ST. PETERSBURG – John Capra had been on his morning patrol shift for just 29 minutes when three chilling words came over his police radio.
“Two officers down.”
It was Jan. 24, 2011, and Capra recalls it as the scariest day of his career.
He had been in the St. Petersburg Police Department for 11 years, but he still did not feel prepared to deal with the sudden, violent deaths of two of his colleagues.
“I had to go right back responding to calls after that,” said Capra, 45. “It was really weird.”
Being a police officer was something Capra fell into.
He was born and raised in St. Petersburg and attended college 30 miles away at the University of South Florida Tampa. He majored in chemistry.
A part-time job working security at Sears led him to the St. Petersburg Police Department in 2000, the same year he married his wife, Bonnie.
They have five children, a German shepherd named Elsa (after the ice princess in Frozen), cats named Cleo and Teddy, and a 50-gallon fish tank.
“My family is very supportive of what I do,” Capra said. “My wife knew what she was getting into.”
While patrolling District 3 from 2 p.m. to midnight on April 7, Capra snacked on peanut butter M&M’s, brainstormed ideas for his son’s surprise party and caught snatches of the Tampa Bay Rays game as the radio played in the background.
To this baseball fan’s delight, his police cruiser previously belonged to retired officer Pete Yarbrough, whose nephew pitches for the Rays.
That Sunday shift led him to a yard strewn with angel statues, Halloween masks and empty cans of Fancy Feast cat food; a bank parking lot where six transients were reportedly loitering; an animal hospital where a young man had been bitten by a dog; and the house of one of his “regulars” for a domestic violence call.
As he drove from call to call, Capra smiled and waved to a woman on a walk, a man working on his car and three young kids playing in their yard with toy lightsabers.
“People are usually friendly when they see me,” he said. “They like to feel safe.”
Capra says he doesn’t feel scared most days – just alert.
In almost 19 years as a police officer, he has never fired his weapon. He has seven years until retirement and hopes he’ll never have to.
He played basketball as a center and power forward in high school and remains a fan of the New York Knicks. He received his pilot’s license in his last week of high school but hasn’t flown in years. He rides a motorcycle in his free time.
And as the Tampa Bay Times’ Pasco County crime reporter, Solomon loved the thrill of pushing a hard news story out the door.
“I still like writing the crazy crime story on deadline,” said Solomon, 27. “It’s fun. It’s a rush. It’s a personal challenge.”
But above all, Solomon wants to do the right thing.
He sports a “Westfield, N.J.,” tattoo on his left forearm, in honor of the town where he grew up. He picked up a journalism class in high school and found his niche writing and reporting, especially since he loved to ask questions.
“I was always kind of a pain in the butt,” he said.
While Solomon’s interests may draw him to a high-octane style of reporting, his childhood drew him to civic skepticism. His father was a member of the board of education, and local government “was dinner table talk.”
Listening to his father, he said, “I always felt like my peers were getting screwed.”
Taking his experience from high school, he attended the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. He interned at CBS News in the summer of 2013 and came to the Times in 2014 after graduating from Medill.
Solomon started at the Pasco office in Wesley Chapel, reporting on crime and breaking news.
“I loved the job in Pasco,” he said. “I was driving a lot, I was outside all day and visiting crime scenes.”
But while Solomon enjoyed the excitement of covering crime and visiting courts, he wanted to do something bigger and more impactful, something that would draw on his childhood skepticism of government.
He twice applied for the job covering City Hall in St. Petersburg and got it in November.
When Solomon isn’t covering city government, he focuses on covering the courts in a similar fashion – as a place to examine systemic legal issues.
A court story is among Solomon’s proudest works – a September 2018 piece about a Florida doctor who was sued for malpractice and for years made a principled stand against the suit over anything else.
Solomon said that the first two or three drafts of that story were “failed attempts at an accountability story,” a style that he praises colleague Mark Puente for executing well. But the story naturally developed into a strong narrative.
“What I liked is that different people saw different things in the story,” Solomon said. “Some people saw (the doctor) as a hero; others saw him as a crazy person. It’s about perspective.”
Although crime and courts were his first assignments and government is his new focus, Solomon considers himself a “jack of all trades.”
