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At the St. Pete Times, Pulitzers and beyond

It was, as President Teddy Roosevelt would have put it, a crowded hour, for the St. Petersburg Times, for journalism and for the citizens of Florida.

The hour began just before noon on Friday, April 17, in a Tallahassee courtroom. A state prosecutor announced the grand jury indictment of former House Speaker Ray Sansom on charges that he falsified documents so that a developer could use state education money to build a private airplane hangar.

Referring to St. Petersburg Times reporter Alex Leary, the grand jury's presentment states: "But for the discovery of this appropriation by a statewide newspaper reporter, this appropriation would have gone unnoticed and (the hangar) … would have been successfully funded by taxpayer dollars."

As the indictment was being read aloud, Times journalists Ben Montgomery, Waveney Ann Moore and Edmund Fountain were in St. Petersburg finishing a special report on decades of horrific abuse at a North Florida boys' reform school, and the terrible toll it had taken on the victims.

"For Their Own Good," a magazine-length story, with photos and gripping video testimony of the victims, was first published on the Times' Web site, tampabay.com, shortly after noon on that Friday.

During that same noon hour, the board of the Pulitzer Prizes, a panel of leading journalists and academics that bestows journalism's most prestigious award, was assembled at Columbia University in New York City to decide the 2009 honors. The final vote came at about 1 p.m., and the St. Petersburg Times was awarded two Pulitzer Prizes.

The Times won the National Reporting prize for its innovative fact-checking Web site known as PolitiFact. And Times staff writer Lane DeGregory won the Feature Writing prize for "The Girl in the Window," the story of Danielle, a child so neglected she was unable to speak or feed herself, and the family that adopted her.

That was a pretty good day for the St. Pete Times. More important, it was a good day for all Floridians. We all benefit when journalists keep a close eye on government and institutions.

As we navigate the harshest economic period in the history of newspapers, these stories remind us that great journalism still matters. Our readers count on us for important work and they find it as interesting and relevant as ever.

For Roosevelt, his "crowded hour" came when he led the attack on Spanish forces at San Juan Heights in Cuba. But more important was his belief that everything he had learned and experienced up to that point prepared him to triumph when his crowded hour came, to overcome obstacles in a compressed time of reckoning. So it is for the Times with the lessons of that hour or so on that Friday:

1. Newspapers can innovate. In August 2007, we launched PolitiFact.com — and its famed "Truth-O-Meter" — to check the veracity of statements made by the presidential candidates. The brainchild of Washington Bureau Chief Bill Adair, PolitiFact required two things: a willingness to try a new technology (specifically a different kind of data-base software) and a redeployment of reporters to produce well-researched Web-friendly stories and graphics.

The journalism itself was old-fashioned, straight-up reporting, transparent in its sourcing and muscular enough to withstand partisan attacks. The software, refined by our news technologist Matt Waite, collected that reporting into a fun, easy-to-use-and-search database. As a result, PolitiFact gives readers the power to evaluate the accuracy of political speech rather than rely on the analysis of partisans or pundits.

Aron Pilhofer, a technologies editor at the New York Times, wrote that awarding a Pulitzer Prize to PolitiFact was a "watershed moment for journalism." He likened it to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Pulitzer in 1989 for groundbreaking stories that used computer-generated data to prove that local banks were redlining. Pilhofer says PolitiFact combines "traditional watchdog reporting and newfangled database-driven Web journalism to create something completely new and utterly engaging."

2. INTERNET VERSUS PRINT? IT'S A FALSE CHOICE. PolitiFact is the first Web project to win a Pulitzer. Nearly 200 PolitiFact stories were also published in the St. Pete Times, a substantial component of the paper's presidential coverage. Meanwhile, DeGregory's "The Girl in the Window," a long-form narrative widely praised as being in the finest tradition of St. Pete Times storytelling, helped sell plenty of Sunday papers when it published last August. But it has now been read by more than 1.1 million people on our Web site, tampabay.com, where readers may also see Melissa Lyttle's unforgettable photographs (which themselves have won national honors) and video of Danielle's adoptive parents and neglectful birth mother. Overall, "The Girl in the Window" is likely the single most read piece of journalism the Times has ever produced.

Even as our Web traffic continues to soar, the number of people who pay us to deliver the Sunday paper to their homes is also growing.

3. despite cutting costs, we still do meaningful work. Like many Tampa Bay companies, we employ fewer people today than two years ago. We have had to cut expenses and now publish fewer pages on weekdays (the Sunday paper is still thick with stories and ads). We trimmed stock tables, dropped some features and consolidated some sections to save money. Our goal has been to sand away content that is expensive to produce but may no longer be of interest to as many, or could be readily found elsewhere.

The cuts, understandably, weren't universally popular. But they have allowed us to continue investigative journalism and narrative storytelling. We continue to walk the police beat, cover City Hall and provide as much news about the Bucs and the Rays as the fanatics can stand. The Sansom story affirms that we will continue to be a watchdog. If we don't do these stories, who will?

4. Powerful stories move us and unite us. This note came from David Parker, vice chancellor at the University of North Carolina, upon reading "The Girl in the Window."

"It's almost 11 in the morning, I'm at work, have a million things to do, and tears are running down my face and I want to rise up and go DO SOMETHING, anything to help some child in need. … God be with Danielle and her family.''

This note came to us from Darin Painter, of Strongsville, Ohio, upon reading "For Their Own Good": "Your work here does the affected folks some justice, and any compliment and thanks they've given you are much more important than my compliment, as I sit 2,000 miles away in Ohio. I've never picked up a printed copy of your newspaper, but … I've never read a better published newspaper piece."

Bill Rogers of Tampa commended our coverage of the Sansom scandal: "More power to the Times in revealing corruption in government in order that corrective action can be taken.''

Of PolitiFact, Robert Ackerman of Louisville, Ky., wrote, "You have been responsible for making me a much better informed voter, and that's a service that's truly beyond measure. … This is a stellar example of what journalists can do, and the difference you can make."

Whether it is the emotional tug of an exceptional narrative, or the outrage provoked by a Watergate-style investigative piece, there is a theme in those comments: Find the untold stories. Hold people accountable.

As we celebrate the recognition of the Pulitzers, we take great heart in another message we repeatedly hear from our readers: Keep going, they tell us. Keep going.

At the St. Pete Times, Pulitzers and beyond 05/02/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 4, 2009 2:36pm]

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