Miami Herald Capital Bureau Chief Mary Ellen Klas is a celebrated journalist within the sunshine state. She notes that her interest in journalism was sparked at a young age. “I got into journalism because, as a little kid, I was really interested in writing. […] Florida as a state was growing fast and every newcomer who was engaged didn’t think twice about subscribing to a newspaper. So it was a really exciting time to be a journalist.”
Klas is fluent in Floridian. When asked of her favorite Florida sports team, she responds, “I really have to say I am a big time FSU baseball fan. […] I love football, I love the thrill of hockey and all that, but I am a die hard baseball fan. So, FSU baseball.”
Unknown to many, Klas consistently covers Florida governors and their respective campaigns. In her interview, she describes her experiences with several former state governors, including Lawton Chiles, Charlie Crist, and Jeb Bush, as well as her experiences with Rick Scott — the current Governor of Florida.
“He [Lawton Chiles] was a cagey politician, he knew how to evade like the best of them, but the one thing was his staff was not afraid of the press and they were allowed to get into the weeds with us. […] Jeb Bush came in with an automatic distrust of the media. […] Charlie Crist was painfully careful and cautious. […] When it comes to Rick Scott, I think that we have reached a new era. I think he has been the least transparent, the most managed and the least accessible of any administration in my 30 years of being up here.”
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 its millions of weekly visitors. I’m your host, Chris Cate and in this episode created by SalterMitchellPR, I talk to Mary Ellen Klas, the Capital Bureau Chief of the Miami Herald and Co-Bureau Chief of the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau. In our conversation, we’ll talk about how the Capitol Press Corps and media as a whole have changed in the last 20 to 30 years. [00:00:30] We also talk about the governors that Mary Ellen has covered and how to pitch her a story that you think should be covered. And you can hear it all right now.
Mary Ellen, thanks so much for being on the show. You’ve been covering Tallahassee politics since 1988, but I don’t know much about your background before you came to Tallahassee. So, if you could tell me, what was it that brought you to Florida and then ultimately to Tallahassee?
Mary Ellen Klas: I got into journalism because, as a little kid, I was really interested in writing. [00:01:00] When I was really little, the Watergate hearings were constant must see TV on our family television and my sixth grade teacher was a math teacher who put out a little newspaper and I went home and did that myself and did it for my family and sent it to my relatives and got into that and enjoyed it. So I studied journalism and political science and after grad school I came to Florida because Florida was hiring like crazy [00:01:30] and it was such an exciting time. Journalism was just growing by leaps and bounds. Florida as a state was growing fast and every newcomer who was engaged didn’t think twice about subscribing to a newspaper. So it was a really exciting time to be a journalist.
Chris Cate: Speaking of going back to 1988, when you first stated here in Tallahassee, can you give me an idea of what the Capitol Press Corps was like back then? Did it look at all like it was today or the same amount of people? [00:02:00] I imagine the diversity was probably much different back then.
Mary Ellen Klas: Yeah, I mean the Talahassee Press Corps was probably twice the size it is today when I started and back then, if you can imagine, the internet was a foreign concept. The pace of news was much, much slower. Back then, it took time to develop and verify a story. You actually got on the phone to get information, to have people fax you stuff. You had to talk to multiple sources by phone. [00:02:30] News releases were delivered to a box in the press center multiple times a day and that’s where we would go and find out what news developments had happened. We did not get information by the minute like social media and email. So the pace was head-spinningly different.
As a result, I think that it’s changed things for the better. If you asked me would I go back to the pre-digital age and I would say absolutely not. I think the ease [00:03:00] with which we have access to documents and data and information, it gives us such a timely way to get access to facts. And it also helps us to really verify and provide balance in our stories and I think in the end, I think it helps the public have a better understanding of a story quickly and ultimately access to the truth.
Chris Cate: You talk about those facts, you’ve covered several governors. They probably all said that they were very transparent, but who [00:03:30] would you say has done the best job of keeping the press and the state as a whole really informed about the work that they do?
