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Florence Snyder: Wheat, Chaff and Shoeleather

3247073217_0861b0afd4_zThe Ledger, Imperial Polk County’s newspaper of record, is run by a young woman from the Old School.

Editor Lenore Devore thinks reporters should look at the wheat to be found in public records, and not the chaff of press releases peddled by taxpayer-supported ministers of disinformation.

So when the Lakeland Police Department’s “public information officer” stonewalled a young police reporter looking to flesh out details of a local shooting, Devore did what good editors do. She refused to let her newsroom take “no” for an answer.

That was in the fall of 2012, when the community and its newspaper had high hopes for Lakeland’s new police chief, Lisa Womack. But Womack quickly proved to be Lakeland’s worst enemy, and her own, as The Ledger uncovered instances of the Department falsely claiming that records did not exist or could not be found, Womack candidly if stupidly admitted she plays a “cat-and-mouse” game with the press regarding Florida’s hundred-plus-year-old public records law.

The State Attorney asked the grand jury to take a look, and The Ledger took the unusual step of allowing Devore and five of her reporters to testify under oath and behind closed doors. Journalists usually resist being “part of the story,” and for good reason. A newspaper’s credibility rests entirely upon the public’s belief that the newsroom is working for readers, and not for the powers that be.

But The Ledger didn’t report anything to the grand jury that it had not already reported to its readers.

The grand jury issued a scathing report, expressing doubt as to Womack’s fitness to serve as police chief given her hostility toward her legal duty of candor with the press and public. The report remained secret for 10 months, as the city fought tooth-and-taxpayer dollar to keep it secret.

Meanwhile, honest people who knew things and trusted their newspaper to report them began to come out of the woodwork. The more The Ledger dug, the more “new sources provided information from right under the chief’s nose,” said Devore.

The Ledger’s front page was awash in stories of sex scandal cover-ups by higher-ups. A police captain, a city human resources chief, and 28 others were fired or forced to resign. There were reports of frat-boy “bra searches” designed to frighten and humiliate rather than to serve and protect.

One officer was arrested on charges of sexual battery and stalking. Another officer admitted to requiring DUI suspects to sign forms he had not yet filled out. The State Attorney was forced to drop dozens of that officer’s cases, and later concluded that “public safety is at risk in Lakeland.”

A year after The Ledger wrote its first story detailing problems with public records at the police department, the city lost its $220,000 fight to keep the grand jury report secret. A month later, the police chief resigned.

Lakeland’s credibility is in a mighty big hole, but the city fathers won’t stop digging. And neither will The Ledger, which recently reported that the city secretly hired a public relations firm and paid it $130,000 for fruitless and futile damage control. You don’t have to live and pay taxes in Lakeland to appreciate this kind of dogged, persistent, meat-and-potatoes local reporting. Every community deserves an editor like Devore, but far too few communities have one.


Florence Snyder is a corporate and First Amendment lawyer. Contact her at lawyerflo@gmail.com

(Photo Credit: Lakeland Local)

Florence Snyder: “The Newsroom” that isn’t anymore.

coffee newspaperAs HBO launches the new season of “The Newsroom,” the infotainment intelligentsia are all over the Internet making fun of Aaron Sorkin’s hyper-romantic Valentine to journalism.

Huffington Post TV critic Maureen Ryan and other purveyors of news and opinion scoff at Sorkin’s “heart-on-sleeve earnestness” and “magical belief that better news coverage could fix America.”

Not so long ago, that magical belief was a consensus point of view.

Florida’s newsrooms were stuffed with shy social misfits, charismatic class clowns, outlaws and outcasts, all drawn to the business by a shared belief that journalism was an end in itself, a sacred public trust. Read all »

Florence Snyder: “Up” serves civic vegetables (and that’s a good thing)

7603562796_098339ec58News organizations have been babbling about “diversity” since before the flood, but if you want to see two “diverse” journalists being taken seriously at the same time, you have tune in to rare venues like MSNBC’s “Up with Chris Hayes.”

For two hours every Saturday and Sunday morning, Hayes and his experts-of-the-week drink coffee and dig deep into issues that demand extended attention, but rarely get it in today’s attention-deficit disordered media-verse.

Saturday’s show featured the Miami Herald’s Joy-Ann Reid and the Tampa Bay Times’ Tia Mitchell. These young, gifted and black women joined two academics with stellar credentials and unpronouceable names for a lengthy, thoughtful, and nuanced discussion of Florida governor Rick Scott’s stunning 180 on “Obamacare.” Read all »

Florence Snyder: If it wasn’t for Lucy…

Morgan_LucyAs we’re about to host our program tomorrow night “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby?” we’re delighted to run this piece on one of Florida’s finest – and toughest – women.

Lucy Morgan didn’t aspire to a career in journalism. Like many women of her generation, she married as a teenager and planned to live happily ever after.