Press passes for local Trump, Clinton and Sanders rallies are pinned to his cubicle wall, alongside a press pass for the launch of the SpaceX-8 rocket. One of his weirdest stories involved a topless woman running through the Sanders rally.
Some of his most rewarding work, however, has been covering three hurricanes that hit Florida — Hermine in 2016, Irma in 2017 and Michael in 2018.
“Even though it’s telling the story of someone’s tragedy, it’s so much fun,” Solomon said. “It’s about telling the story of what happens after the storm; it’s an opportunity to help people.”
Although Solomon has been covering City Hall for only two months, he has big aspirations for his role in the city.
“I’m trying to write issues stories,” he said. “I’m not creating the narrative, but I’m trying to push the story along. I want to find more high-level stories and work them out.”
Solomon has a cordial relationship with City Council members. He waves to them as they pass his desk at City Hall, and he makes small talk with them about what he’s writing. But he knows that journalism and government are inherently at odds.
“Just because I write a tough story doesn’t mean I can’t say hi in the hallway,” Solomon said. “Some people might view it as a cat-and-mouse game, but it’s not. I want the same things they want – a better St. Petersburg.”
While Solomon knows there are “tough stories” to be written and issues to uncover, he knows that his relationship with the government is one that can make positive change.
After all, his Times profile says that he is in journalism because he believes “the truth can touch hearts and change the world.”
Tacked onto the wall of her cubicle in the newsroom is a neon pink slip that angry teachers created for an unpopular Hernando County school superintendent.
On her desk is a Slinky she was given on her first day on the job in a whimsically named “fun pod” of cubicles where Slinky is the mascot.
Her desktop background is a picture of her cat, Fran, named after the animal rescue center where she found Fran and now volunteers once a month.
Her mom sometimes calls her Nancy Drew, but her name is Megan Reeves and she’s a journalist at the Tampa Bay Times.
Reeves, 26, graduated from the University of Florida in 2015. She started as an art major but after having to pour concrete and dress up as a clown, she turned to Plan B: journalism.
Her studies focused on photojournalism, and she took pictures for her college paper, The Independent Florida Alligator. She wrote her first story when she went on an assignment and the reporter didn’t show up. It ran on the front page.
Now 1-A stories are nothing new for Reeves, but she says it never stops being cool.
By the third day of her internship at the Times in 2016 she had a front-page story that posed a question about Gasparilla, Tampa’s annual boozy pirate fest: What happens to all the beads?
She spoke to environmental professionals and disclosed the unintended consequences of throwing beads from boat to boat while intoxicated. A lot of them end up in the water.
After the story ran on the front page, Reeves received a big envelope in inter-office mail with a letter from the managing editor and editor commending her on the story and welcoming her to the paper.
Her six-month internship turned into a year-long internship, but when it ended, she was told that there was no money in a shrinking newsroom budget to hire her full time.
“So I thought, OK, this is the end of the road, but I got to work there for a while so I just need to accept that,” Reeves said. “I started working at a restaurant, and I just freelanced for the Times until I could find something else.”
A few months later came a call offering her a job covering education in Hernando County for the Times. It wasn’t what she wanted, but it was a full-time job with benefits so she felt like she couldn’t say no.
It turned out well. She ended up reporting to Karen Peterson, whom she calls the best editor she’s ever worked with. She also fell in love with her beat and eventually earned a promotion to the St. Petersburg office.
“I came to love K through 12 education reporting, which I never thought that I would because it seemed kind of boring to me,” she said. “I wanted to cover city government or cops – you know, something sexy.”
The beat ended up being more interesting than she anticipated. Lori Romano, the Hernando school superintendent, became the focus of multiple stories. The School Board said Romano’s performance was below average, many people took issue with her, and in one day she fired 47 teachers from the most struggling school in the district.
“In a meeting, she looked across the table at me and said, ‘Your work is crap and I refuse to read it,’” Reeves said. “I said, ‘OK, that’s fine.’ She was fired the next day.”
Romano, who now works in the Pasco County school system, probably has her face on a dartboard, Reeves quipped.
Over time Reeves has built up her confidence and toughened her hide, although she said it’s challenging to be a young woman in the field.
“It’s hard because you want to be like that nice person that everyone thinks is nice,” Reeves said.
“But being tough doesn’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t make you not you. It just means that you know how to hold your shit.”