Mary Ellen Klas: Well, I have covered a lot of governors and the first governor’s campaign I covered was Lawton Chiles. Along with this seismic shift in information gathering, we’ve really watched some things change with the way the administrations operate. They have become much more managed in how they handle the press and the media. [00:04:00] When I started there were like a Public Information Officer per agency. Now we have teams of Public Information folks at every agency. And those press offices see themselves more as gatekeepers, I think, and kind of providing messaging and spin as opposed to just being there to give access. That has changed things a lot. When I came, Lawton Chiles was the first governor I covered full time. [00:04:30] I would say that he was not a great interview. He was a cagey politician, he knew how to evade like the best of them, but the one thing was his staff was not afraid of the press and they were allowed to get into the weeds with us. So they would launch ideas and initiatives like trial balloons with the press and then the ensuing coverage would then elevate the debate. They would use it to shoot down critics or modify their message.
Now, Chiles had a lot of rough spots. He had [00:05:00] some wins, some losses, but I really do feel that the way the administration handled and gave access to what they were doing and helped us kind of inform us as to their thinking behind it, their motivations, and not all of it was always rosy for them, but it kept … I think the press was by far more engaged. Then following that was Jeb Bush. Jeb Bush came in with an automatic distrust of the media. He erected the first [00:05:30] major barriers to staff access, but after a rocky start, we all kind of figured out that he had this thing where he wanted to exercise every day by walking up to the top floor of the Capitol, and we would just tag along. And these informal discussions, he started to get into. He was such a policy wonk, he enjoyed the banter, he enjoyed the questions and the challenge and in the end, I think he became far more comfortable than he started with. [00:06:00] That was kind of an exciting thing, because his wonkiness made it fun to be a reporter. You could throw any question at him and he could give you an answer. And that is … as a reporter, you just want the information. You don’t want to be spun.
Then we had Charlie Crist. Charlie Crist was painfully careful and cautious. He was not a good quote, he was very hard to read. He made it difficult to really pull information out, but unlike Rick Scott and unlike [00:06:30] Jeb Bush to some degree, he did trust his staff to work with us. So when he wanted to, we were able to elevate the debate by learning what they were working on. He would use us to road test his agenda for example. And especially on controversial issues when he knew he really needed to bring the public along, I think he managed the press well. Now, the other thing I will say about Charlie Crist is he was very good at media manipulation and that is one thing that I am not proud of as [00:07:00] a reporter. I mean, he did play reporters against each other, he offered exclusives, he would get ahead of his critics often that way. But in the end, his willingness to trust his staff with us closely, I think engendered good will and in the end I think that’s good.
When it comes to Rick Scott, I think that we have reached a new era. I think he has been the least transparent, the most managed and the least accessible of any administration in my [00:07:30] 30 years of being up here. He’s the first governor we don’t know where he is on a daily basis, who he’s working with, what he’s working on. His agenda is very narrow, his circle of advisors is small. If you want to try and name his subject matter experts to go to and try and talk to, it’s hard to even identify them and those that you can identify are very inaccessible. They don’t do background briefings often. The governor does press availabilities [00:08:00] but they’re remarkably scripted. They’re never open-ended or free ranging. So I don’t mince my words here, but the administration has really cloaked itself in a very linear message and the media appetite for probing the broader issues around this administration has diminished and I think that’s bad.
Chris Cate: There’s some obvious technological changes such as internet and social media over the last decade especially. [00:08:30] What impact do you think that has had on how state politics and government are covered?
Mary Ellen Klas: Oh, I think it’s had a huge impact. You know, we have the opportunity now to have all kinds of access to information. It’s a media explosion. The result is, we’ve kind of got this changing media landscape. So with the digital age, we’ve got a shrinking Capitol Press Corps. [00:09:00] The newspaper, television stations, radio stations have cut down on their statewide staff. But in its place has arisen this new sort of online only news source. And that’s also come with a new business model. These digital organizations often rely on subscriptions or some of them rely on other sources that we’re not really sure. Some maybe rely on undisclosed investors or some may be [00:09:30] subsidizing their news operation by client paid journalism and I personally find that the most troubling. And what I mean by that is like a news producer who operates as a political consultant and then promises his clients that they will get certain treatment in the new columns, but doesn’t disclose to readers that that is a client. So the reader just doesn’t know. [00:10:00] I think that’s transactional journalism and I find that very dangerous.
