Lucy Morgan started with the Tampa Bay Times (then St. Petersburg Times) in 1968 and only recently retired. At the Times she covered all types of news, specializing in crime, government and politics.
By Jason Parsley
Lucy Morgan stands on principle. So much so that in 1973 she was sentenced to eight months in jail after refusing twice to divulge the identity of a news source. In 1976 the Florida Supreme Court overturned her jail sentence, and then granted reporters a limited right to protect confidential sources.
This landmark case continues to provide protection for reporters who refuse to divulge the names of sources. She’s also an award winning reporter, which includes a Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting in 1985. In 2005, the Florida Senate named its press gallery after her in honor of the 20 years spent covering the state legislature. And the Florida Press Club named their award for in-depth reporting after Morgan.
Follow her on Twitter.
Since starting at the Tampa Bay Times in 1968 what were the three biggest pieces of technology that transformed your job?
Cell phones, computers, and small cameras.
Throughout of all the changes did the actual “journalism” change? If so how?
For a time it got much easier to get stories filed – when I started if we covered a county commission meeting at night we got the story in by dictating to a city desk clerk from a bug infested phone booth. Gathering the news didn’t change as much as the ability to get it in the paper quicker. Now in the days of tweets and blogs, it has gotten a bit more difficult. The time we spend getting the tweet and blog feed was once used to chase down those involved in the story for a final explanation. Now they evaporate before you can get to them.
Can you tell us about the Pulitzer Prize you won in 1985?
It was for an investigation of the Pasco County sheriff’s department where they had hired dozens of deputies with criminal records, used 16 year old girls who traded sex for drugs, had a captain in charge of organized crime who was indicted with Santo Trafficante, head of tampa bay criminal organization and targeted citizens who opposed the sheriff’s budget for inclusion in a drug investigation – all sort of problems. Biggest lesson I learned was not to ever again investigate the sheriff in the county in which you live – I had the best patrolled house in the area.
Besides the Pulitzer any other stories that you especially remember, and had an impact on you?
Lots of them – drug smuggling and local corruption in Dixie and Taylor County consumed a few years of my life, but after we wrote about the way smugglers had taken over the area, feds arrested more than 250 people, including the chairman of county commissioners in Taylor County, a former school board chair, a sheriff, a chief deputy and many other officials.
Career highlight? Lowlight?
There were many great days, but the day a federal jury convicted Gulf County Sheriff Al Harrison of violating the civil rights of female inmates in his jail stands out. He was requiring them to perform oral sex in return for weekend passes or trusty status. I started interviewing everyone over there and wrote about it, feds stepped in, 22 women testified, FDLE found the sheriff’s semen all over his office chairs and carpet. When I got back from trial, someone had delivered a dozen roses with a card that simply said “from the women you believed.” None of those women had any money or individual credibility – but together they were a force. Low light? I’m not sure I’ve ever had a low, but I suppose the closest would have been the threats made to my daughter-in-law and grandson during the Pasco sheriff’s work, just an attempt to intimidate me but it really frightened them.
Most amusing professional gaffe?
I am not amused by mistakes, even if it’s a minor spelling error. Closest I can come is the day I called our top editor to give him a report on a meeting with a Dixie County deputy who was threatening to sue us over a story I had written about him hiding in the bushes to warn smugglers that state and federal officers were coming. He didn’t realize the info came from a tape played in open court. I loaned him the tape so he and his lawyer could hear it. He brought it back and said thank you. Andy Barnes, the editor, asked what his demeanor had been. I said, “Andy he was nice, he’s not from New York,” forgetting that Barnes had been born and raised in New York. He paused for a minute and said, ”I understand what you mean.”
You announced your retirement back in 2005, but kept working – a lot. Have you really “retired” this time? If so, what’s next?
I’m going to consider a book, part memoir, part how to do journalism – and maybe some media consulting – not public relations. I don’t want to try and sell soap or make someone bad look good.
One piece of advice you would give journalism students.
Learn the history of what you are attempting to cover, also the laws that govern it and stick around long enough to know when the train is running off the track. Be patient. Too many young reporters think they need to move around a lot. If you move too much you’ll never get a full grasp of what is happening.
Anything else you’d like to add?
It’s been a lot of fun. Sometimes I feel guilty getting paid to have so much fun. And it has never, ever been boring.
Throughout March, April, May and June, SPJ South Florida Pro will feature Q&As every Friday with South Florida’s most prominent journalists. Want to see someone featured? Want to join SPJ? Email us.
Jason Parsley is President of SPJ South Florida Pro. Follow him on Twitter.