Reeves has found public records to be an empowering tool. By getting as much information as she can from as many places as she can, she’s able to stand up to people like Romano and – more recently – Dallas Jackson, a Pinellas middle school principal who was removed by the superintendent after months of complaints from administrators, teachers and parents at the school.
Reeves said she has been threatened with lawsuits three times in her three years at the paper. One was filed and dropped, and the other two were never filed.
“The longer I do this, the less I care about telling happy stories,” Reeves said. “I think they’re important, but my time is limited. If I am going to work on something, I probably want it to make someone mad because that means that you’re trying to make change.”
When Reeves was an intern at her first job at the Lake City Reporter, she got a call from the sheriff’s office. An infant had died in a hot car, authorities said, after her father forgot she was in the back seat.
“I drove to the address and there was a girl a couple years younger than me standing in the front yard, just screaming, hyperventilating and grabbing her face,” Reeves said.
“It was just a terrifying experience. I’ve had to report on stories like that four different times, and every time I do I’m crying. I always call my mom.”
Another time, she wrote a story about a shelter in Pasco County for people with special needs during Hurricane Michael. She spoke to a man who had devoted his life to caring for his mother and watched the roof of their house fly off during the storm.
“Before I left, he just took my hand and held on to it, and I’ll remember that the rest of my life,” she said.
When Hurricane Irma hit, Reeves rode a school bus that was evacuating people from their homes in Hernando County to school shelters.
She met an 80-year-old woman who asked her to move a picture of her late husband off a counter and into a drawer to keep it from getting wet.
Reeves exchanged phone numbers with the woman in case she needed to ask follow-up questions. When the story was published, the woman called to thank her and praise the story.
“We started talking on the phone regularly and she actually became a good friend of mine,” Reeves said. “We ended up going to a play together because she told me when we were on the bus on the way to the shelter that she loved plays.”
Her job can be both emotionally taxing and fulfilling, Reeves said, but her team in the newsroom is always there to support her.
She was in Jacksonville visiting her parents last August when news broke of a mass shooting at a nearby video game tournament. She got to the scene and sent the details and quotes she gathered to reporters and an editor in St. Petersburg who assembled the story.
On a recent Sunday evening in the Times office in St. Petersburg, during the breaks between news briefs and public record requests, Reeves, another reporter and an editor cracked jokes about Gasparilla, gushed over instant-pot recipes and discussed the future of journalism in the digital age.
Her work is hard but rewarding, and sometimes it’s fun. Once a week the office has donuts.
Megan Reeves covers two education beats: the Pinellas County school system and the University of South Florida.
So in a typical day, she might attend a USF St. Petersburg Campus Board meeting, comb through public records on a former middle school principal, then do some interviews for the university beat.
And that’s all before lunch.
While juggling the two educational behemoths, she can’t help but wonder if her time would be better spent on just one of them.
She prefers the K-12 beat, where she feels her work has the potential to make a bigger difference. But there is still important work to be done on the USF beat, and the cash-strapped, staff-thin Tampa Bay Times does not have reporters to spare.
“I would rather have two jobs than no job,” said Reeves, 26.
At first, neither beat seemed all that glamorous. She was used to cop ride-alongs, burning buildings and interviewing the families of murderers. Still, it was an opportunity to work at the place that calls itself “Florida’s Best Newspaper.”
Reeves’ interest grew once she started reporting the K-12 beat.
She learned how much corruption can be hidden in the education systems, how underfunded some schools are, and how important it is to make sure the next generation is coming out of school prepared
“Now, I look around the newsroom and I’m like there’s nothing that I want to do more than this,” she said.
Reeves vividly recalls her first day as a Times intern.
Driving from her home in Hillsborough County, she arrived in St. Petersburg two hours early on the chilly morning of Jan. 18, 2016.
Assistant metro editor Roy LeBlanc, the paper’s intern coordinator, welcomed her with an explanation of newsroom policies, a lecture on plagiarism and a warning: If she was ever pulled over for speeding, it wouldn’t be smart to tell the officer that she was racing to meet deadline.
Afterward, sitting at her desk, she racked her brain for story ideas. She wanted her first piece at the Times to be a home run.
“I was so afraid to fail, or for them to think, ‘Oh, we hired this intern, why did we do this? We took a chance on her.’”
