Peter Schorsch, publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites including SaintPetersBlog.com and FloridaPolitics.com as well as the Sunburn newsletter, is this week’s featured guest. In our conversation, we talk about how Peter got started writing about politics, how he manages to be a blogger and a consultant, and about what issues he thinks will dominate the 2018 news cycle.
(And yes, that picture is the “head shot” Peter sent us.)
Chris Cate: Welcome to the Fluent in Floridian podcast featuring the Sunshine State’s brightest leaders talking about the issues most important to the people of Florida and it’s millions of weekly visits. I’m your host Chris Cate and in this episode brought to you by Salter Mitchell PR I talk to Peter Schorsch, publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites including saintpetersblog.com, floridapolitics.com and Sunburn. In our conversation, we’ll talk about how Peter got started writing politics, how [00:00:30] he manages to be a reporter and a consultant, and about what issues he thinks will dominate the 2018 news cycle. And you can hear it all right now.
Peter, thanks for being on the show. I wanted to have you on because your name and your media outlets come up so often whenever there’s a conversation about Florida politics. But I’m not sure how many really know you or what you do. So, can you start by telling me how you describe yourself? Are you a journalist, an entrepreneur? What’s the best word to describe what you do?
Peter Schorsch The answer [00:01:00] to that is probably not the answer you’re expecting. But I’ve come to like a Buddhist realization that I just am. And I try to avoid labels because they’re constricting. Journalist, I believe, is something like a Samurai and it’s a certain code that you have to ascribe to and I don’t, but I’m certainly in the journalism business. And I’m certainly a publisher because I sign the paychecks at the end of the day. [00:01:30] And I’m certainly an entrepreneur. But I find, and this is something that just happened with the maturity that God has given me over the last couple of years that I didn’t have for most of my life, that if I try to fit what’s after the comma … Peter Schorsch, duh-duh-duh, it’s both limiting and misleading. So, I’m not a one-word person. I’m not Madonna or Bono or something like that. But I just [00:02:00] am, and I’m just Peter, if that makes any sense.
Chris Cate: No, I get that. How early in life did you realize you wanted to work in politics and at what point did you actually start writing about politics?
Peter Schorsch: I won a student council race in fifth grade, lost a lot of races after that, won some more. So I knew early on I wanted to be in politics. It took again maturity to realize that I wasn’t a president. [00:02:30] I learned that at FSU. I wanted to be FSU president. I was very involved on campus. I was probably the most involved Greek on campus during that time. But, Nick [Iarussi 00:02:41] was also there and Nick Iarussi was Nick Iarussi then and he is now, just gleaming, riding around in a Camaro. And I remember him calling me, ’cause we were gonna run against each other inside the Greek vote. And he called me and was like, “This isn’t gonna happen for you, but you can be part of my team.” [00:03:00] And I learned then that I was a better consultant, I was a better vice president. Not necessarily a behind the scenes guy, but just … I was a very strong beta when it came to politics.
Which was a big realization, that I was … and it developed more in my life that I realized I was better being a board member rather than the board chair. And eschewing that ambition is not natural for people that want to be in politics. Everybody … [00:03:30] I was talking to my good friend Dean Cannon last night and I said something to him like, “Well, I’m never gonna get to be speaker like you did, and that was great.” And he’s like, “Yeah, but I’m not gonna be governor.” So, that ambition is always there for people in politics and it wasn’t necessarily there for me. I was always able to write, not very well, but I was interested in journalism by about 11th grade, and then I got a great job while still in college, $6.00 an hour, at a consulting firm [00:04:00] writing about politics.
I never had to do the volunteering on campaigns or anything like that. And I thought it was all the money in the world. And then Stan Marshall, the now deceased late, great man at the James Madison Institute, saw a column I wrote for the Tallahassee Democrat and invited me up to Tallahassee. I was back down in St. Petersburg. He told me I could be a writer, and I went to work for him and he taught me a lot about the craft. And [00:04:30] that’s really when I shifted more from politics to writing.
Chris Cate: Forgive me for not knowing this, but did you grow up in Florida? I actually don’t know where you were born.
