In Florida, a joint bureau, a unique beat, and a sharp scoop

Partnership gives papers a chance to chase big stories--but can't guarantee they'll get read

MIAMI, FL — At the start of April, there was big news in Florida: The state’s dismal unemployment rate had dropped to its lowest level in four years, and below the national average for the first time since the beginning of the recession.

The news continued a three-year downward trend in joblessness for a state whose vital real estate and tourism industries had been hit hard during the downturn. After peaking above 11 percent in January 2010, Florida’s unemployment had dropped to 7.7 percent.

Yet the declining figures bewildered Toluse Olorunnipa, a Tallahassee-based capital reporter for The Miami Herald, as he looked over the financials of a major unemployment contractor in Florida: over the same period, its haul from the state government appeared to have risen.

The company, Worldwide Interactive Networks—WIN, for short—had a three-year contract with Florida to administer an online skills assessment to the state’s applicants for unemployment benefits. The online test was a new requirement mandated by the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott in 2011.

Olurunnipa had been keeping an eye WIN since early 2012, “when people began contacting me to talk about the trouble they were having with the system,” he told me by email. There was a sense among some applicants that the system was designed to deter Floridians from obtaining unemployment assistance.

WIN’s contract originally called for the company to receive annual payments of $2 million; in mid-2012, that number was bumped to $2.7 million. Underpinning the dollar figure was a state estimate that the company would serve 1 million benefits-seekers annually—more jobless residents than existed across Florida. “The 1 million number seemed a bit high,” Olurunnipa said, “so I looked deeper into the numbers and found that not only was the contractor testing far less than 1 million people annually, its funding was increasing even as the governor was hailing the state’s declining unemployment rate.”

In fact, Olurunnipa found, WIN was only testing about 40,000 applicants a month. He also found something else: The company had five lobbyists in Tallahassee and had donated more then $170,000 to the state Republican Party, which controlled the Legislature and governor’s mansion. At that point, he says, “I knew I had a story.”

That engrossing story, “Company gets bigger state contract even as unemployment rate falls,” went to print two weeks ago. It’s typical of the work Olurunnipa does; his job consists of “covering economic development, business and consumer issues as they play out in government policy,” he tells me.

His Twitter profile offers a punchier description of his beat: “following the money and the scandal in Florida politics.” His active Twitter feed doesn’t pull any punches, either. “Considering live fact-checking Sen. Simmons as he lays out Citizens Insurance bill,” he tweeted from a legislative session this week. “Lots of misinfo.” And a few hours earlier: “Fla, home to 7 of top 10 foreclosure cities, sweeps nearly $200M from housing aid fund. Replaces w/ $ from mortgage settlement #bait #switch”

A dedicated money and influence beat: That’s a rare investigative specialization for metro reporters today, one that’s made possible by a unique work arrangement. In 2008, as newspapers statewide were laying off journalists and slashing distant bureaus, the Herald and Tampa Bay Times—probably Florida’s two most formidable reporting machines—decided to combine their own shrunken capital bureaus and pool their talent. The result has been a virtual (though not complete) monopoly on Tallahassee scoops.

“It gives both newspapers the chance to pursue bigger impact stories,” Sergio Bustos, the Herald’s Miami-based state editor and Olurunnipa’s boss, told me by email. That’s because the capital super-bureau “has the luxury of dividing up labor and giving reporters more freedom to pursue deeper investigations when issues come up,” Olorunnipa says.

But while the unique bureau model has allowed the Times and Herald to unearth significant stories, it can’t guarantee any particular article will have a long tail or shape the public conversation. Good as Olorunnipa’s WIN scoop was, it virtually died on arrival, garnering single-digit Facebook likes, tweets, and comments on both papers’ sites. Bustos concedes that he “didn’t get any direct contact” from any government officials or stakeholders after the story’s publication.

“I did not get much feedback from lawmakers or stakeholders,” Olorunnipa adds, “but I continued to hear from unemployed people who have had trouble with the unemployment compensation system and were outraged that a well-connected contractor had a much easier time getting money from the government.”

How does a story as sharp as this one not attract more eyeballs? To be sure, it was an arcane subject; just look at the lede of this post summarizing it. And the amount in question was small hat in a state that pays out $50 billion annually in contracts: “It can take a pretty big or embarrassing scandal to ruffle feathers here in the Capitol, so while I was optimistic that this would lead to more scrutiny, I wasn’t expecting it.”

But a big part of what kills the life expectancy of a good investigation—a part that even the Herald/Times model can’t fully conquer—is the day-in, day-out nature of reporting Florida’s annual legislative session, which makes it difficult to stay on a single topic, report it iteratively, or spend much time promoting it on social media. Media outlets “have an obligation to pursue ‘today’s’ story, but to also keep an eye on the journalistic forest through the trees,” Bustos says. “No doubt it’s a very tough balancing act.”

Olorunnipa’s output is evidence of that tough balance; since the WIN article, much of his work has involved compiling the papers’ daily roundup blog post, “Five Things to Watch Today in Tallahassee.” And when Bustos tells me about a big state insurance investigation by his reporter, he predicates it with “after the 2012 session”—in the summer and fall, when lawmakers go home and reporters can catch their breath. (Olorunnipa is also covering the unfolding legislative debate on the insurance story this spring.)

Is there a better way to present stories like the WIN investigation for maximum impact? If so, how can it be integrated into the Herald/Times bureau model—and other news outlets with even fewer resources to cover the state’s legislative ebbs and flows? Questions like these don’t keep Bustos and Olorunnipa up at nights; they’re too busy, and happy, breaking news. Still, there’s always room for improved performance.

“Don’t get me wrong,” says Olorunnipa. “I certainly value the multimedia approach to covering the issues of the day and the fast-paced nature of the 24-hour news cycle. But it certainly takes its toll.”

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Adam Weinstein is CJR's correspondent for Florida and Georgia. He spent the past three years as an investigative reporter and editor for Mother Jones. Before that, he worked at The Wall Street Journal, the Village Voice and the Tallahassee Democrat. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, GQ and Newsweek. Now based in the Miami area, he can be found on Twitter @AdamWeinstein. Tags: , , ,