Then she had a light-bulb moment.
Gasparilla was right around the corner. After watching video after video of tipsy pirates tossing beads into the water, Reeves asked a nearby reporter if he could suggest some environmentalists she could ask about the effect of all the beads that end up in the bay.
The resulting article landed her on 1-A on her third day on the job. The editor congratulated her with a handwritten letter that she treasures.
The following three years have been filled with countless long days, reluctant sources and a bit of relocating.
“You don’t do this job because it’s 40 hours or because you make a lot of money,” Reeves said. “You do this job because it’s a beautiful, wonderful thing and a gift.”
McKenna Oxenden wakes up at 6 every morning to travel from St. Petersburg to Plant City to feed 25 horses before starting her job as a reporter at the Tampa Bay Times.
One of those horses is GG, a 15-year-old mare Oxenden has owned for six years. The name fits her well, Oxenden says, because she is so sassy.
Oxenden, 22, began horseback riding at age 6 and started competing four years later.
“It’s a big part of who I am and what I want to accomplish,” said Oxenden, who hopes to compete in the Olympics one day. “It keeps me sane. I’m not a very happy person if I don’t get to ride.”
She said that a lot of life lessons in riding translate to journalism.
“There is a lot of uncertainty, just like (in) journalism,” Oxenden said. Each day brings a new challenge: She doesn’t know how her horse will behave or what she’ll be covering at the newspaper.
Oxenden was born in Maryland. She fell in love with journalism her senior year in high school, when she dropped a pre-calculus class and switched to journalism. She went on to study journalism at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
Oxenden began at the Times as a summer intern. She worked on web design last fall and started the new year as a one-year intern covering breaking news and general assignment in the St. Petersburg office.
She is also the producer and editor for the Times’ entertainment and culture podcast, “The Life of the Party,” which is released every Friday.
As a reporter, Oxenden said, one of her most memorable stories was about a father who police say tried to choke his son with a baby wipe. The mother of the 6-month-old boy was grateful for the chance to tell her story, Oxenden said.
Oxenden said she enjoys making a difference and having the opportunity to write stories like that.
“You’re writing history and holding people accountable,” she said.
There wasn’t a wow or eureka moment for Langston Taylor with journalism. His father was a reporter so it was always around him.
It remained a constant through his days as editor of his high school newspaper in Silver Spring, Maryland, and in three staff positions at the Daily Tar Heel at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Those years led him to the Tampa Bay Times, where Taylor, 23, is now a general assignment and data reporter. To him, reporting is “a rewarding challenge.”
“You become exposed to all parts of the city you live in, you talk to families and workers and experts you never would have otherwise. I feel like I’d miss out on a lot of life without that driving factor,” Taylor said.
After covering daily assignments, he turns to working with numbers. He coded in college and regularly uses data to tell deeper stories.
Pushed to one side of his desk are printouts of Florida maps, dotted and shaded red in certain spots with words scribbled in.
From his cubicle on a slow holiday, Taylor shared some tips for young reporters.
Apply for internships and jobs with intent.
These days, Taylor’s girlfriend, Stephanie Lamm, 23, works at the Dallas Morning News. But before Dallas, Lamm applied to a number of newspapers across the South. After interviewing at some papers, she came to two realizations: either she didn’t like the boss or the paper’s work environment.
Ultimately she didn’t want to work there.
Despite the pressure of landing a job in this shaky journalism market, Taylor said, recent graduates shouldn’t apply for positions without doing some research.
Figuring out whether they really want to work for a certain outlet is key. And the best way to learn about the work culture is talking to people with experience there.
Negotiate for a permanent job if possible.
Just after graduating from college, Taylor went to work at his second internship for the Times in May 2017. It was a six-month position, so before it ended Taylor wanted to ensure his stay at the paper.
He applied to three other media outlets, including the Charlotte Observer, where he had interned for a summer. The Observer made him an offer. With that in hand, Taylor persuaded the Times to cut short his internship and give him a permanent job.
Move on from positions when you feel you need to.
When Taylor started at the Times, he worked in the Tampa office as a general assignment reporter, covering government, activism and crime.
Covering crime, he spoke to many mourning relatives.
When his father died, making those phone calls and knocking on those doors became more difficult.
