because it’s an online only publication, they post the product on Facebook and Twitter I guess every day. And I don’t look at Twitter as much as I look at Facebook, it’s such a bucket of mud. But I’m interested in the fact that these things are informing people and you get a good bit of comment back on them and yet you don’t know who you are delivering it to essentially. You know, we used to know that everybody in X neighborhood got the newspaper and probably knew what we were writing about. And the online nature of so much of the news nowadays doesn’t give you that feeling that you know how widely something is being looked at, as a reporter. But I think that the atmosphere of the news business over the last four years I guess, maybe five, has grown much more hostile then it used to be for reporters to work in. And I wonder if that’s not making a lot of people choose to do something else.
Joe: I think it definitely is. It’s funny, it’s just a lot of times we lament the people in certain professions without understanding that we create the environment that drives certain personality types into certain professions. And if you were an aggressive A-type personality tend to go one way, and if you’re an activist, you may go another way. And for you as a truth seeker and valuing objectivity, and objective truth, ideally those are the type of people that become journalist. And if starts to become a, you know, if the fake news things takes too many routes or it’s seen that news is activism then you’re going to get activist that come to it which are a slightly different breed then just objective truth seekers, and something you have to sort of keep an eye on.
Lucy: I look for this whole scene to get a lot more fragmented before it solidifies in some way. And I don’t know what that does to it. It probably means that people are not as well informed across a broad spectrum of information, but particularly if people are biting off that little piece they like to read about or see, and not making an effort to look at the whole picture that’s before us every day.
Joe: You know, and I still think that comes down to the quality of aggregation, because technically a newspaper is a bunch of individual content producers running around. And what a paper is is actually a platform for organizing, and assigning, and choosing the mix of what that content is going to look like. And, you know, you can do that. Right now we have social media platforms that let us self-select in doing that, but the problem is we’re going to be driven by the shiny objects, the marketing, our own biases, and all of those sort of things shaped into ourself is going to end up the way it kind of has. But perhaps the value comes in aggregation in a different form where it’s not just one type pack of journalist, but multiple sources. You know, newspapers adopted this somewhat too with AP and pulling wire stories off as well. But I think that’s what it ends up being. And I think you also have to respect the way, you know, the different modalities, video, podcast, those need to be brought, which a lot of news organizations are.
Lucy: I think the biggest problem facing newspapers right now is the ability to get a product out, get it quick, and make money off of it. And I mean the easiest way to get it out is online, but it’s not the easiest way to make a profit.
Lucy: And somebody has got to figure that out and fix it for news organizations to subsist.
Joe: And I think the big reason why that is, is that they are a competition in social media. If you think about the YouTube model. So, essentially what they have is, it’s a meritocracy. And so you have a million people putting content up every day, but only the best can monetize to any significant value. So, you know, the best is going to rise to the top, they’re going to get rewarded, and YouTube is going to share in that, but they’re not going to have to pay the people who put the stuff that wasn’t interesting up and just had it, took all the time to do it. The newspaper has to pay everybody, right? They have to pay everybody whether their stories are making money or not. And so you’re competing against almost sort of a perfect variable model that only pays for success and shares in success, which takes away the downside risk.
Lucy: When I look at my own life over the span of years of raising children, of working every day, and now I don’t have children around and I have more time. I cannot imagine spending the day looking at YouTube videos. I mean, who does that? Somebody must because I guess they are making money, a lot of money probably. But I just find it hard to see the average American spending their days looking at YouTube videos.
Joe: Or input any social media really, it’s just what their particular, you know…
Lucy: I see though. We use Facebook in our family as a means of communicating things a lot of the times. Pictures of grandchildren, here’s Johnny’s graduation, that kind of stuff. And the cats, well, I’m a cat person so my cats are on Facebook more than they should be, but they don’t know it. So, I can see a purpose to that, that unites friends and families a lot. I don’t see that with things like YouTube, and not as much with places like Twitter where you’ve got 140 characters to say something. And I grew up in the South, I can’t say anything in 140 characters.
Joe: Yeah, and the idea is that they provide that specific utility and then that’s the gravity that they get you there and then the other stuff rides along with it, right? That’s where the news rides along. You’re coming to see the cat pictures, but you’re also seeing the news and kind of going next to it, right? And that’s just been the path of least resistance for people to say oh, well I got a bunch of news here next to my cat pictures, so I’m not going to bother to go to the Tampa Bay Times site and look for news there. You know, obviously, the current climate notwithstanding, I don’t want that to overshadow the fantastic career that you had. And so I would love to get your – other than the obvious, the Pulitzers, you know, what are the Pulitzer and the other being in the finalists. Can you tell me what your most proudest of that you brought to journalism and how you existed within the community?
