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In Florida, Web operations sprout to report on the Capitol

Envision a well-financed news organization created by big oil companies. Or big power companies. Or gambling casinos. Or a political party. Or anyone else who could afford the tab.

Could they just open up shop in the state capital and become a "news" organization?

Absolutely. And you wouldn't necessarily know if they had done so.

These days anybody with a little Internet savvy and a laptop can start up a blog or news Web site, but it costs a bit more to provide daily coverage of the governor and Legislature. In Florida there are no rules governing who can get press credentials and start writing about state government and its major players in the Capitol.

"We recognize anybody who has a pen and a piece of paper and says they write,'' joked Sterling Ivey, press secretary for Gov. Charlie Crist.

In some states officials have denied press credentials to groups that do not disclose ownership or those that represent left- or right-wing groups, but in Florida the Capitol Police issue credentials after confirming the name of each employer and doing a criminal records check. There are no formal rules defining who can be a member of the press.

"We haven't had such volume that it prompts the need for a uniform policy,'' says Mike Ramage, general counsel for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the agency that provides security for the Capitol.

And the Capital Press Corps has never seriously considered a formal rule that would block some reporters and allow others, a practice that has sparked internal disputes and lawsuits in other states.

As a result, two years after traditional newspapers and television stations started laying off reporters and substantially cutting back on coverage of state news, a virtual herd of newspeople are going to work for Web-only publications. Some of the Web sites are clear about their ownership and purpose. Others are not.

A couple of the better-financed news Web operations have moved into the Florida Press Center, taking offices once occupied by newspapers that cut staff or eliminated capital bureaus. One of the new groups — Sunshine State News — has set up shop in a former Miami Herald suite with new furniture and a staff of about a half dozen reporters and editors who say they plan to emphasize business and politics on a free Web site.

The folks at Sunshine will not disclose the names of investors who are financing the operation. Sunshine managing editor John Wark says it is privately owned by a group of investors who want to create a "firewall'' between the owners and the reporters.

"Our mission is to cover the news and do it differently than other people,'' says Wark, a former Tampa Tribune reporter.

David L. Perry, a West Palm Beach lawyer and resident agent for Sunshine State News Holding LLC, also refused to name the owners. "It's a client matter, some investors who are going to do an online news service,'' Perry said.

Wark says he and Nancy Smith, former managing editor for the Stuart News, will supervise the work of reporters who will post stories on Sunshinestatenews.com. Smith left the newspaper business in late 2004 after telling readers she was going to work as a lobbyist for parimutuel gambling interests.

Wark said the operation, whose Web site is offering free ads to lobbyists and public relations companies in Tallahassee, will focus on business news where it intersects with political news. He promises "fair and balanced'' coverage, saying "people are tired of "negative news.''

Some find the secrecy surrounding Sunshine troubling in an industry with a long tradition of identifying those who provide the news. Newspapers identify reporters, name editorial staff and identify owners in each publication, and most of the blogs and Web news organizations now covering the capital readily identify stakeholders. Readers can judge the content, in part, by knowing the source of the reporting and the money behind it.

"All of us who respect the craft of journalism should be alarmed and wary,'' says John Iarussi, one of the owners of LobbyTools, an online information business that is also branching out into Web news.

Sunshine's corporate papers were initially filed by Justin Sayfie, a former communications director for Gov. Jeb Bush. Sayfie operates Sayfie Review, a news operation that monitors traditional news operations and sends out daily e-mails to subscribers interested in links to newspaper stories about state government and politics.

Sayfie says he is no longer involved with Sunshine, but won't say who now owns the corporation. Sayfie himself was one of the first to try to capture online news in the new, emerging political world. In 2002, about a year after leaving the governor's staff, Sayfie started distributing daily e-mails directing recipients to his SayfieReview.com Web page. The page, available free, includes links to traditional newspaper stories about Florida politics and government.

In 2006, Sayfie began selling ads on the Web page and has since added a weekly television interview done by Ron Sachs, who served as communications director for Gov. Lawton Chiles. Recently he's added political commentary from University of South Florida professor Susan MacManus.

"Now more than ever before there are a lot of sources for news,'' Sayfie said. "It's kind of interesting that with the freedom and ability of people to get into the news business some of the traditional rules of transparency and ownership don't matter as much. At the end of the day the audience decides what readers will consume.''