Taylor said he knew his limit. He left the Tampa office and moved to the St. Petersburg office in October 2017.
Be flexible and lend a hand on projects around the newsroom.
Taylor’s specialty is working with data and producing graphics to represent it in an easy-to-understand format for readers.
He lends himself to small-scale data reporting when he is done with general assignment stories for the day, while more in-depth data stories are left to the Times enterprise team. He said that willingness to help can establish yourself as a handy person worth keeping in the newsroom for the long run.
As an example, he mentioned “Danger on two wheels,” his story with Times reporter Tony Marrero about bicycle accident hot spots in Tampa Bay.
Using data, they confirmed that people commuting to work on busy roads like Fowler Avenue in Tampa are involved in more accidents than leisure riders who stick to bicycle trails.
Taylor is now compiling data for a larger story on the impact of Florida’s recently adopted Amendment 4, which restores voting rights to felons who aren’t convicted murderers or sex offenders as soon as they complete their sentences.
He’s pinpointing communities across the state with high concentrations of ex-felons who are now eligible to register to vote.
Use data and public records to your advantage (and to make your job easier).
In a story about the drawn-out recount during last year’s midterm elections, Taylor used public records to reach voters in Broward County. While there is no Times office on the east coast, he said, that doesn’t stop him from writing a story using the voices of Broward voters.
Taylor made a request for state voter records via the Florida Division of Elections website. He used the contact information provided by a number of Broward County voters and mass emailed over 3,000 of them. He included 40 responses in his story “Bill Nelson’s Broward County problem.”
Don’t feel obligated to follow the traditional (that is, intern to reporter to editor) path, because reporters are getting laid off midway through that path.
And don’t feel bad for taking the easy route if the opportunity comes up. Taylor said he thinks he’s been lucky to do as well as he has in the industry, especially because he gets to work on larger, weeks-long data projects.
“I think being a young reporter now means having an advantage in understanding the internet, and there’s a chance to become very visible and impactful in your lane,” he said. “That probably wasn’t available a decade ago.”
Her desk is wrapped in yellow crime scene tape. Paper snowflakes splattered with red paint to look like blood hang from the ceiling. A mystery novel lies astray next to a pile of newspapers.
Kathryn Varn lovingly calls her workspace at the Tampa Bay Times “the murder pod” because, more often than not, that’s what she writes about when she’s there.
She divides her time between the St. Petersburg and Clearwater offices, covering breaking news and public safety for Pinellas County.
“I like just being in the middle of everything but not being beholden to anybody because we’re the independent press,” said Varn, 26. “You get to see all the action and be there without having to answer to anyone.”
The morning of Jan. 23 brought her a gift: a 32-page arrest report that she’d been requesting for a week. The story was about seven adults charged with human trafficking in St. Petersburg.
She arrived at the Pinellas County Judicial Center first thing in the morning and waited nearly an hour for some of the sensitive details to be redacted. Then she spent another hour reading through the document and highlighting the key facts.
A clerk told her she was the first reporter to obtain the information. She called her editor to relay the news. The pressure was on to break the story.
* * * * * * * * *
Varn was born in Charleston, South Carolina, but moved to Fleming Island, near Jacksonville, when she was 15. At the University of Florida, she studied journalism as an entry to law. Her aunt was a public defender in Washington, D.C., and since Varn loves to write and argue, she figured it would be a good career choice.
Then she read a book of collected works by Rick Bragg in her introductory journalism class.
“The writing was just so beautiful and I just didn’t know that journalism could be like that,… and then I read that and was like, ‘Wait a minute, I might like this,’” she said.
At UF’s newspaper, the Independent Florida Alligator, she worked her way up from crime reporter to metro editor and eventually editor-in-chief. She completed internships at the Orlando Sentinel, Miami Herald and New York Times.
“I just liked the hustle of it,” she said. “I loved the rush of getting the interview you needed and writing on deadline… I also really like knowing things, keeping up with current events.”
But it was her internship — and later full-time job — at the Tampa Bay Times that cemented her passion for journalism.
“It has such a character as an industry that I just fit right in, which was something I never experienced before,” she said.
Although her newsroom continues to downsize like many others around the country, Varn says there’s no “dead weight” because everyone works so hard.
