Lucy Morgan, Recipient of AJHA's 2016 Local Journalist Award, Reflects on Her Career

22 Jan 2017 3:00 PM | Dane Claussen

(Editor's Note: Lucy Morgan was unable to attend the AJHA's 2016 Convention in St. Petersburg to personally receive the 2016 Local Journalist Award; she was represented there by Tim Nickens, Editor of Editorials, Tampa Bay Times. But The Intelligencer caught up with her since then and asked her to tell us more.)

I fell into journalism entirely by accident. I have never had a journalism course and I'm jealous of all of you who spent years at good schools learning things I have had to learn by trial and error.

I got my first job as a reporter with absolutely no experience. A woman knocked on my door in Crystal River, Fla., where I was a stay-at-home mother of three children.

Her name was Frances Devore and she was the area editor of the Ocala Star Banner, an afternoon daily in Central Florida. The local correspondent for the paper died in an auto accident a couple of weeks before her visit and she was looking for a replacement.

I asked how she found her way to my door because I had never written a news story except for a high school paper in Hattiesburg, Miss., many years before.

"The local librarian told me that you read more books than anyone else in town, so I thought if you read a lot you could probably write,'' she responded.

We needed money and it was the sort of job I could do from home so I signed up and started out by covering our local Rotary Club's meeting and the Crystal River City Council.

At my very first council meeting the Chairman nodded toward me and a few other correspondents for other papers and instructed us not to write about their discussion. They were talking about a new sewer system and the possibility of firing the police chief.

I had never faced this question before, but it didn't seem right, so I wrote about what they were doing.

The council was not happy with me. And in one way or another I've been in trouble with someone ever since.

Over the years it has been the stories no one wanted me to write that gave me the best feeling about journalism.

The ability to dig into the actions of public officials in Dixie and Taylor Counties where drug smugglers had literally taken over the area so they could bring loads of marijuana ashore each night without getting caught; sheriffs in other counties who abused their positions and state legislators who managed to eat and drink and travel at the expense of the lobbyists who wanted them to pass their bills.

All were fair game and I was fortunate enough to work at a newspaper -- then called the St. Petersburg Times -- that was more than willing to publish the stories.

One of my favorite projects involved a sheriff in Gulf County, Fla. (Port St Joe) who was forcing the female inmates in his jail to provide him with oral sex in his office at the jail.

Several women with drug and alcohol problems had complained to the county judge and he called the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate. When it became apparent that state officials were not going to prosecute the sheriff or even force him out of office, someone called me.

I believed the women. Individually they were not very credible, but their stories seemed real and very painful. I began writing about it. Federal authorities took over the case. Before it was over, 22 women testified before a federal grand jury, authorities found the sheriff's own semen all over the chairs and carpet in his office and the sheriff was convicted of violating the rights of the 22 women.

They carted him off to jail at the end of the trial and I drove back to my office in Tallahassee. When I walked in the office, there was a beautiful vase of red roses with a card that read, "From the women you believed.''

I don't know who sent the roses but I know that none of those women could have afforded them. It moved me to tears and remains one of my best moments as a reporter.

We do have the power to right wrongs and force public officials to do what they were elected to do.  

And there is no better feeling than getting a good story that does exactly that.

--Lucy Morgan

P.S. I still have never had a journalism course, but I do have a Pulitzer in investigative reporting--the first ever given to a woman.  And every now and then I still find a good story and write it.

(Editor's Note: Morgan's biography from the 2016 AJHA convention program reads: "Lucy Morgan started her newspaper career in 1965 at the Ocala Star Banner, moving up to the St. Petersburg Times in 1968, where she covered crime, government and politics. She was chief of the Times capitol bureau for 20 years. She grew up in Hattiesburg, Miss., and attended Pasco Hernando Community College in New Port Richey and the University of South Florida but never took a journalism course. In 1973, Lucy was jailed for eight months after refusing twice to divulge a source's identity. In 1976, the Florida Supreme Court overturned the sentence and granted reporters a limited right to protect confidential sources. This landmark case continues to provide protection for reporters who refuse to identify sources. In 1985, Lucy shared the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting with Jack Reed for a series that led to the ouster of the Pasco County Sheriff. In 1982, she was runner-up for the 1982 Pulitzer in local reporting. In 2015, the Bob Graham Center at the University of Florida named her Florida Citizen of the Year. Lucy is married to Richard Morgan, who retired in 1991 after a 30-year career with the St. Petersburg Times. They have three children, eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren."

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