Peter Schorsch: Yeah. I was born and raised in St. Petersburg. I’m a rarity. I think people my age are the first of that generation that really grew up and were born in St. Petersburg and Tampa. I think that’s why some of those cities and these places are doing well. [00:05:00] People like myself, we’re not leaving for Atlanta, we’re not leaving for Charlotte. And that’s why I think St. Pete’s booming because, not the only reason why because I’m there, but because a professional class decided to stay where they were born and those deep roots in places like Orlando and St. Petersburg and Tampa and other places in Florida are starting to boom now because of that phenomenon.
Chris Cate: Absolutely, I agree with that. Going back to your writing [00:05:30] a little bit. What was the first political story that you wrote that you really felt made a difference in the campaign?
Peter Schorsch: Well, it would be two twin areas of writing, but it was when I started writing about the St. Petersburg mayoral race in 2009. I remember another journalist had described me at the end of it as “Peter Schorsch, a one-man wrecking crew.” I [00:06:00] know we shifted the tone and the direction of the entire mayoral race there. But at the same time, ’cause this is 2009, we were writing about Governor Charlie Crist and the insurgent Marco Rubio. And even though I’m a Charlie Crist guy, I was going to those tea party meetings that you saw, the big healthcare fights and everything like that. And I was saying, “Hey, this guy is going to win. Rubio is going to win.” I think I said in August of 2009 [00:06:30] that I thought Rubio was going to win.
So, I didn’t impact that race like we did the St. Pete election, but that’s when I realized our analysis would be something that we could do a lot of. I think we were kind of proven right. We were able to, on the local level make an impact, and then on the state or the national level I felt like we had some authority to write [00:07:00] about politics.
Chris Cate: I think one of the reasons your name comes up so often in conversations about Florida politics is that you do, not only cover them as a journalist or however, whatever word you want to describe it, but you do also consult. So how do you balance the responsibilities when you’re in a kind of reporting role and a consultant role on the same topic?
Peter Schorsch: It’s a constant struggle. I tell people I feel like Michael Corleone in Godfather III where [00:07:30] he tells the Vatican, “I’ve sold the casinos. We’re trying to go completely legitimate.” although I wouldn’t describe a journalist as opposed from a consultant that, that’s necessarily legitimacy. Especially when the chief advisor to the president right now is someone who owned a publishing outlet. So I don’t want to be compared to him, but I think Steve Bannon’s just three years ahead of me in [00:08:00] terms of, he formed a company and then went on the inside. Like I, if … going back to this conversation with Dean Cannon, I could see now being … I could go back inside if I wanted to. If someone would have me I’d be intrigued to go inside and serve as a senior advisor for a couple of years and help shape policy or something like that, although people would have a field day with that.
A lot of times I just [00:08:30] try and put people at ease, especially the political folks, that we’re starting off the record. I think I’m the only journalist who’s a member of the Governor’s Club. And I know it turns some people’s heads when I’m in there and I see things. And I get … But the upside is, I do get access to some … Like right now, with House Speaker Corcoran and speaker-designate Oliva, I’m [00:09:00] probably the only person in the press corps that hangs out with these guys on a social level. And it informs my writing and it helps me explain, especially this phenomenon about the transiency between Governor and Speaker … it helps inform my writing. So, I try and get where I think the public would like to go and see what happens, fundraisers, consulting meetings, etc. [00:09:30] And within reason and with comfort to the subject, try and pull out some of those nuggets to show people.
I would really like one session to just follow around a speaker or a president and to have it where it’s completely off the record as it’s happening so that the real-time developments don’t impact any policy developments. But, at the end of it, do game change or double down [00:10:00] for Florida politics, kind of explain what really goes on during a session.
Chris Cate: If you were working behind the scenes in the government, how do you think you could shake things up a little bit? And would you look at Florida or would it be more of a national job that you would think you would want to be a part of?