“Everyone’s wearing multiple hats… which can be nice because it opens up your possibility for stories and you can make a beat into what you want it to be and pitch stories that you’re interested in, but you got to say no to all the other stories,” she said.
When Markeis McGlockton was shot and killed outside a Clearwater convenience store in July, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri initially declined to charge the shooter, Michael Drejka, because of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law.
Varn and another Times reporter, Zachary Sampson, looked into Drejka’s past and discovered a history of road rage and aggressive driving.
They published a story about it in August, and the Pinellas-Pasco state attorney’s office charged Drejka with manslaughter just days later. Varn says she doesn’t know whether the story figured into the state attorney’s decision.
“There’s so many different tensions in that story,” she said. “It was nice to put that out there and provide information to people who feel so much toward this case and really feel the injustices of it.”
In December, she spent a week in Panama City covering the aftermath of Hurricane Michael with Times photographer Monica Herndon. There, people thanked them for “keeping the story alive.”
“After all the national media had gone, we came back and checked in, and we’re going to keep checking,” Varn said.
She refuses to be discouraged by the public’s growing distrust of the media.
“I think what we do is really important, no matter what people think of it, and in some ways more important than it’s ever been.”
Her advice to student journalists? Don’t go to class, she joked.
While school is important and students should strive to succeed, a GPA is not nearly as valuable as a portfolio and professional experience, she said.
“If it comes down to having to choose between chasing a story and going to a class that you may or may not need to go to, chase the story,” she said.
Chasing the story pays off. She was the first to break the human trafficking story on Jan. 23.
BRADENTON – As a breaking news reporter for the Bradenton Herald, Sara Nealeigh’s day can be packed with crime, car crashes and crazy weather.
On Jan. 16, it was packed with puppies.
She covered a fundraising breakfast for Southeastern Guard Dogs, a Manatee County-based organization that matches veterans with service dogs.
Nealeigh, 27, moved through the crowd with ease, taking notes on what she saw. She chatted with veterans, CEOs and retired generals with confidence.
The service dogs sat dutifully by their owners’ sides as the attendees made a beeline for the buffet.
After the event, Nealeigh rushed to her car to head back to the newsroom to write a story that would be up on the Herald website within hours.
She starts her day at 6 a.m., so by 10 her day is half over.
“My deadline is always 30 minutes ago,” Nealeigh said. There is no time to waste in this era of digital journalism, she said. The goal is to publish as quickly as possible while still maintaining accuracy.
As newsrooms shrink, reporters are called to wear more hats. Nealeigh shot the photos and video for her article. She also knows how to optimize her articles for search engines and promote them on social media.
Aside from these skills, Nealeigh said, the most important thing a journalist can have is connections.
Connections are what brought her to Bradenton from Ohio in December 2016.
She saw a posting for a reporting job at the Herald and reached out to a college friend who worked there. With the friend’s help, Nealeigh got a job interview and ultimately a position as breaking news reporter in the Sunshine State.
She packed her bags and left 24 years of Ohio living behind her.
“I don’t miss Ohio at all,” Nealeigh said. “They’re scraping 4 inches of snow off their cars as we speak.”
Despite her aversion to the weather there, Ohio is where Nealeigh got her start in journalism. As a sophomore in high school, she finessed her way onto the school newspaper staff, which at the time was filled exclusively with juniors and seniors. She then attended Ohio University to study broadcast journalism.
Eventually, she realized writing scripts for anchors wasn’t as satisfying as writing her own news copy. So after graduation, she took a reporting job at the Chillicothe Gazette, a small daily in southern Ohio.
It was at the Gazette that she broke the most memorable story of her career.
She covered the so-called Pike County massacre, the largest homicide investigation in Ohio history. Eight people in one family were found murdered in four homes in April 2016 – homicides that Nealeigh said rocked the sleepy town of Chillicothe and the state of Ohio.
Now, at her job at Herald, she is the first one in the office at 6 a.m.
It’s quiet as she scrolls through arrest records from the day before, wondering if today could be the day a huge crime story breaks. Every few minutes, a voice from a police scanner echoes through the newsroom, reporting a car accident or other incident around Manatee Country.
Nealeigh’s job is to listen and decipher what news would be the most impactful and meaningful to her community.
Coffee is brewing, but she’s already wide awake.
“Once I’m up in the morning I’m ready to go,” she said. “I’m eager to start my day.”
