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An investigation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Herald-Tribune investigations editor Michael Braga, center, makes a toast to the newsroom after it was announced that he won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for his role in a year-long collaboration with the Tampa Bay Times detailing horrific conditions in Florida's mental health hospitals.. STAFF PHOTO / DAN WAGNER
Herald-Tribune investigations editor Michael Braga, center, makes a toast to the newsroom after it was announced that he won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for his role in a year-long collaboration with the Tampa Bay Times detailing horrific conditions in Florida’s mental health hospitals. STAFF PHOTO / DAN WAGNER

Established in 1917 by provisions in the will of late newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer and administered by Columbia University in New York City, Pulitzer Prizes in 21 categories are given annually in recognition for achievements in journalism, literature and music in the United States.

Sarasota Herald-Tribune reporter Michael Braga was announced as a 2016 winner in the investigative reporting category for his five-part piece “Insane. Invisible. In Danger,” which exposed the conditions of mental health facilities in Florida after the state cut $100 million in funding. It was co-authored by the Tampa Bay Tribune’s Leonora LaPeter Anton and Anthony Cormier.

We asked Braga and Herald-Tribune Executive Editor Bill Church about the process of writing the award-winning piece and the impact the win has had on the Sarasota community’s view of local journalism.

GateHouse Newsroom: Obviously the journalism community goes nuts over Pulitzers — what’s the local reaction been? Do you think your readers understand the significance?

Bill Church: First, we’re thrilled for Michael Braga, Anthony Cormier and the teams from the Herald-Tribune and Tampa Bay Times. Readers have been spontaneous and generous in their praise because our audience is smart, engaged and astute in understanding the importance of great journalism. They get it.

Michael Braga: The community is really interested in mental health and wants conditions to improve. You can see that from the letters to the editor. But the people we really needed to reach were state legislators. We did not think they would respond so favorably at first. We thought they were all about cutting services and didn’t care about helping people cope with their illnesses. But in the end, legislators came up with enough extra money to hire 160 employees, which should make life a little better for mentally ill residents.

GHN: Do you think it elevated local opinions about the style of reporting they can expect from the Herald-Tribune?

MB: I think we’ve been operating on fairly high level ever since Matt Doig and Chris Davis developed our investigative team back in 2005. Our reporters have been finalists for Pulitzers in 2008 and 2010 and we won a Pulitzer in 2011. Although we have lot a lot of talented people leave for other newspapers, we retain a core group that grew up in the tradition and is fighting hard to maintain the quality.

GHN: What is your budgeting process like for investigative pieces like this one? Any suggestions for other newsrooms on planning such a huge project?

BC: We put the journalism first. If budget issues arise, we talk about it. But we’re not in the business of saying “no” if it is important and urgent.

GHN: What did you have to let go of in order to prioritize work on this project? How did you manage to stay focused with so many other newsroom demands?

MB: The only way to manage a project like this work while working a beat is to give up your evenings and weekends, I did that with my first series on flipping fraud in 2009. This time, I was a member of the I-team and had only two responsibilities — to work on the project and to write a real estate blog. I would work on the project from Sunday to Thursday and write the blog on Friday and Saturday.

GHN: What was your average day like while you were working on the piece?

MB: On a yearlong project like this — there’s really very little free time. You’re always working and your days are varied. We started out by googling, doing clip searches and sending out Freedom of Information Act requests. When the data came in, we either analyzed it directly or built spreadsheets by hand. Sometimes building those spreadsheets could take weeks at a time. Those were pretty tedious weeks. Trying to find the names of mentally ill patients and their families required real sleuthing and the use of social media. Then there were the interviews and trips around the state to meet with experts and get video.

GHN: What do you think the most critical skill is for a reporting team looking to tackle a major investigative piece?

BC: They need to know how to work together. There is no set formula. It’s a mix of passion, intellect, vision, courage, luck, and mad science.

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