How Paige St. John put together her Pulitzer-winning investigation of the Florida insurance industry for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
Posted: Fri, April 22, 2011
By Greg Masters
Greg Masters (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an AJR editorial assistant.
It was an eventful Monday for Paige St. John, an investigative reporter for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Around noon, she was told she had a very good chance of winning a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for her series of articles on Florida's insurance industry. Three hours later, it was a done deal. "I think my heart stopped both times," she says.
In those intervening hours, she got a haircut and bought a clean shirt. She had been on the horse pasture at her rural Sarasota County home, where she lives with her husband, teenage daughter and four horses. "I came in covered in hay with a torn and smudged shirt, and my pickup truck full of hay and seed out in the parking lot. I thought, 'Oh my gosh, if this happens, this is not how I want to look.' "
With St. John's win in the investigative category, the 77,000-circulation Herald-Tribune joins other local and regional papers in edging out giants like the New York Times for Pulitzer gold this year. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Chicago Sun-Times and Newark's Star-Ledger won prizes for explanatory journalism, local reporting and feature writing, respectively.
"I think some of the best and most courageous journalism in the United States is produced in our smaller publications," St. John says. "But it always has been, and whether the Pulitzers are going to those papers this year or not, the writers, the people who are at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, are basically the same people who are at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Star-Ledger. It's the same quality of journalist, no matter what size the circulation."
Before coming to the Herald-Tribune in 2008, St. John, 50, worked in Tallahassee for Gannett as Florida Statehouse bureau chief. There, she covered the spate of hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 that resulted in massive insurance claims across the state. In the aftermath, big insurers left the state and insurance premiums skyrocketed. "Two governors doing their best with two different philosophies seemed unable to make any kind of change to turn that ship around," she says. Even without hurricanes in the next five years, insurance rates kept rising and companies kept leaving. "That left me and this paper and a lot of other people in Florida asking the question: Why?"
She set out to answer that question when she joined the Herald-Tribune, launching a two-year investigation into Florida's insurance industry. "It just kept getting bigger and bigger," she says. "We kept finding more and more we needed to say." Reviewing financial filings, she found that many insurers exhibited financial risk and were "barely capable of paying for house fires, let alone hurricanes," as she wrote in a February 2010 story.
She uncovered a "market of small, domestic, Florida-only companies" that sent money to the reinsurance industry to buy their own hurricane protection. "The majority of that coverage was coming from reinsurance companies based in Bermuda," she says.
So she went to Bermuda "to follow the dollar," chasing down elusive insurers with notebook and pencil in hand. Once there, she realized that to follow the money trail, she had to go much farther: to Europe. She traveled to Monte Carlo and attended the Rendez-Vous de Septembre, an annual convention where reinsurance bigwigs negotiate contracts at the height of hurricane season. "In Monte Carlo, there was no distinguishing of who I was and where I was from. I was a reporter; I could have been from the Financial Times as far as they knew. And by then I was fairly well-educated and spoke the lingo of the industry and could directly talk to these people and ask them direct questions and get direct answers."
The trips overseas were "a revelation," she says. "That is where the Florida risk is handled, and that's when we finally understood the full picture of what had happened in Florida." Most property insurance premiums, she wrote in an October 2010 article, "now leave Florida as unregulated payments to largely offshore reinsurers – companies that sell hurricane protection to insurers and that operate without rate control or consumer oversight." St. John discovered that these companies not only influenced premiums more than state insurers and state regulators; there was also a "perverse tendency for the reinsurance industry to hope for disaster."
About the need to travel to places like Bermuda and Monte Carlo, not exactly hardship posts, Paige said with a chuckle, "I bit the bullet. I suffered for the cause." Aside from sometimes crossing the bridge from Michigan into Canada for lunch when she worked in Detroit, she had never left the country before the insurance project.
St. John, who grew up both in Southern Illinois and the boonies outside Chicago, studied journalism at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville. "It started for me as a way to get an easy 'A' out of my heavy load of calculus and pre-med classes. And I just started doing it more and more." She worked at the campus paper, in time becoming editor. "I got so hooked," she recalls. "Eventually I had to face reality and had to switch majors."
She says she retains an interest in science, "not as a career, but I am now a computer geek in the newsroom." She adds, "Having the sciences background kind of prepared me for the analytical thinking that goes into looking now at SEC filings and peeling apart corporate documents and records."
St. John worked as a correspondent in Northern Michigan for the Associated Press – doing stories on things like elk hunting and fly fishing – and as an environment reporter for the Detroit News. "I had thought that I would be more of an outdoors, environment writer for my career. I swore I would never do business." She met her husband, John Wark, in 1990 while she was with the AP and he was an investigative reporter for the Detroit News. Wark himself was a Pulitzer finalist in 1987 for an Orlando Sentinel series on the fundraising practices of Shriners in North America. St. John says her husband "taught me what I know about investigative reporting."
Does Wark, who is now a media consultant, remember it that way? "I think she's being modest," he says, laughing. "If I did teach her anything useful about investigative reporting back when, I could be her student today. She knows that much more than I knew then."
Wark says his wife's reporting is aided by her deep sense of curiosity. "Paige is the daughter of an engineer and is fascinated by the way things work, and is capable of taking apart a car engine and putting it back together as much as she is capable of discerning how processes work in the world of government and finance," he says.
He emphasizes her facility with computers. "Paige is in an elite class of American journalists when it comes to computer-assisted reporting," he says. "She began doing it early on and is really very, very proficient at it." He says she can "slice and dice" information from different databases that exist on different platforms, and she "knows how to present it to the public in a way that's very digestible and seems quite simple."
As an example, the insurance series includes a tool that lets readers compare insurers by measures of financial strength. Another tool lets them calculate expected hurricane losses based on where they live and how their houses are built.
Wark says his wife is a "tireless worker" who starts crunching databases the moment she wakes up. "She's also a reporter who is dedicated to the old-fashioned gumshoe approach to reporting," he adds. "She gets out and she talks to people on the streets; she finds people wherever they happen to be doing their work."
Wark is from a family of journalists. His father, Thomas Wark, worked at the Detroit Free Press, New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer, and his mother, Lois Sutherland Wark, was an editor at the Free Press and the Inquirer. St. John says she married into a family with "high expectations," but one with "incredible understanding about why I'm never around, seldom take vacations and bring my laptop to family gatherings."
Says Wark, "We've missed her at times when she's been off chasing a story, but she's part of a big journalism family, and we all think that this work is very, very important for society."
He said he was "elated" when he heard his wife had won a Pulitzer. "I felt that it was Paige's turn, and this work has been so deserving of national recognition."
St. John wants that recognition to extend to her editor on the series, Chris Davis, and the paper's executive editor, Mike Connelly. "The ingredients to doing this kind of journalism go far beyond the reporter," she says. Connelly, she says, never set a deadline or withheld any resources. "All he said was, 'Dig deeper.' "
Correction: The original version of this article misstated the Sarasota Herald-Tribune's circulation.