Peter Schorsch: It would definitely be Florida. A lot of people have asked, like my mom, “Why don’t you go national?” Number one, Florida is a huge market. It’s a country [00:10:30] unto itself. I avoid writing about national stuff because I’m not an authority on it. I don’t know healthcare policy, but I do know Florida politics and I try and keep it limited that way. So, it definitely would be Florida. I think, believe it or not, I think the advantage … the thing that I would really push for is, and I would have loved for Will Weatherford to run for governor, in terms of a policy thing [00:11:00] is this idea of generational poverty. And I would work on having some of these very elite, mostly millionaire lawmakers find a better sense of empathy with what is truly going on out there with the average Floridian, and try and push them. That’s what I really prided myself on my political career, is that I’ve tried to infuse my mostly Republican clients with [00:11:30] a sense of do-gooderism, whether it be liberal or conservative ideas.
Chris Cate: A writer whose work I love is Hunter S. Thompson, I’m pretty familiar with Hunter S. Thompson. One of the many things I love about him is that he was so unique … or, one of the things that made him so unique at least was that he couldn’t help but become a part of the stories that he was writing about. It was really his art. For your critics who say that you can’t be both a reporter and a consultant, would you say that the ability to do both is actually part of your art form? [00:12:00] Or do you think that is a fair critique?
Peter Schorsch: I think it’s a fair critique. I’ve never said people are wrong about their assessment. I just don’t think that it’s the only way to skin the cat here. The idea that you have to be this very, and it started I think in the ’60s and ’70s, and it’s really through the journalists that are dominant in the state right now, this detachment. No, I’m more … I would like to be part of that new journalism [00:12:30] that you’re embedded with it. I love, I think it’s … I forget what his name … I think it’s Ted Conover … who actually became a prison guard for a year. He dropped out of journalism and went inside and was a prison guard at Sing Sing and wrote about it. They didn’t know he was a journalist or anything like that, and he wrote about it. To me that is the ultimate journalism ’cause you’re really in your [00:13:00] subjects’ shoes at that point. He had to live on the very crappy wages that a prison guard was making. I thought that, that was fantastic.
I think that journalism has an attraction to the meta-nature of itself. We like to write about … and I think that’s something we do more … we write about other journalists and journalism much more. We write about the navel gazing. I wish there was a little bit more of that from [00:13:30] other people. There are public editors and TV critics and journalism critics at the big national publications, the Times, the Post, etc. There really isn’t … there’s a dearth of that in Florida journalism. The last person I can really think of that was really doing a lot of it was Eric Deggans at the Tampa Bay Times. He was writing … there were a lot of meta-stories about them. I think there needs to be a lot more media criticism, good and bad, [00:14:00] in Florida political journalism and journalism at large.
Chris Cate: And that bring up a good transition here. At a time when newspapers are losing readers and fighting to stay afloat, you’ve somehow expanded, you’ve somehow managed to expand your media outlet and hire more reporters. So what are you offering readers that traditional media outlets just aren’t giving their readers?
Peter Schorsch: I’ve tried to be nice about this, but I think over the last six months [00:14:30] I’ve really come to … I think that we are operating in some bizarro universe. I read our stuff all the time and I am shocked that it doesn’t appear in other places. Not that our work doesn’t get … and influence other stories, but that we will write story and the Tampa Bay Times, even Politico Florida, don’t write about it. And it’s simply a matter of band-width for them, especially for the newspapers. And yet I think it’s highly important. [00:15:00] What are we offering? Well, we’re offering hyper-local intense coverage of legislative campaigns, which the newspapers don’t offer anymore. But to me, I look at the battle for House District 54 as a battle of multimillion dollar backed campaigns backed up by their own army of special interests, and the trial lawyers versus the Chamber of Commerce. And I am amazed [00:15:30] that the local newspaper doesn’t find that much more interesting, because clearly somebody is coming to our site who finds it interesting.
We have Influence magazines, The Governmental Affairs Magazine, and why did I do that? It’s done in other states. Why didn’t somebody else write this magazine? Why didn’t the Tallahassee Democrat write about this stuff? And that’s really … when you talk about [00:16:00] a multibillion dollar industry, we cover every other multibillion dollar industry in this state and yet you don’t have a reported talking about the governmental affairs industry. We write about laws firms. We write about doctors. But we don’t write about lobbyists as an industry. We write gotcha stuff when the influence a singular piece of legislation. I just found that interesting.