BRADENTON – Since Ryan Callihan joined the Bradenton Herald in October 2017, his beat has changed from breaking news to retail to county government.
Change has been a constant since his days in college, but it’s what solidified his belief that journalism was the right career path for him.
“My favorite part of my job is (that) it’s different every day,” said Callihan, 23. “Sometimes I’m sitting at the County Commission office. Sometimes I’m at the beach reporting on Red Tide. Sometimes I’m covering a shooting at an apartment complex and someone died.”
With the recent layoff of two editors and resignation of a reporter, the Herald’s small newsroom is restructuring. That caused the shuffling of his beats.
Some jobs in the newspaper industry are deemed “superfluous” and the industry needs to figure out how to do the job without them, Callihan said. That leaves him disappointed but not disheartened.
“I’d like to believe that there’s always going to be a need for someone like me,” he said.
Callihan, who grew up in St. Petersburg, began attending USF St. Petersburg in 2013 as a graphic design major. He switched to journalism and began working for the student weekly, The Crow’s Nest, in January 2016.
In the summer of 2017, when he balanced an unpaid internship at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and a part-time job as a store protection specialist for Ross Dress for Less, he learned two things: how to adapt quickly and how to get stories out of people.
The job at Ross forged a connection with those who work minimum wage jobs like he did.
“A lot of the stuff we do is for people,” he said. “We say we give voices to the voiceless, and (to do that) it’s about knowing what it’s like to be voiceless. When someone works as a bartender or a security guard and is making diddly squat and they say they can’t afford whatever, I’ve been there.”
He sits in Manatee County Commission meetings a few times a week. While they can be boring, a strong cup of coffee and his sense of duty keep him awake – typing away, studying an agenda and sifting through government jargon so people who can’t attend midday meetings stay up-to-date on things that directly affect them.
Jan. 16 was no different. It began at 9 a.m. with a two-hour presentation from a project manager at the Department of Environmental Protection to the Manatee County Port Authority.
A couple of hours for lunch gave Callihan time to start writing his story before the County Commission met again.
The meeting wrapped up quickly, but sometimes he isn’t so lucky. Deadlines can leave him writing a story while also taking notes during meetings that have stretched up to 10 hours.
“Say I need to write something by 4. Then I should be at the meeting taking notes on whatever they’re talking about and writing my story at the same time,” said Callihan.
Callihan advises student journalists to get started early, so they know how to do whatever they want, and not to worry too much about their lack of experience.
“A lot of times you are good enough, and at the end of the day it’s about telling a story,” he said. “Everyone knows how to do that.”
GULFPORT – When he was 8, Robert Vincent and two other young troublemakers were caught throwing rocks and breaking windows in Pinellas Park. They had busted every window in two houses that were under construction.
It was an embarrassing moment for the chastened youngster, who got a stern lecture from a police officer.
“I got my nose clean after that,” Vincent said. “I didn’t hang out with anyone who did that.”
Later, as he chose a career path, he thought about that incident and the other two boys. One ended up in prison. He wasn’t sure what happened to the other but knew it probably wasn’t good.
“What if I could have an impact on another young person straightening themselves out?” Vincent asked.
Thirteen years later, in 1994, he became a police officer himself, joining the department in Gulfport, a city of 12,500 not far from the place where he was caught breaking windows.
It was the first step in a law enforcement career that led in 2010 to his appointment as chief of the department, which has 32 sworn officers, eight civilians and a budget of $3.6 million for the 2018 year.
In Vincent’s early years at the agency, it was a place where many things seemed to be broken.
There was a U.S. Justice Department investigation into allegations of racism and incompetence in the arrest of a young, mildly retarded black man. Complaints from residents that some Gulfport officers were sexist and racist. An embarrassing episode when a department veteran misplaced a resident’s complaint against another officer.
In 1998, the St. Petersburg Times summed up the department’s woes in a lengthy analysis headlined “Gulfport tries to polish badge’s tarnished image.”
Today’s department is far more professional and progressive than the agency of the ‘90s, said Vincent, 45.
The problem officers are long gone, he said. The department is accredited by the Commission for Florida Law Enforcement Accreditation – which requires compliance with more than 250 professional standards. And the agency takes pains to listen and act on residents’ concerns.