Chris Cate: The biggest contributor to the rise of blog reporting, whatever you want to call this, I think are really the legislators who are kind of falling into the trap and turning to bloggers to write the stories that they want them to write. Do you ever try to talk to legislators and kind of inform them of what they’re doing to this process? I mean, how do you pull back from where we’re headed?
Mary Ellen Klas: Well, the [00:10:30] interesting thing is they know what they’re doing and they wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t having a result. So there are two other factors that as the media has shifted and the traditional press corps has shrunk, there’s a couple other things that have really emerged here that I think have … you wouldn’t immediately think this is contributing to why we’ve got what’s going on. But I really [00:11:00] do think that term limits and the abundance of political money in the process, you could probably devote another podcast to just this issue. But I think that has given rise to what’s kind of this political industrial complex in Talahassee. It’s really not unique to Florida, it’s not unique to big capitals like Talahassee, it’s not unique to Washington, but it is something that, especially here, it’s so enormous and it’s self-perpetuating and it’s remarkably [00:11:30] incestuous. What you have is people who work in the political process, then work in the lobbying process and they meet each other. So when you get to a point where you want to influence a message or influence a candidate or protect somebody from having opposition in the era of term limits when you’ve got eight years and you’re out. You need to … this cycle kind of feeds itself.
[00:12:00] In the midst of this, we’ve got this new business model for the digital age that with all this money there, it’s very lucrative to feed this need for constantly fed campaigning. So I think that what we have is this perpetual campaigns that lead to horse race journalism. It is 18 months out before the [00:12:30] next election and we are seeing daily reports on who’s hired whom. The race is on, and we’re going to have the most enormous field of candidates in 2018 than Florida has ever seen, because we’ve got the entire executive branch is turning over. But the kind of reporting isn’t the big picture. We’re not looking at what is the state’s biggest problems? How are they being addressed? [00:13:00] It’s a lot of navel-gazing I think. I think it’s a lot of who’s doing what, who’s players what? And you know, there’s a lot of conflict, there’s a lot of interesting stuff. So this horse race reporting is actually kind of interesting. We like it, right? But we’re missing the big stuff. And I think that’s a unfortunate trend.
Chris Cate: And how do you stay above the fray when you’re working on your stories and still giving readers … those blog clicks are still something you [00:13:30] have to think about as a journalist, as unfortunate as that is, that’s kind of the really of the sales model. But how do you stay above the fray where you’re writing stories with a lot of real content and not worrying about who’s tweeting some, like you said, new hire or just some kind of sidebar story.
Mary Ellen Klas: Yeah, and this is a huge challenge, because at the Miami Herald, the good news is that we are keeping track of all our digital readers. We [00:14:00] can see how far into a story somebody reads and how often they come and what they’re reading, and what they click next. So, we’re getting data and we’re getting information and we’re using it. And I have to say, that one of the most promising things is that readers like it when we go deep. They like it when we give them a real understanding on a complex story, so I am gratified that that happens. On the other hand, as you mentioned, there is [00:14:30] this drive to see lots of clicks and sometimes the thrill of some of those smaller stories just does contribute to us needing to write that kind of thing.
So, we have this balancing act and it’s a hard one because at the same time that journalists have to go deeper and be good at explaining complex issues, we also have a public [00:15:00] that is more distracted and wants information … short bites of information quickly. We are just trying to navigate that. It’s going to be a challenging time I think, especially in the next 18 months, because there’s a lot of important issues that will take our time and yet we also need to be on top of all this other horse race.
Chris Cate: If someone has a story idea, whether it’s a politician or just a general Floridian, [00:15:30] what’s the best way to, I don’t know if pitch is the right word, but to send you a real story idea without it coming across as spammy or how do they even themselves think, “What would be something that would help you as a lead versus something that is salesy?”