Lucy: I am proudest at the moment that I was able to write a story which caused government, usually government, not always, but cause them to make things right for people. The best example that I can think of is there was a small panhandle sheriff many years ago who was routinely requiring all female inmates in his jail to provide him with sex. Bringing them into his office at the sheriff’s department and everybody knew it, but nobody did anything about it. And some of those woman came to me with some help from a local judge and told me about it and I wrote about it. The state attorney for that area didn’t want to prosecute the sheriff because he thought it made law enforcement look bad. But the U.S. attorney decided to do it. 22 women testified before a federal grand jury about their experience. They found lab evidence, FDLE did, in the sheriff’s office to prove what had gone on in there. And he went to federal prison.
None of those women had any money or any power, but they knew it was wrong and they talked to me about it and we published it and made it right. The guy was no longer in office when it was over. It’s those kind of things that make me feel the best about news organizations. Sometimes the stories are horrible, but they need to be told. If some figure of authority who is being paid by our tax money is doing something like that and so many people are afraid to tell those stories, good newspapers exist to do that. You don’t see a little weakling newspaper in a small town try to do those kinds of stories for obvious reasons. It’s that kind of story that has always made me think, you know, that’s why I’m here and what I’m doing.
Joe: And you did that story, which thank you for doing it, obviously, that must have been a really stressful time. You’re dealing with powerful people. You mentioned the sheriff on a separate issue doing the bumper stickers, you know, how did you handle that? How did you handle the emotional toll of that? Did that trigger sort of an invigorated justice energy? Or did you really have to recover from it?
Lucy: Well, fortunately I was married to a Times editor who had been a reported who had all of the educational credentials. He had a bachelors, masters from Northwestern in journalism. So, you know, he was sort of my guide in a lot of things, both at home and at work at times. And he retired many years before I did. But he was very strong through those moments. Our children were worried at times. When I was looking at the sheriff in Pasco County, my husband and I went to Mexico for two weeks and we left our oldest daughter there to take care of his mother who lived with us. And she called us in Mexico one day and she says there’s a deputy sheriff on the doorstep who says he’s a friend of yours and he wants to help us if we need any help, but I don’t know whether he is friend or foe. Well, it turned out it was a guy who was friendly with us and had been helping.
But in most of the situations, and there might be an exception, but it’s the ones that come to mind. There were always good people who were helping me try to deal with the bad people. And I took a lot of strength from those people. I was careful. I did a series of stories in Dixie and Taylor County over drug smuggling and public corruption. There were a number of law enforcement people that were actually helping the smugglers. And I kept getting people who would call and say oh, I’ve got a real good tip for you, would you meet me on the Steinhatchee River Bridge at midnight. And I said how about the courthouse steps at noon? You know? I’m not stupid. I’m not going to go expose myself. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement when I was working on all those stories urged me never to remain after dark in either Dixie or Taylor County. And that was in the 1980s into the ‘90s I think. I was prudent about where I went and who I went with, sometimes took somebody with me. In Dixie County when I entered the county a green and white sheriff’s cruiser would follow me everywhere I went. And the sheriff himself would call up people that, if they had seen that car go to somebody’s house, the sheriff would call them and threaten them don’t talk to her. I’ve had a lot of experiences where people tried to threaten me, but it was the right of what we were doing that made me continue on. And I don’t know how I managed to make it, but I did, and made it into retirement without anybody shooting me. But I think that most reporters who take on risky stories like that do it out of a sense that it’s right and somebody needs to do it.
Joe: Right. And when you went through that, you know, as you dealt with the law enforcement folks and the warden, through all of it did you keep a sense that it wasn’t systematic sort of other that you were working against, that it was just individual bad actors? That the warden was sort of siloed off in what he was doing, even though he might have got a little protection from the AG?
Lucy: I think I always felt that, yeah, they were bad actors. And that somebody needed to write about them. Now, writing about them and exposing what they were doing did not always end with them going to jail the way the sheriff did, but it often made things better for the people who were the subject of attacks from people like that. And the sheriff’s office I was writing about when I was in Tallahassee, and the sheriff’s office was about two hours away from the Tallahassee bureau so I never stayed overnight there, I would commute back into Tallahassee each time. And the night I came back from the trial when he was convicted and sentenced, the next morning when I went into the office somebody had delivered a vase full of roses, the card with the roses said, “From the women you believed.”
Lucy: I had no idea where those flowers came from, but they were better than any Pulitzer I ever won because it was a group of women who had no money, no clout, and someone did that from that group because I had freed them from a situation that was impossible. And that kind of benefit was the best feeling that you would ever get from doing those kind of stories.
Joe: Hugely important and I think the perfect place to conclude our conversation. I very much appreciate it. I very much appreciate the energy and the drive for truth, and justice, and good journalism that is still coming out of you today.
Lucy: Well, thank you Joe. I’m getting old now. I’ll soon get too old to remember what I’m doing, but as long as I’m having fun doing it I’ll probably do it for a while.
End of transcript [00:44:19]
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About the host
Joe Hamilton is publisher of the St. Pete Catalyst, co-founder of The St. Petersburg Group, a partner at SeedFunders, fund director at the Catalyst Fund and host of St. Pete X.