Vincent emphasizes communication. In 2010 he created a blog to inform the community about how the department spends its budget and encourage discussion on issues like the use of police body cameras.
He also likes to spend an hour each day out in the community speaking with business owners, residents and tourists.
“My belief is that this police department owes more to this community than to simply answer your calls,” Vincent says on the department’s website. “We must be, and will be, an integral part of Gulfport.”
In an interview, the chief said he is “absolutely confident” the problems of the 1990s “couldn’t happen today.”
But he keeps a link to that 1998 Times analysis in his laptop to remind himself of the department’s darker days.
Vincent grew up with his mom, older brother and younger sister in Pinellas Park. But when he was 14 his mother died from a heart attack.
“That was a tough time,” Vincent said. “I don’t know how it happened, but the judge appointed my brother to take care of us.”
His brother was only 18. All three siblings had to grow up quickly.
“A lot of going through that played a big part in who I am today,” Vincent said.
He graduated from Gibbs High School in 1990, the same year he became an Eagle Scout. Then he was off to Florida Southern on an ROTC scholarship. Plan A was the military.
When that fizzled, he went to Plan B, graduating from the police academy before joining the Gulfport department in May 1994 as a patrol officer.
Over the years, he moved up the ranks – patrol officer, school resource officer at Boca Ciega High School, patrol supervisor, then commander of the patrol and investigative services divisions.
Meanwhile, he was earning a bachelor’s in professional writing at USF in 2000 and a master’s in criminal justice administration at USF in 2008. He attended the FBI National Academy in 2006.
Since Vincent has dedicated much of his life to police work, his first piece of advice to new officers may seem surprising.
“It’s important to have a life (outside policing) when you’re in this business; I tell all the new guys this,” he said. “If this is your (whole) life, then you will take everything personally. If you start taking it personally, then you will react unprofessionally.”
For this reason, he said, he makes sure to follow his own advice.
When people say, “I hate the cops,” it doesn’t bother him, he said. “Well, I don’t care if you hate the cops because I’m not a cop, I’m me,” he said. “My job is not me.”
Vincent’s tenure as chief has not been without controversy and embarrassing moments.
In 2012, one of his officers chased a stolen car through the city and onto Interstate 275, then into St. Petersburg, where it hit a bus that then crashed into an apartment building.
Two people in the car were seriously injured, and several bus passengers required treatment. When he arrived at the scene, St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster sharply criticized the Gulfport’s officer’s decision to give chase.
“That pursuit wouldn’t have been authorized” under the St. Petersburg Police Department’s chase policy, Foster told the Times.
Vincent still defends his officer, noting that the officer followed department policy, which “was in line with what the Gulfport people wanted at the time.”
Gulfport’s policy is different now, Vincent says, but not because of the 2012 incident.
Three years later brought another embarrassing incident. The chief’s unmarked cruiser went missing from the driveway of his home in St. Petersburg.
Inside the vehicle, the Times reported, were two bags of police gear, disposable handcuffs, a riot helmet and a police jacket.
Luckily, police soon found the cruiser, which was abandoned after a 16-year-old and two younger accomplices realized the car they had stolen was a police vehicle.
Vincent and the Gulfport department were “the brunt of several jokes because we’re the ones always preaching to lock your car,” the chief said.
Although Vincent got his cruiser back, he was not happy at the way the theft played out in court.
The 16-year-old pleaded guilty, served time in a program, and then, according to the Times, went to a restitution hearing to see how much he owed the chief and the city.
There, to Vincent’s dismay, the judge told the teenager that it probably wouldn’t matter if he ever paid the $800.
Vincent said he wrote the judge to protest and they later talked on the phone. “She has her opinion, I have mine, and we don’t agree,” he said.
The case speaks volumes about broader problems in the juvenile justice system, the chief said.
“The juvenile system has a lot of improvement that could be done,” he said. “Essentially the theory right now is that it’s the parents’ responsibility to discipline their children, but there are a lot of children who don’t have parents to step in or who won’t.”
“If the juvenile system won’t step in, then who will?”
Vincent knows all too well that many children don’t have strong parental figures in their lives.
That’s one of the reasons that when he makes his daily rounds in the community, one stop is a fixture in his routine: Boca Ciega High School at dismissal time.