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For her multipart series on the abuses and corruption of the Florida property-insurance industry, Paige St. John was awarded the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism. Her paper, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, was a finalist for the third time in four years, but this is the first time the newspaper won the coveted prize. The Pulitzer committee cited St. John’s “examination of weaknesses in the murky property-insurance system vital to Florida homeowners, providing handy data to assess insurer reliability and stirring regulatory action.”

St. John’s dogged quest for the truth willfully and artfully hidden by insurers led her to compile and analyze complex databases. She pored over thousands of pages of financial and brokerage reports and rate-increase filings. She traveled to Bermuda and Monte Carlo, tracking the billions insurers sent overseas. For more than two years, St. John interviewed, researched and calculated. Writing her findings took her another year. Her report was published in seven installments, from February to December 2010.

 

How and when did you realize you wanted to investigate the property-insurance industry in Florida?

Covering the statehouse and state politics, I was writing about the difficulty of people getting claims paid, rate hikes, policy cancellations. Two governors and several legislatures, each trying to do some kind of “reform” and it still wasn’t getting fixed.

That took me to 2008, when there were no hurricanes for several years, yet the situation kept deteriorating. I thought, We need to look at this deeper. What’s not being told? What’s beneath the surface?

When were you hired by the Herald-Tribune?

I came to the paper in late 2008. I used the project in my job interview. At the time we had a populist governor, [Charlie] Crist, who accused the insurance industry of colluding to keep rates high. We set out to investigate that, but we never did finish, because what we found instead was so much more complicated, and the problems were so much deeper than that.

We showed there were $9 billion in profits in the last several years when the industry was claiming they were losing money. How could they be losing money? There were no hurricanes. It defies logic. They were losing because they were paying so much to themselves and in reinsurance. The power and control, the money and the profits were way offstage and offshore in places like Monte Carlo. Just about everything people had been led to believe was a lie.

You had the financial chops to find, read and analyze the data?

It comes. It’s not rocket science, and even if it were rocket science, we could figure it out. That’s what I love about journalism. I started as a feature reporter, then environmental reporter. I swore I would never do business. I learned insurance by covering hurricanes on the ground — helicoptering with [former governor] Jeb Bush to disaster zones, talking to people holed up in emergency centers. I was introduced to it a piece at a time. That’s probably why it took so long. Learning the language was the hardest part. They don’t speak English — the financial language — reinsurers, especially, they have their own lingo.

What is it like, working on such a large project?

The laptop is ever present, and loaded with databases waiting to be built and parsed. By the bed. At the coffee shop. At Thanksgiving. At my father’s funeral (well, not during the funeral itself but in-between at the house when there were quiet moments). Usually I’m crunching a database and writing code. Creating computer scripts to crack open and decipher large databases is like solving a murder mystery, and I’ll worry the problem over and over until 2 a.m. and fall asleep in frustration, then wake up at dawn (there are horses to feed, remember) thinking, “Aha! It’s the nulls!” and tweak the script and sure enough, that’s where the problem was. Geeks of the world will understand that bit about the null value. I’ve a friend who says “There isn’t anything that screws up something more than nothing.”

How many people were working with you on the project?

I’m sorry. I use the word “we.” It was a one-person project.

You didn’t have anybody working with you to crunch the numbers?

No. I do my own number-crunching. I’m a big believer in that. You have to get intimate with your project. You have to know it at every level. Crunching numbers for me is like doing an interview: you can ask questions of the database that only you could do if you’re the one who created the database. I was finding records from different sources and putting them together in ways that they hadn’t been designed for or that people hadn’t thought to do yet — a lot of work, but a very simple question: Where’s the money going? Follow the money.

What was your biggest challenge?

The writing. Other than dealing with the personal, psychological effect of a soul-sucking project, something every investigative reporter does. Almost three years. My father died, life moved on. My daughter turned 15. I feel like I missed her middle school years completely, and meanwhile, I hadn’t published anything. The self-doubt that had me waking up in the middle of the night with sweats. But the hardest part was the writing. Trying to take very opaque, arcane information that people had no common references. Reinsurance— whoever heard of reinsurance, let alone what it was and how it worked.

Were you able to effect any change as a result of your reporting?

On a lot of different levels. We’ve had some success in reform legislation. Because we shed light on certain practices, a bill proposed during the current legislative session was killed. It would have allowed steep rate hikes with the state-run carrier. We’ve added another dimension to the public policy debate in Florida. There may be some people who say that the insurance industry is losing money and needs to raise rates to survive, but now there are legislators and regulators who are challenging their claims. That is more subtle, but I think in the longer run will do more public service.

What’s next?

We’re scouting out two other projects that have nothing to do with insurance, because I’m not an insurance writer.

How did you decide to become a journalist?

I was one of those reckless kids that cut classes in college to work at the campus paper. It affected me early on. I grew up with Woodward and Bernstein. I was in junior high when Watergate was breaking and the whole Nixon stuff. I remember the shock and the sense of betrayal. I remember people talking about how [the Watergate scandal] had changed the political outlook of America and created this sense of cynicism. Instead of just being cynical, I just felt compelled to help tell the truth.

So you never wanted to do anything else?

No. Not really, once I got hooked. It’s the adrenaline rush. You’re always in a front-row seat to whatever’s going on. You meet the coolest people, the most interesting people, whether they’re hookers or multibillionaires, they’re fascinating people. Day to day you’re doing what other people hope to do after they retire.

What’s the best part about being your age?

The maturity level. A reporter is a collection of tricks, tips, tools. You learn from experience, and everything you do gives you more ammunition to take into the next project. It’s so rewarding to be at this phase. I’m still learning, but I can push for yet bigger and bigger undertakings that I never would have encountered before. It is nice to finally be reaching my stride.

After 30 years! What do you know now that you didn’t know when you were 35?

I thought I knew it all at 35. I know so much less.

I think 30 was the year, looking back. I remember being really impressed with 30. I was a correspondent for the Associated Press. I thought that this was it. This was the cat’s meow in life.

Life throws you curves, knocks you down. I’ve had a very up and down career. I’ve started over. I was involved in the newspaper strikes in Detroit in ’96. That started me from ground zero — no, we don’t use that phrase any more — it started me from the beginning again. I was ushered out. They were bitter, difficult times. It wasn’t a personal thing. And I had a baby that year. I wound up taking a small job in a small newspaper down in northern Florida. I had to work my way up again.

You have one daughter?

Yes, she’s 15.

She grew up underneath my desk in the newsroom, whatever newsroom I happened to be in. The nights are always late, especially when I was covering the Legislature. She got to sit on the laps of lawmakers who would always entertain her. She’d go to Gov. Jeb Bush’s Christmas parties. Children of journalists, I think, grow up with an altered impression of the world. They think there are no barriers.

Haley has always remarked that she thinks I’m a spy, like for the CIA, but that I spy for the public. I love her take on that, and the sense that what reporters do serves a broader and higher purpose, even if the life may not be quite as exciting as she believes it is.

You probably don’t have time to go to the movies—

No, I don’t. I try to read. In fact, because of the Pulitzers, I’ve gotten all the books. I want to get them autographed. Those are the real rock stars of the awards.

What’s most important to you in life?

My daughter. Since the day she was born I’ve been in love with her. My husband probably might feel bad, except he probably has the same feeling. She is just our treasure.

 

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  • Jadzia Imani May 26, 2011 at 8:25 am

    Thank you for this Diane!

    Reply