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Inweekly Turns 20: Part 3

2009-2014

Inweekly celebrates its 20th anniversary this month. Rather than attempting to cram two decades of articles into one issue, we’ve decided to break it up and cover over our four July issues the key moments of each five years of our history.

We’ve already covered the fall of the powerful W.D. Childers and the real history of the Maritime Park. This week, we share how Inweekly went from a pesky local publication to a newspaper with a national reputation. We will close the series next week with how we’ve reconnected to our roots as a community advocate over the past five years.

We hope you enjoy this journey down memory lane.

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On the National Stage
By Rick Outzen

On July 1, 2009, we celebrated our 10th anniversary, and while we appreciated the improbable milestone, the staff was exhausted. Two weeks earlier, our air conditioning system had blown up, forcing us to become vagabond journalists publishing the paper from the cubicles of a nearby CPA firm while we waited for a new compressor to be shipped.

To add to the misery, our two ancient Macs that were used by our art director and production manager to create our issues died on the same day. We cannibalized the two to build one working computer and borrowed another from an advertising agency.

That was the life of our alt-weekly newspaper—always a crisis, always the underdog. However, events would happen over the next year that would propel our weekly onto the national stage.

Hot, Humid Thursday Night
At dusk on a hot, humid Thursday night eight days later, a beat-up red van drove onto the front yard of the large two-story, ranch-style house owned by Bud and Melanie Billings on a secluded tract of land in Beulah. When the van pulled away 10 minutes later, the couple was dead, and nine special needs children, ages 4-11, were left alone in the house.

Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan held several press conferences over the next six days as the suspects were arrested in waves. He appeared on several national television shows giving updates as the investigation progressed while the community awaited the grand jury indictments.

The arrests were a turning point for Sheriff Morgan, whom the daily newspaper’s editors appeared to be doing their best to make a one-term wonder. The PNJ had been blistering the ECSO over a series of incidents involving the K-9 unit.

After a Department of Justice report found several discrepancies with the ECSO’s K-9 dog unit, Sheriff Morgan had taken the dogs off the street until new policies and procedures could be written. A month later, the dogs were back, but it wasn’t the end of the unit’s problems.

On June 15, 2009, a glitch in the door releases of a K-9 car allowed a dog to get out and attack a woman at the Heritage Oaks Mobile Home Park. Just over a week later, on June 23, another K-9 dog got out of a cruiser due to a similar glitch and entered a Lowe’s Home Improvement store to follow its handler.

To compound his problems with the daily, Morgan was developing an aggressive strategy to deal with prostitution. “Dear John” letter had been drafted to be sent to registered owners of vehicles “involved in an arrest for violation(s) of Florida’s laws prohibiting prostitution.” The letter warned that a person’s car “can be seized” if used in violation of the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act.

The daily newspaper had jumped all over Morgan because the Forfeiture Act only applies if the vehicle were used in the commission of a felony. Prostitution and solicitation are misdemeanors. The paper’s July 9 editorial, the day of the murders, was titled “County sheriff should lead and not mislead.”

How he and his staff handled the Billings investigation obliterated the PNJ’s attacks and quickly made Morgan the most popular elected officials in Escambia County, maybe in all of Northwest Florida, and one of the most recognized sheriffs in the country (“Humdinger,” 8/20/09).

Enter the Beast
Inweekly initially didn’t cover the homicides since we rarely covered crime, but when Patrick “Poff” Gonzalez was arrested for the murders Sunday, my inbox was filled with emails from locals who knew the self-defense instructor who graduated from Gulf Breeze High School in the ’80s. We posted everything on the blog—breaking page-view records, attracting even more information and earning the attention of the national media.

Suddenly, this little newspaper was competing not only with the PNJ and WEAR-TV but also with CNN, CBS, NBC, Time and Newsweek. As the arrest of Pam Wiggins was being announced, I received an email from Mike Finkel, a writer for National Geographic whose award-winning memoir “True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa” was later made into a movie starring Jonah Hill and James Franco. Though he lived in Montana, his sister was married to Destin Mayor Craig Barker.

“The family discussion, over the last week, has, of course, been all about the Billings’ murders,” wrote Finkel. “Your blog is often the go-to place for the latest updates; in fact, I’m now addicted to your updates as well; your site is now bookmarked on my toolbar.”

Finkel told me that his college roommate, Randall Lane, was an editor at the website The Daily Beast and had asked him to look into writing a story on the Billings case. He asked if he could recommend me instead.

“I’ve got other projects on my plate,” Finkel said. “You know the area and the people. Who knows, there might even be a book deal in this?”

Worried about being played, I called attorney Mike Papantonio, whose Ring of Fire Radio was syndicated nationally and who appeared regularly on the news networks. He yelled at me, “The Daily Beast is huge! Rick, people kill to get published on that site.”

The Daily Beast was a news reporting and opinion website launched in October 2008 and published by Tina Brown, former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. It was a much hipper version of The Huffington Post with more attitude. The Beast had over three million unique visitors per month.