Mary Ellen Klas: Well, I think that’s a really interesting question, because as I mentioned how the government’s Political Information Officers have changed, we’ve also watched the professionalization of the communications industry in Talahassee [00:16:00] and it’s exploded enormously. We’ve reached the point now where I think there’s probably as many public relations professionals lobbying reporters for story ideas as there are lobbyists lobbying lawmakers. I mean, not as many but there’s just this push. So the ones that are the most effective are the ones that do meet our needs best. And I would say that you’ve got to understand a reporter. It’s almost like you’ve got to understand who’s the reporter [00:16:30] that is best equipped to do what you’re looking for. Now, we are trying to define ourselves in our bureau, we’ve got this merged bureau of the Tampa Bay Times and the Miami Herald and we are very focused on enterprise and digging and uncovering and being a watchdog. And those are the things that if you can help us find a story that [00:17:00] unfolds something in a way that will help our readers better understand a very important issue, and there’s limitless number of issues that we fail to cover adequately up here. But that’s the way I think is just understand what our aim is and to make the pitch.
Chris Cate: True or not, there is a perception that the media has a liberal bias. Is that something that you would agree with and is that something [00:17:30] you have to be conscious of when you’re writing a story to ensure that there’s not going to be some confusion that just because you’re writing about a Republican governor or a Democrat in a story that there’s not this perception that you’re going after them and it’s an attack?
Mary Ellen Klas: Yeah. Yeah, I think that is … I really think that’s a false claim. It is easily perceived because when you have a Republican establishment as the one that has been in power for so long, [00:18:00] we are often the ones that are reporting on conflict and hostility and when that is the elevated story, you assume that we take an opposite point of view. But I think you can ask anybody who worked in the Chiles administration and they did not have an easy time with the media. We wrote a lot of stories that were highly critical of how they operated, their decision making, their motives. That is the nature of the press. We are [00:18:30] about finding the truth and the fact is that people in power often don’t want that truth to come out. So that is the natural hostility and there’s this perception that because … if we did objective reporting, and I think that’s a false ideal, because objectivity does … you need to be fair, you need to be balanced and you need to be [00:19:00] non-partisan, but being objective means a he-said, she-said and then you don’t bring in … and then you let the people who are controlling the agenda be the only ones that guide your storyline, that is lazy reporting.
So for me, it’s very important that when I write a story, I listen and I hear all the points of view, but if they’re not noticing that there is big elephant in the room, I’m not [00:19:30] going to leave that out of my story, I’m going to add that in there because that’s my role. That’s my responsibility. It is to find all the components and provide the context and perspective and that is the strength of I think good enterprise journalism is that we give people it in its truest context. If we just covered the legislature and followed what they were doing or what Governor Rick Scott wanted us [00:20:00] to do, the confines of our stories would be so limited.
Chris Cate: Mm-hmm (affirmative). No, I love that answer and I love hearing that too. I think from readers, I think that’s probably one way you can tell the difference between a story that’s legitimate versus maybe not if there’s not an elephant still in the room as you read that story, like what’s the missing piece here, like why is the story not complete.
Mary Ellen Klas: Yeah. Yeah.
Chris Cate: I want to transition to our final four questions that I ask every guest. The first one is who is a Florida [00:20:30] leader who you admire?
Mary Ellen Klas: Well, that’s a … I could go on because I have a really long list, but I’ll just be short and say Dan Webster. Florida congressman and former House Speaker. I was here when he was the first Republican elected to be a presiding officer and after decades of Democratic control, he took control and a lot of us in the press thought he was going to be this religious conservative who was going to push an agenda and treat Democrats as despicably [00:21:00] as Republicans had been treated, but he didn’t. He understood the value of a well-informed minority and he really ushered in equitable rules. His tone, his sense of fairness, his professionalism and what I really appreciated was his willingness to respect the media. And I think he was great. I think he was somebody we don’t have enough of.
Chris Cate: Do you have a favorite Florida place that you like to visit?
Mary Ellen Klas: Absolutely. [00:21:30] St. George Island. I mean, here we are just miles from the most beautiful coast. When I moved here I thought, “Oh, this place is going to get developed and it’s going to be crazy in 30 years.” Well, it hasn’t. Yeah, there are more people there, but the white sand beaches and the rolling dunes are wonderful and it’s only a car ride away.