So, I’m amazed, I’m truly amazed at the stuff that we write about that other’s don’t, because I know that there is a hunger [00:16:30] for information about it.
Chris Cate: And how have you found that readers want to consume their news? Because you’ve got news letters, a website, a web blog. Not only today but moving forward, how do you see more readers consuming their news? It seems like holding a newspaper in your hands is … those times are kind of past, as I don’t see that often very much anymore.
Peter Schorsch: Well, I think people need to think 10 steps ahead here. You look at virtual reality and think about the incredible [00:17:00] story-telling capabilities of that. My daughter loves it. She’s amazed when we put on the Galaxy gear. And I know no one at a newspaper in Florida is thinking how do we tell stories in VR? You know, 3D and hologramming technology is basically around the corner. How do you tell stories like that? While you have these people struggling with how to make a newspaper work, The [00:17:30] Oculist down in Miami is thinking about how do we tell stories, how do we deliver content, movies, etc. That’s where we know it’s going in five or six years, and there are very few technology people thinking about that at the big newspapers in Florida.
In the meantime, I think the number one trend is kind of what Axios is doing. They’re the guys that jumped off from Politico, Jim VandeHei, Mike [00:18:00] Allen. They’ve got a very simple website and they push a lot of their content via newsletter and email. And I will say Politico, the flagship before five years ago and tried to offer hyperactive coverage of things, and it was because we followed VandeHei and Mike Allen.
I will tell you that’s where I’m pushing again, is to follow them where one of our reporters, Genovis Aqua [Forester 00:18:25] … I’m like you’re gonna become vice president of emails because that’s what people want. They [00:18:30] want the news pushed to them. They don’t … the idea of going to a website, I don’t know that, that will be around much longer. And that kills the advertising model too. So, we’ve got to rethink that as well.
Chris Cate: Yeah, and I suppose it would hurt newspapers as well if they’re trying to finally get around the game on websites, if the websites go … When you look ahead at next year’s election, who do you see making the [00:19:00] most of their media opportunities and similarly who or what do you see dominating the 2018 news cycle?
Peter Schorsch: It’ll be interesting to see what Philip Levine does. I don’t think that he’s going to win either the primary or the governorship, but he’s got the biggest budget and he’s also got Adam Goodman who is a Republican political consultant, and I think that they will use media the most because he is gonna self-finance. And so I think he will use it the most, and if he does [00:19:30] it in an interesting way … In fact, I made a suggestion to them and said, “You need to be the first candidate to deliver VR glasses, like the New York Times and Google did the cardboard glasses. Send those to 10,000 influencers in the state and tell the Miami Beach success story down there. I don’t know if they’re gonna do that or not. But, that would be something that I think you could see going forward.
I think, as I begin to start thinking more and more about 2018, I think about my own home [00:20:00] and I think about how active and how engaged my wife is, who has been in the process and who has been engaged before … but I talked to her and I talked to other women in her demographic, kind of moderate Republican, moderate Democrat, upper middle class, and they are at full throttle right now. That’s where the marches are coming from. That’s where a lot of the activity is coming from. Planned Parenthood, [00:20:30] their fundraising is off the chain. Ruth’s List, their fundraising is off the chain. We say every two years this is going to be the year of the woman, and it never happens. And I wonder if this just might be it, if 2018 might be the year of the woman. And if so, that portends very well for Gwen Graham who I think could ride that tidal wave.
I think it is in opposition to what’s happening at the president’s level, but there just seems to be an awakening [00:21:00] amongst women voters who realize that they had the chance to break through the glass ceiling. They weren’t very happy with the vessel that was gonna deliver that message. But I’m seeing female candidates file for office earlier right now. There some uptick in activity now. Now let’s see where we’re at after the summer. But you start messing with the healthcare issue and threatening prenatal care, etc. … I’ll [00:21:30] go right now and say my one prediction will be 2018 might finally be the year of the woman.
Chris Cate: A lot of candidates, I guess typically this far out from election, is all fundraising. This is all fundraising time to meet with consultants and campaign, I guess hosting fundraisers. What is the right time for somebody to really go public with their message in day and age when you can get it out there so fast. Do you wait as long as possible or do you want to be one of the first ones out there?
