The Florida Capitol Press Corps, located in Tallahassee, is considered one of the best news reporting units in the United States. The dynamics of Florida’s politics, legislation, economics and special interests demands an elite level of investigation and reporting at the state capitol. SL7 Interview’s Aaron Deslatte, Tallahassee Bureau Chief for the Orlando Sentinel/Sun Sentinel. (We hope to interview several capitol press corps members, to get their perspectives on the 2014 election cycle, legislative process, changing face of news media, war stories and other interesting insights.)
#1-Slevin: Let’s do the Do’s & Don’ts first. What can you share with professionals on “how to” successfully pitch a story? What was the worst case you’ve run into regarding someone trying to sell you a story that wasn’t newsworthy?
Deslatte: I have encountered a lot more professional, good stories than bad ones. No extreme examples of bad story pitches really stand out, other than the general cases of interns calling during the middle of a House floor session, asking if I got the email they’ve already sent four times. That happens quite frequently. An important component to pitching stories is to know what beats a reporter covers, and when that reporter will generally be the most stressed out (later in the day; later in the week). I am eternally stressed out, though, so pitch away.
#2-Slevin: What got you into journalism and how did you find yourself in Tallahassee?
Deslatte: I got into journalism because of my mutual love for Earnest Hemingway and science. I loved the storytelling and tragic arc of Hemingway’s life, wanted to learn to tell stories like he did, and ultimately scored a job at The Kansas City Star where he was also a cub reporter. The similarities in our careers ended there. The scientific component is a function of my curiosity about how the social world works and learning to ask good questions, which is why I hate shouting questions in press gaggles. I prefer a semi-structured interview process where I can ask open-ended questions, respond to their answers, and generally wield more control over the data-collection process. You have to ask leading questions in a gaggle. But I also have always been fascinated with data analysis, and journalism was a good way to start playing around with data for a living. I found myself in Tallahassee after my former boss, the Tallahassee Democrat’s Paul Flemming, hired me away from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to come work here for Gannett – in the middle of the 2004 hurricanes. I got here right after Charley, worked from the state Emergency Operations Center for three weeks, and got my furniture sometime afterward.
#3-Slevin: What are some best practices that a capital reporter needs to be effective during the legislative session?
Deslatte: Time-management, “multi-tasking,” and picking your spots. With newspapers shrinking their Capitol staffs, it is impossible to adequately cover the session in a comprehensive fashion for everyone except a couple operations. You need to be selfish – economical and efficient with your time – in order to maintain high production. I plan out my schedule with a spreadsheet (but that’s partially because I have academic responsibilities besides my news gig). I say “multi-tasking” with some skepticism because our brains don’t really work like that – we process information serially, moving from one task to the next. But we need to be able to keep multiple projects, stories, tasks, etc., moving forward at once. Good stories pop because you made that record request last month and were diligent about combing through the results when you had a few down hours (whatever those are). I have also discovered in my old age that proper nutrition really makes a big difference. If you live off the crap they serve in the Capitol, your energy will lag. Bring some protein shakes and fruit to work, instead of scarfing down the biscuits and gravy (but that’s just me).
#4-Slevin: How has the downsizing trends of print news media affected your abilities to report? Moreover, how has the public been impacted with regard to keeping public officials accountable?
Deslatte: I don’t have the same resources, like most everyone else. That means I can’t pull off the beat for a week or two and chase a big story when I think I might have a whiff of one. The penalty for a bust is much higher. I am evaluated based on my productivity and there is someone younger and cheaper willing to do my job if I don’t keep it up. Secondly, the monetizing of news content online means that political coverage is less valuable to newsrooms than sexier stories that drive more traffic. Four of Florida’s 10 TV media markets presently have no full-time newspaper reporter in the Capitol. I would speculate that the decline in the Capitol Press Corps and de-emphasis of political coverage has had a negative effect in encouraging bad behavior on the part of political actors. But I haven’t seen any data on it.
#5-Slevin: What was the biggest or most interesting news story that you covered during the 2014 Legislative Session? What surprised you about it?
Deslatte: Without a doubt, medical marijuana. It is always fascinating to watch the political re-alignment of a party on an issue like this. I was surprised how many dyed-in-the-wool conservatives were openly willing to discuss their conversion to support the Charlotte’s Web bill. Granted, they would probably vote in a lot more heterogeneous pattern on a range of issues if they weren’t commanded by party leadership to obey. But it was interesting, nonetheless.
#6-Slevin: What is your take on Governor Scott’s interfacing with the news media? I would be interested in your compare/contrast of the days of the velvet rope to the present. Has his office improved in communicating with the news media?
Deslatte: He is definitely the most inaccessible governor I have ever covered. While other governors like Jeb Bush probably didn’t care for reporters that much, they somewhat enjoyed jostling with them. Scott is a command-and-control executive, and I don’t think he likes to entertain questions or challenges to his decisions in the slightest.
#7-Slevin: We are now post Labor Day, so what has surprised you most about the gubernatorial race so far and what will you be looking for from the candidates as they approach Election Day?
Deslatte: The campaign has thus far been an idea-free zone. I can’t think of another governor’s race I have covered where there were literally no ideas being talked about. Remember the old days when conservatives espoused smaller government and liberals argued for expanded government activity in the economy? We are being subjected to a largely misleading shout-fest from two candidates who are primarily talking about doing the same thing – increasing funding for education – and distorting what the other guy did. I think one distinction this cycle is that the campaigns really don’t care at all if they get dinged by the media for misleading voters. That tells me it really doesn’t make much difference in the polling.
Thank you Aaron for sharing your time with my readers.
Aaron Deslatte can be followed on Twitter: @adeslatte
Patrick Slevin is a writer, blogger, OCR racer and a PR pro who heads SL7 Communications, an integrated public relations consulting firm. Over the last two-decades, Patrick has successfully engaged stakeholders as a Florida mayor, Fortune 500 corporate manager, national association regional director and international agency executive. His unique and diversified experience in political, corporate, government and agency communications offers clients a greater degree of efficacy in strategic counsel and campaign performance. He has developed and executed strategies, corporate campaigns and grassroots operations advancing the bottom line interests of clients in markets across the United States.
Patrick can be reached for a confidential inquiry at 850.597.0423 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.