Times journalist Lucy Morgan left lasting legacy of reporters she mentored

“As much as she delighted in a good scoop, she loved it even more when it was one of her protégés doing the digging.”
A severed telephone cable forced the New Port Richey bureau to set up shop in a nearby motel for several hours. Lucy Morgan (on phone) and Nancy Godfrey kept the makeshift newsroom operating while other staffers worked in the phoneless bureau.
A severed telephone cable forced the New Port Richey bureau to set up shop in a nearby motel for several hours. Lucy Morgan (on phone) and Nancy Godfrey kept the makeshift newsroom operating while other staffers worked in the phoneless bureau. [ Times (1974) ]
Published Sept. 22|Updated Sept. 23

TALLAHASSEE — Lucy Morgan was the mother of three children, but her progeny includes dozens of former Tampa Bay Times journalists whom she guided, scolded and nudged across a generation.

Many of them occupy influential positions in newsrooms across the nation and, like her, hold Pulitzers. But there were many others who worked alongside her in the courtrooms of Pasco County or the halls of the state Capitol who also learned from her grit, her intellect, and her calculating use of charm.

“Nobody had a bigger impact on my journalism career, or my approach to reporting and editing, than Lucy Morgan,” said Peter Wallsten, senior national investigations editor at The Washington Post and a former Miami Herald political reporter who first worked for Morgan in the Clearwater office of the Times, later in the Tallahassee bureau.

“Watching Lucy bring in a scoop was a sight to behold: a chance to experience how and why her sources trusted her and to witness her cajoling and chasing legislators until they copped to whatever intel she was seeking,” Wallsten recalled.

Morgan, who died Wednesday at age 82, arrived in Tallahassee as the bureau chief for the St. Petersburg Times (the former name of the Tampa Bay Times) in 1985, a time when Florida was one of the most saturated news states and the press corps was dominated by men — as were all branches of government.

She not only managed in this political culture but thrived and became a mentor to young journalists, especially women — such as Jo Becker, now an investigative reporter at The New York Times; Jennifer Liberto, economics editor at The Washington Post; Joni James, vice president of system communications at BayCare Health System; Julie Hauserman, a writer and advocate at Earth Justice; Diane Rado, editor of the Florida Phoenix; and Anita Kumar, senior managing editor at POLITICO.

“Lucy taught me that a true leader sets others up for success. She was a role model, a surrogate mother and a fiercely loyal advocate,” said Carrie O’Brion, now assistant regional vice chancellor of communications at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg.

“She took incredible joy and satisfaction in her reporters’ triumphs. As much as she delighted in a good scoop, she loved it even more when it was one of her protégés doing the digging.”

Morgan encouraged other journalists to value the importance of the pull and tug between elected officials and journalists. Her mantra: Be polite when you ask a hard question, and “it’s amazing how much you find when you don’t take what comes to you at face value.”

That attitude influenced everyone who worked with her.

“Those of us fortunate enough to be initiated as lifetime members of the Lucy Morgan Alumni Club learned to be aggressive, probing, curious, tough, open to all points of view and, above all, fair,” Wallsten said. “She taught us to pull no punches, but also not to ‘flick rubber bands’ — her phrase for what others might call trivial ‘gotcha’ stories.”

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It’s standard practice for politicians who don’t like reporting that reveals a dark side to launch public attacks.

When Morgan was writing stories about a corrupt Pasco County sheriff, he had bumper stickers that said: “Screw Lucy Morgan” and “I do not believe the St. Petersburg Times.” On more than one occasion, the sheriff’s spies attempted to intimidate her by describing what her grandchild had worn to daycare.

That friction between reporter and subject could often be uncomfortable for both sides, Morgan acknowledged — like the time Morgan followed into the men’s room a legislator who had refused to answer her question. But she also schooled her colleagues to be selective when they aim.

“Public officials get shot at from every angle all the time, and I know that,” she told researcher Jean Chance for the book “Orange Journalism: Voices from Florida Newspapers.” “I don’t want to be guilty of picking on them for minor offenses. When I shoot at them, I want to load the gun.”

When Morgan retired in 2005, two of her former bureau colleagues, Tim Nickens and David Dahl, compiled a “Life With Lucy” page that included memories from all 16 reporters who worked with her while she was the statehouse bureau chief.

Nickens posted some of their good lines on Facebook this past week:

• “She’s the kind of reporter who always manages to be in the room, even when she’s not.”

• “She generously dished off sources, relentlessly chased stories, and wrote too many columns about her cats.”

• And, “New staffers quickly got her hand-knitted Christmas stockings — some of them knitted at Times board meetings.’’

Morgan walked the halls of the Capitol “with an ever-present yellow legal pad under her arm, where her loud cackle of a laugh sometimes announced her presence,” said Steve Bousquet, the opinion editor for the South Florida Sun Sentinel who succeeded Morgan as bureau chief of the Times in 2005. “She was the model of old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting. In the pre-Internet age, face-to-face encounters were the best way to obtain reliable information.”

Having spent much of her early career covering courts, Morgan knew the value of a printed record to help make a case. She often explained that was why she kept enormous amounts of records.

“She had a manila file on everybody and everything,” Bousquet recalled. “I don’t know how she possibly kept track of them all, but she had files with notes and public records on people who served in the Legislature in the 1970s.”

David Barstow, former investigative reporter for the New York Times now the chairperson of the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, recalls how much Morgan “loved the chase.”

During a visit to Tallahassee, he recalled stopping to see her and she “demanded to know every last detail of the piece I was working on — and then she just erupted with this gusher of tips and ideas about everyone I needed to go see, and the best way to pry records out of FDLE (the Florida Department of Law Enforcement) and did I know about these other three pieces, two of them by her, that touched on elements of what I was now exploring, and how I needed to be really careful of this one particular flak, and then she finished it all off by asking where I was having dinner, only to then steer me to two of her favorite hole-in-the-wall spots.”

Morgan worked hard and played hard, Bousquet said. “Long days at the Capitol often ended with long staff dinners at restaurants with the company picking up the tab, or ‘Mother Times,’ as Morgan called it.”

Charlotte Sutton, managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer who worked as a bureau reporter and later Morgan’s editor at the Times, recalls having dinner with Morgan and her husband, Richard, after a long day at the Capitol.

“While we enjoyed our wine, Lucy started looking around the room, her eyes narrowing. She excused herself from the table to chat with some men whose mere presence had her suspecting that big news was afoot,” Sutton said.

“By the time the entrees arrived, Lucy had called St. Petersburg and told the news desk to save her a spot at the top of A1. Right then and there, while eating the dinner Richard ordered her, she dictated her story to the night editor: Former U.S. Senator Lawton Chiles was coming out of retirement and running for governor of Florida. This was huge national news, and Lucy had it first. Long before dessert.

“Talk about dinner and a show.”

In 1973, Morgan had been convicted of criminal contempt for refusing to name her sources in a corruption investigation in Dade City. She faced jail time but in 1976 the late Sandy D’Alemberte took her appeal to the Florida Supreme Court and won.

The decision, by Justice Joseph Hatchett, stated that the First Amendment shields reporters from certain kinds of government coercion and government cannot “force a newspaper reporter to disclose the source of published information, so that the authorities can silence the source.”

The case, Morgan v. State, remains law.