In 2008, a group of progressive Democrats formed Progress Florida, a Web site that appears aimed at countering Sayfie Review's GOP roots. Progress sends out daily e-mails to subscribers with links to news articles and blogs.

Progress staff includes a handful of environmentalists, political activists and public officials.

The largest news operation now covering the capital is News Service of Florida, a Web-based publication that opened its doors in September 2008 just as traditional newspapers were cutting staff. The subscription-only service is owned by a group of Boston journalists who operate StatehouseNews.com in Massachusetts.

Craig Sandler, general manager of the News Service, said the group decided to move into Florida because coverage was shrinking and they believed "old-fashioned straight news coverage could gain a foothold. And it has!''

The six-person newsroom is headed by David Royse, a veteran Associated Press reporter. The operation includes six marketing employees who handle sales to other news organizations, government offices, lobbyists and others. The service e-mails news stories and posts them on Newsserviceflorida.com for subscribers who pay an average of about $35 a week.

The more expensive LobbyTools Inc. has established a reputation for providing a detailed look at the inner workings of the governor's office and Legislature and detailed analysis of bills. This year LobbyTools is also moving into the news business with The Current, a summary of the day's Capital news. LobbyTools also is supporting the development of an independent Web service called the Florida Tribune. Former Miami Herald reporter Gary Fineout is directing news coverage for LobbyTools and the new Web site, Fltrib.com.

Fineout also writes for his own blog, The Fine Print, and says he is still trying to determine whether the new Web site will be a nonprofit or sell advertising. Those joining him in the venture include his wife, reporter Christine Jordan Sexton, and Bruce Ritchie, a former environmental reporter for the Tallahassee Democrat, who also writes a blog.

LobbyTools is available only to subscribers for fees that start at $250 a month. The shares are owned by John and Sarah Iarussi and Eric Smith. George Palmer, former lobbyist for the Florida Medical Association, is a director of the company.

LobbyTools prohibits any employee or board member from working as a lobbyist.

Still in the wings are two investigative reporting organizations: The Florida Independent and the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

The Florida Independent will start offering original investigative reporting on the Web by June 1. The operation has drawn funding from the Knight Foundation, the Gulf Coast Community Foundation in Venice and others for an online, nonprofit news operation that is now seeking an editor.

Investigative reporters will work from homes, libraries or offices and get together "when it makes sense,'' says outreach director Hanaa Rifaey. The project will be similar to news sites now up and running in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and New Mexico.

The Tampa-based Center for Investigative Reporting plans to focus on corruption and violations of public trust in Florida government in partnership with the University of Tampa when it is up and running.

Several of the Web-based operations are in the early stages of development and operating in a rather fluid atmosphere as owners attempt to determine what works in a world shifting from the printed page to computer screens.

"This is an experiment,'' notes Iarussi, the LobbyTools owner. "No one really knows what the new media is going to look like. We need to be very adaptive in this process … and match up what people are willing to spend with what we can provide.''

But no matter how the new media end up evolving, readers have a right to know who is financing the reporting, so they can judge the content accordingly.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Lucy Morgan can be reached at lmorgan@sptimes.com.

This article has been revised to reflect the following clarification: The shares of LobbyTools are owned by John and Sarah Iarussi and Eric Smith. George Palmer is a director, but not a shareholder, of the company.

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Capital Web sites

Here is a sampling of nontraditional Web sites covering Tallahassee politics and issues, including the St. Petersburg Times' The Buzz and PolitiFact.Florida.

Free sites

Fltrib.com

state government and politics

Sunshinestatenews.com

business and politics

tainews.org

(The American independent news network, investigative reporting coming in June)

Healthnewsflorida.org

state and local health news

Blogs.Tampabay.com/buzz

state government and politics

Politifact.com/florida

FloridaEnvironments.com

environmental news

thefloridacurrent.com

politics and policy

Subscriber sites

Newsserviceflorida.com

state government and politics

LobbyTools.com

detailed breakdown of bills and legislative reports plus news *

FloridaThinks.com

op-ed pieces on government and politics

SITES THAT Link to news Web sites

SayfieReview.com

ProgressFlorida.org

Television sites

Flanews.com

Floridavideonews.com

In Florida, Web operations sprout to report on the Capitol 03/06/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 10, 2010 3:34pm]

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