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From AJR,   June/July 2013  issue

Just Not the Retiring Type   

Even after her second retirement, Tallahassee reporting legend Lucy Morgan continues to have an impact at the Tampa Bay Times.Tue., May 7, 2013.

By Emily Thompson
Emily Thompson (emilyreedthompson@gmail.com) is a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

Lucy Morgan, a longtime reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, might have retired, but journalism hasn't entirely quit her.

"It was the end of our legislative session in Tallahassee, and one of the lobbyists called Lucy up to give her a tip," says Tampa Bay Times Assistant Political Editor Amy Hollyfield. "She had to be very persuasive to get him to talk to someone else. But he did, and we broke a story about Sen. Marco Rubio going to the Legislature and asking them to end Florida's early election primary in 2016.

"It's because of Lucy Morgan that we broke that national story."

This is the persona that Morgan has created during her 48 years in journalism. She's a reporting legend who got her start when she was a stay-at-home mother taking care of three children in Florida. In April 1965, a woman from the Ocala Star-Banner knocked on her door and asked if Morgan wanted to write for the publication.

"I had never written for anybody, let alone a paper," Morgan says. "I asked her why she would come looking for me, and she told me that the local librarian told her that I read more books than anybody else in the town and that I could perhaps write."

This encounter launched the fruitful career of a journalist who is described by Hollyfield as "relentless and fearless" and a "gem." After writing for the Star-Banner for a year and a half, she began working for the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times), where she served as the paper's capital bureau chief in Tallahassee from 1985 to 2006. She broke countless stories during this time about Florida's state government. In 1985, she and colleague Jack Reed shared a Pulitzer Prize for their investigative reporting on the Pasco County Sheriff's office.

Morgan, now 72, stepped down as bureau chief in 2006 but stayed on as a senior correspondent. Her part-time status didn't slow her down, though--she kept on breaking news until March 1, her official-official retirement date. One of her most popular and powerful stories during her final years at the paper was her piece on the construction of an opulent courthouse dubbed the "Taj Mahal." Here's how the article began:

"With budgets slashed, courts across Florida have laid off staff, quit buying law books and curtailed building maintenance. Programs like drug courts, which have helped thousands of people stay out of trouble, have been limited. Mice run rampant in a Tampa courthouse, while in West Palm Beach judges struggle to get courtroom temperatures below 90 degrees because of a malfunctioning air-conditioning system. Meantime, in Tallahassee, the 1st District Court of Appeal is building a courthouse that some call a 'Taj Mahal.'

"Scheduled to be completed in November, it's a $48 million behemoth in which each judge will get a 60-inch LCD flat screen television in chambers (trimmed in mahogany), a private bathroom (featuring granite countertops) and a kitchen (complete with microwave and refrigerator)."

Says Tampa Bay Times Editor and Vice President Neil Brown, "She ultimately cost an appellate court judge his job. Let me rephrase that--he cost himself his job. She brought it to light, which cost him his job.

"It's so easy for the press corps to get so close to things that they can't see the forest for the trees. But Lucy was just brilliant at taking that one step back and saying, 'Look, this doesn't meet the test'. Lucy would always try to get people to make this test--the test of common sense."

Another one of her final (well, maybe) stories, one she describes as "hilarious," is a tale about Florida Gov. Rick Scott's dog.

"The governor adopted a dog when he was running for election, claiming he got it from a rescue group," Morgan says. "The dog disappeared, and no one in the governor's office would answer what happened to the rescue dog--it disappeared shortly after he took office. And after I spent five days trying to get someone to answer a question about what happened to the dog, which was named Reagan, Reagan just..disappeared and was replaced by a new dog named Tallee.

"When they wouldn't answer the question, I finally went ahead and did a story on the disappearance of this dog, and the governor admitted that he had given the dog away because it had bitten an employee at the mansion... It wound up as..one of those things that went viral overnight on Twitter and Facebook and worldwide, so I ended up getting so many e-mails and calls about this that it paralyzed anything I had to do for the next few days."

Although there's a stereotype that older reporters are less likely to come to terms with journalism in the digital age, Morgan quickly embraced the new world. Brown praises Morgan as being one of the first journalists to use the Internet to do research on businesses and government. She notes that she kept up with the Boston Marathon bombing and subsequent manhunt via Twitter.

Newspapers have been squeezed financially by the transformation of journalism, and one of the significant casualties has been statehouse coverage. Many papers have shrunk or eliminated their bureaus. In a development that would have been unthinkable years ago, in 2008 the Tampa Bay Times merged its capital bureau with that of the Miami Herald.

Morgan notes that as newspaper reporters flee the nation's statehouses, they are replaced by a variety of nontraditional writers. That has its upside, but it also has a price, in Morgan's view.

"What we've seen is a proliferation of bloggers, web-only news sites, operations that can operate for a lot less money than a daily newspaper can run a bureau," she says. "In some ways, there are more voices coming out of the capital than there were, but the shortage is in in-depth reporting by mainstream newspapers.

"From small hometown papers to the big papers, there are just fewer people taking a serious look at what government is doing or what business is doing. Part of that is a reflection of the economy and part of that is a change in direction in what's going on in journalism. I think that people are going through a period of time where nobody's sure what the future is, so nobody wants to go out and spend a lot of money, so they're doing things on the cheap at some places."

But Morgan is optimistic about the future. She believes that the field will stabilize eventually and people will continue to practice serious investigative journalism, often on new platforms. She also believes that there are some Web-based sites that are doing high-quality political journalism, such as the News Service of Florida and Politico.

"I think it's settling down a lot," she says. "Every time you see layoffs at some big paper, everyone goes back into the throes of worrying a lot. It's clear that everything is still a bit unsettled.

"But I think it's a little less unsettled than it was two or three years ago."