Peter Schorsch: I think Andrew Gillum [00:22:00] did a good job getting out early and has positioned himself well to be critical of a dysfunctional Republican legislature. I think obviously you don’t … you know, Florida we’re governed by our weather. I think June and July is a bad time. I mean it just really is. So, I think about Graham and I wonder if she gets out in June and July, if it’s gonna be a little bit slow. I thought Governor Crist made a very poor decision in 2013 announcing a year out [00:22:30] from the election, because he announces in the beginning of November and then two weeks later it’s Thanksgiving and there was some criticism there. There was just doldrums.
I remember I wrote an article like “Charlie Crist Lost December” or something like that. Now, that all being said, there is certainly an appetite for political discourse that we have not seen before. And so I think the criticism of Graham will be, “Well, why weren’t [00:23:00] you out there pushing against Rick Scott in 2017?” So, she probably needs to get out there soon. Other candidates probably need to … You know, Chris King who’s thinking about running for Governor.
Bill Nelson needs … I mean, you can see an uptake in his activity level. I think we’re just gonna go into this … I don’t know … like this permanent campaign cycle where we’re just gonna keep running at this level. So I would say overall [00:23:30] the sooner the better at this point. I would not wait until summer and the idea of a short campaign I just don’t see working anymore.
Chris Cate: Of the final four questions that I ask every guest, they’re quick questions. Here’s the first one. Who is a Florida leader you admire, and it can be someone from Florida history, or someone still active in their work?
Peter Schorsch: John Delaney at the University of North Florida has been there for so long, has an accomplished record. [00:24:00] Lenny Curry, Mayor of Jacksonville, has done a really great job there. The mayors. I wrote a little bit about that, but the mayors to me in this state are impressive. Bob Buckhorn, Buddy Dyer, Phil Levine down in Miami, Rick Baker the former mayor of St. Petersburg, I admire a lot. Mayors have to lead and those are some people that really stand out to me.
Chris Cate: Where is a favorite Florida location for you to visit? It can be a city, a restaurant, a beach. Where do you like-
Peter Schorsch: Come on, you know the answer to this. It is [00:24:30] Disney. I had never been to Disney before. We had Ella Joyce maybe one time, and now I think it’s the biggest line item in my quick books, is Disney. We are always there.
Chris Cate: Do you have a favorite Florida sports team?
Peter Schorsch: I love sports, I genuinely do. I guess not really. I will follow the Bucs and I will follow the Rays, but I like sports in general. I like the industry of sports. I like … I’m [00:25:00] an Adam Schefter guy. I like the business and transactions of sports and I’ve kind of divested myself of being invested in a home team at this point.
Chris Cate: It’s funny, I’ve asked this question now to several guests, and nobody’s really had a favorite team, which a lot of times I expect, particularly in Florida, to have. And I compare politics to sports so often because I think there are comparative similarities. But it’s interesting, these folks that I’ve spoken to are so invested in the political kind of sports [00:25:30] that they don’t have time for the actual sport.
Peter Schorsch: That’s a good point. I love the St. Louis Cardinals, that’s my favorite team. And it’s because I love how well run their organization is. I love writing about the intersection of sports, that’s something we’re trying to do more and more. I love the politics of sports. Like right now Sheldon Adelson trying to get the Raiders to move to Las Vegas. That’s a great political story as much as it is a sports story. So, that something we could do more of, is the politics of sports.
Chris Cate: [00:26:00] Last question. What Florida person, place, or thing deserves more positive attention than what they’re getting right now?
Peter Schorsch: Ooh, that’s a good question. Probably the Space Center, probably Cape Canaveral, and that whole industry right now, which seems to have made a great rebound since the end of the space shuttle program. Whether it be what [00:26:30] Elon Musk is doing, or that they were just launching off of launch pad 39, which was the famous launch pad. I think there’s a lot of exciting stuff going on there, a lot of interesting jobs, etc. So, the space coast seems to be back and we probably could write and tell that story to a national level a little better.
Chris Cate: Great. Maybe I’ll read something about that on your website.
Peter Schorsch: I hope so. Thank you for having me.
Chris Cate: Yeah. Thank you so much Peter.