Lane was a New Yorker with a deep voice that had a touch of sarcasm. I hadn’t had a boss for 12 years. Though I’d written a few pieces for other publications over the years, I was just as skeptical of him as he was of me.

The Daily Beast editor wanted whatever I had that hadn’t been reported yet, the inside scoop. I put together a piece with an odd assortment of facts, but none of the national media had picked up any of it yet. Lane wasn’t satisfied. The writing was too matter of fact.

I reworked the story adding more local color and voices and sent it off. No reply. I repeatedly called Lane, and I went straight to voicemail. It was getting late. I had been up since 4 a.m. and hadn’t eaten since noon.

Finally, I got an email from someone else at The Daily Beast: “Hi Rick. My name is Jane Spencer, and I’m managing editor of The Daily Beast. Randall broke his wrist in a softball game tonight, so I’m picking up your story from him.”

Spencer and I talked over the phone, trying to shape the story to what The Daily Beast expected. I felt the fact that Bud Billings once owning a strip club was huge and would be big news nationally the next morning, but Spencer wasn’t happy with the piece. And frankly, I don’t blame her. Spencer had too much else already on her plate for the Friday edition of The Beast without having to deal with a first-time contributor. I chalked off my brief Beast experience as something that was a nice gesture by Finkel but probably something fated not to happen.

Who loses their editor to a softball injury? The newspaper gods had decided national exposure wasn’t in my future. The next morning, WEAR’s Mollye Barrows broke the strip club ownership on “Good Morning America.”

However, Lane and The Beast had learned their lesson about not listening to my investigative instincts, and over the next month, we would post some of the most-read stories on the crime. When I look back at my reporting on the story for The Daily Beast, I see how much I have grown as a writer and how much this town helped me with tips and encouragement. There was so much I didn’t understand about law enforcement and crime reporting back then.

The Billings case was also the first time that I had been attacked for my reporting nationally. Nancy Grace and other networks went after me that I was only reporting hearsay. However, when the State Attorney’s Office released the transcripts of its interviews with those arrested and several witnesses, my reporting was vindicated. I was even profiled in The New York Times.

BP Oil Spill
Nine months later, I would team up again with Lane and The Daily Beast to investigate the most massive man-made environmental disaster in US history, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. On April 20, 2010, an oil platform located 41 miles off of Louisiana exploded, killing 11 workers and spewing millions of gallons in the Gulf of Mexico. By the time the well was capped in September 2010, an estimated 4.9 million barrels were spilled (“Spill, Baby, Spill,” 5/6/10).

Again, Inweekly took on the national news networks, and with the help of locals, we broke news regularly. I was even the first reporter kicked out of a BP meeting.

On May 1, 2010, Gov. Charlie Crist came to Pensacola to see firsthand the preparations for the impending oil slick that was approaching Florida. Before Gov. Crist arrived, the Area Unified Command met with BP officials and county leaders to discuss strategies.

When Joe Oliveri of BP identified me as a reporter, I was asked by the DEP communications director, to leave the room. As I was led out, I overheard Florida DEP Secretary Michael Sole telling a BP representative, “I’m going to take care of you.”

Instead of leaving the building, I stood by the elevator, waiting for Crist’s entourage. When the governor arrived, we shook hands in the hallway, and he invited me to walk in with him. No one stopped me from coming back into the room with the governor’s arm around my shoulder, and I got to hear Coast Guard Capt. Steve Poulin, Sec. Sole, Oliveri and Gary Stewart, general manager of BP Governmental Affairs, brief the governor and local officials, thus scooping the other media.

The same day, BP representatives held town hall meetings across the Gulf Coast, urging commercial fishermen to take a $5,000 buyout for losses in exchange for, what many considered, releases from any future lawsuits. I went on “MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann” to show the public that the waiver forms were much more than just a boilerplate form that had accidentally been inserted into the claim packet.

I told Olbermann that BP had several environmental problems in recent years. In 2007, the oil company had cut ad deal with the Justice Department and agreed to pay $373 million in fines and restitution to settle criminal charges stemming from a deadly explosion in Texas, an oil spill in Alaska and allegations of price-fixing in the nation’s propane markets.

Meanwhile, BP began holding community town halls. We attended several and figured out the script—young, attractive female stood in front of the anxious, frustrated crowds offering no information other than giving out a toll-free number. We began to call the spokespersons “BP Barbies”—a moniker others picked up.

We also talked with those who had dealt with BP disasters in Texas and Alaska and found a pattern. The oil giant would: 1) Identify local leaders to defend them; 2) Have scripted communications to the public that mitigated the extent of the damages during the initial stages and then gradually release more severe information; 3) Separate the company from the damages; and 4) Hand out a lot of small settlement checks to get positive press.

We saw all four deployed here and earned international attention for publishing the BP spin strategy (“What to Expect from BP,” 5/13/10).

Then another story dropped into my lap. Local attorney Ryan Hatler called and said he had a connection to one of the workers who died on Deepwater Horizon. Blair Manuel grew up in his hometown of Eunice, La. His mother might be able to get me an interview with his family, but I first had to earn her confidence and approval.