Not too long later, she was a single mother in Middle of Nowhere, Florida with a high school education and three small children. Her entertainment budget consisted entirely of a public library card.

That card would be her ticket to the storied career which Suncoast Tiger Bay Club will honor at a banquet on January 30.

It was 1966 and the Ocala Star-Banner was looking to hire a reporter. Asked by an editor if she had any suggestions, the librarian told him about a young woman “who reads more books than anyone I have ever seen.” Read all »

Florence Snyder: Gene Patterson lived his values. Again, and again, and again.

When the Grim Reaper finally came for Eugene Corbett Patterson, the 89 year old Pulitzer Prize winner surely did not blink. Fear was not in his character and anyway, he had seen death before.

Patterson had always been a man of great ambition, and as he prepared to meet his Maker at his St. Petersburg home, the dying editor started and brilliantly finished condensing the King James Bible. It was an old newsman’s last service to seekers of truth in an attention deficit disordered world.

In the decade from 1978-1988 when Patterson called the shots at the St. Petersburg Times, Florida journalism was widely recognized as the best in the world, and the St. Petersburg Times was recognized as Florida’s best newspaper by everybody who didn’t work for the Miami Herald.

Death had tried and failed to claim Patterson when he was a 20 year old tank commander at the Battle of the Bulge. In General Patton’s 10th Armored Division, Patterson learned verbal, sartorial and blood and guts elements of style that would inform how he led by example from the Ardennes Forest to the hour of his death. Read all »

Media Wars video is in!

Great video: Social Media Revolution 2011

Hat tip to Knight Foundation Media Learning Seminar. Tomorrow’s session viewable by livestream online HERE.

Tallahassee Democrat: Media experts take questions about the state of the media

By Jordan Culver

There was some role reversal Tuesday night at The Village Square’s latest panel discussion. Media experts were put on the receiving end of some tough questions, with members of The Village Square conducting the interviews.

A panel — consisting of a newspaper editor, the man who runs who runs a Florida news aggregate website, two longtime reporters and a professor — tackled inquiries about the state of the news media, where the industry is going and how The St. Petersburg Times picked up a new name.

“Media Wars,” a dinner discussion hosted by The Village Square, concentrated on how the news industry can thrive in a more online-oriented era. CNBC Washington correspondent John Harwood served as the keynote speaker for the event. Read the whole article online at Tallahassee.com HERE.

Don’t miss this profile of Media Wars panelist Lucy Morgan on NPR yesterday

(And check out the cameo by Florence Snyder, Village Square featured blogger, also the lyricist for Tuesday’s entertainment “Miss Quote and the Clarifications.” Oh this will be a fun evening…)

Today’s the last day for $8 Faith, Food, Friday lunch orders, we’ve got a fabulous media panel, we’re starting the coolest local project ever and other really important Village Square news

Read it all here.

New Years Resolutions for Journalism?

In the theme of our coming Dinner at the Square program Media Wars: The Future of How (and what) We Know, here’s what one journalist said when asked by Chris Matthews about his resolution for journalism:

“Invest in hard journalism. It takes a lot of money, it takes a lot of time but do the investment. And always understand that nothing in this business is worth anything without verifiability, accountability and accuracy. Those are old school values that never go away. — Major Garrett, National Journal

Village Square homework: Watch Page One

With Media Wars: The Future of How (and what) We Know right around the corner on February 7th (check out our exception panel and buy your tickets before they’re gone), we can think of no better way to spend your early evening tonight than watching Page One: Inside the New York Times, on History Channel at 6 PM. You can read Jim Romenesko’s interview with the director of the film, but no matter what… watch it. This is important subject matter to our future, tune in. Got other things to do on New Year’s Eve (gasp)? You can stream the movie on Netflix.

Welcome Florida Voices!

In case you missed it, Florida Voices – the state opinion page – has now launched. It’s the brainchild of former Tampa Tribune editorial page editor (and now Florida Voices editor) Rosemary Goudreau. Joined by fellow Tribune alum Rosemary Curtiss as publisher and a crack team of former newspaper people, they’re doing the important work of building a sustainable business model for getting us good information, a goal that is critical to the future of our state and nation. And, of course, we like their “Village Square-ish” approach of “seeking out differing perspectives with a watchful eye for common ground.” And we love their blue and red merging to purple logo. They seem to have the right idea.

In her first Florida Voices column, Florence Snyder thinks back on watching her parents critical involvement in building Florida’s modern state university system – “an ambitious idea brought to life by ambitious people.” Florence (who also writes for us, check out some of her work HERE) writes:

“Colorful expressions of strongly held beliefs did not frighten them. They relished debate, and so do I. As Florida Voices strives to add yeast to our 21st century public policy conversation, I’ll strive not to waste your time. You can argue with me. And I hope you will.”

We’re delighted to see Florida Voices jump in with this important contribution to our state, we wish them well, and we look forward to more of the rich, vibrant debate that is the foundation of a healthy democracy.