The catch was I had to be in her kitchen by 8 a.m. Saturday morning. I got up at 3 a.m. and made the five-hour drive. We ate fresh boudin from the Eunice Superette & Slaughterhouse with saltine crackers and Coke, and I won her over and got the interview (“Fighting for Papa Bear,” 5/20/10), which put a personal face on the explosion.

The Daily Beast posted everything. When Brown and Lane appeared on “Morning Joe” and other news programs, they touted me as their Gulf Coast correspondent. The newspaper had become firmly entrenched on the national stage.

The Daily Beast would later buy Newsweek magazine, which didn’t turn out well. Brown would leave the organization in late 2013. Lane would move on to become the chief content officer for Forbes and has stayed close, even tipping me off to his favorite NYC dive bar, Jimmy’s Corner Bar, when I was in the Big Apple for “Morning Joe” last year.

Our time with The Daily Beast proved that this little newspaper could have a big voice.

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Breaking New Ground
2009-2014

“A Cycle of Injustice?” by Ryne Ziemba, 3/25/10: A 1974 incident involving the death of Wendel Sylvester Blackwell brought to mind the frustrations felt by those calling for further investigation into the death of Victor Steen.

“Bringing Bobby Home,” by Sena Maddison, 11/11/10: A special Veterans Day cover story on the U.S. Army’s efforts to identify remains of Bobby Bishop, a World War II bomber pilot who went missing on a mission over Germany, and to return them to his family.

“Hoodwinked?” by Rick Outzen, 12/9/10: After a month-long investigation and a review of hundreds of pages of documents, the newspaper discovered that Scott Davison, the frontman for Maritime Park Development Partners, misrepresented his development team and financial capabilities in order to win the contract to build the maritime park.

“Escambia County’s Secret,” by Hana Frenette, 1/20/11: Escambia County had become the poster child for the AIDS epidemic in Florida, ranking second in the state for most reported cases of women and children and ranked 12th out of 67 counties for the most overall reported HIV/AIDS cases.

“Tarnished Turnaround,” by Rick Outzen, 4/7/11: The newspaper won the Sunshine State award on its investigation of School Superintendent Malcolm Thomas’ failed efforts to make Warrington Middle School the highest-achieving middle school in the district.

“When Yellow Ribbons Aren’t Enough,” by Rick Outzen, 9/22/11: Soldiers shared their efforts to combat the high rate of suicide among veterans, particularly troops that have returned home from Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Inweekly Tackles Race: “Black & White,” by Rick Outzen, 2/23/12: “Race & the Classroom,” by Jeremy Morrison, 6/12/12; “A Tale of Two Schools,” by T.S. Strickland, 7/19/12: We made a commitment in 2012 to covering racial disparities in Escambia County. For decades, Pensacola had been a segregated community, mostly by choice. However, the gaps in income, employment, education and health had grown too big to ignore.

“Dysfunction Junction,” by Jeremy Morrison, 8/19/12: The Pensacola City Council and Mayor Ashton Hayward were having some issues as they learned to coexist in the city’s new form of government. City Hall melted down into slugfests, showdowns and wall-to-wall drama.

“Generations of Sound,” by Jessica Forbes, 2/28/13: Our reporter Jessica Forbes spent weeks researching the musical history of the neighborhood. Her research helped Belmont-DeVilliers get the 203rd Mississippi Blues Trail Marker earlier this year.

“Not Invisible Anymore,” by Rick Outzen, 4/4/13: Showings of the documentary “The Invisible War” led to us tackling the difficult subject of sexual assault in the U.S. military. We spoke with two local veterans who had been raped while serving. Their stories echoed those of service members in the film who found the process of investigating and prosecuting sexual assaults in the military woefully inadequate and, more often than not, neglectful.

“Eat Street,” by Sarah McCartan, 8/22/13:  Because we had an office full of food truck enthusiasts, Inweekly decided to take a look at the state of affairs for food trucks in Pensacola and how we could build a food truck culture here.

“Faces of HIV,” by Sarah McCartan, 9/11/13: In 2012, there were 5,388 new cases of HIV reported in the state of Florida. Of these cases, 66 were reported right here in Escambia County. Inweekly covered the “The Faces of HIV” special project that helped to tell the stories of those with HIV.

“First Comes Love, Then Comes,” by Jessica Forbes, 10/3/13: The newspaper presented the stories of multiple local same-sex couples who have traveled to other states to marry.

“Inside the Chaos,” by Rick Outzen, 5/8/14: On April 30, 2014, about a half-hour before midnight, the Central Booking and Detention Facility, which housed an estimated 595 inmates, exploded. The newspaper interviewed inmates to find out what happened.

“A Shame Before God,” by Rick Outzen,  6/26/14: The residents of Wedgewood were tired of being sick. They were tired of seeing their loved ones die of cancer, renal failure and other illnesses. They were tired of living under the shadow of a 130-foot mound of debris with its dust and stench that permeated the neighborhood.