Chris Cate: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, it’s a state park. I guess there’s some limitations-
Mary Ellen Klas: Oh my gosh.
Chris Cate: … on how much they can develop there.
Mary Ellen Klas: That’s right.
Chris Cate: Let me ask you this [00:22:00] too, what person, place, or thing do you think deserves more attention in Florida?
Mary Ellen Klas: Well, I’m going to kind of talk about it … I think it has to do … when I think about the kind of stories that we should be doing, that’s what I’m thinking about. As a Capitol reporter, I think too often we let those in power kind of dictate the storylines and the story budgets. [00:22:30] So one of the things that I always try and do every single session is look at the issues that are the top focus of legislators and then compare that to the most pressing issues currently facing the communities that we cover. So, if you ask me what needs more attention, it’s those kinds of issues. And they need more attention up here. For example, the Tampa Bay Times did this devastating series about the horrible transit problems that are [00:23:00] sapping people’s time and money and they can’t get to work and these are working class folks. The Miami Herald did a series on soaring affordable housing costs for people with median wages. Both of those issues are costing people’s jobs, they are making it difficult for upward mobility. But we had this legislative session and neither of those issues got a minute of attention from legislators. There was not a word of acknowledgement about those issues from the governor [00:23:30] and in a representative democracy, that’s a problem.
So, I just feel like there needs to be attention to the scope outside. Where are the people that … 40% of the people in Florida don’t make … the average wage is $38,000 a year. Do you ever hear what we need to do to elevate that, make life easier? I just feel that that is [00:24:00] because of this political industrial complex, those issues get pushed aside and there isn’t any accountability for it.
Chris Cate: When you bring up questions like that to a member where there’s a story you kind of put in front of them, they may not really want to talk about it, but do they ever really kind of give you reasons? Do they kind of just say they’re kind of limited as to what they can do because it’s all about the leadership that decides it or what do they tell you when you bring you questions like that?
Mary Ellen Klas: Well, I do bring those questions up and some [00:24:30] of them will say, “Yes, we are addressing that. We have a bill.” Well, the fact is, the bill didn’t get a hearing. Or they will say, “well, we’re working on that. We’ve got a task force about it.” There’s always an answer, there’s always an excuse. Others will say, “Well, that’s not what I think is the biggest problem. I think the biggest problem is we need more jobs and then we can elevate people’s wages.” But that is this amorphous thing that … and then we’ve got the focus on education. And there’s no doubt about it, Florida’s education needs work [00:25:00] and is essential to our job growth. So everybody comes up here with an agenda, but I’ll be honest with you. If you look at what people ran for when they ran for the legislature, they didn’t tell their constituents that they were going to run for these big picture issues. Because … and I did a really weird exercise.
In 2016, I went through the political pages of every single legislative candidate [00:25:30] and I wanted to see what they were promising. And they were all templates. Everybody’s web page looked the same. They all had the same bullet points. There were maybe two exception. You could see the template based on who the consultant was. They didn’t tell people anything what they were working on. They worked on … if you were a Republican you’re protecting guns, you’re low taxes, you’re for school choice. [00:26:00] If you’re a Democrat, you’ve got your list. So those are the things that … it’s pretty evident that people aren’t pushing them to tell them more about what they’re going to do when they’re up here.
Chris Cate: And that could be a whole ‘nother conversation.
Mary Ellen Klas: That’s another conversation, I know.
Chris Cate: But I’ll wrap up with one last question, hopefully, it’s the easiest one of the day. Do you have a favorite Florida sports team you like to cheer for?
Mary Ellen Klas: You know, I grew up in Minnesota and I really have [00:26:30] to say I am a big time FSU baseball fan. They broke my heart this year. I love football, I love the thrill of hockey and all that, but I am a die hard baseball fan. So, FSU baseball. But, I’m holding out for my Minnesota Twins.
Chris Cate: Good. Well thank you so much for being on the show.
Mary Ellen Klas: Thanks. Thank you.
Chris Cate: Thanks for listening to the Fluent in Floridian podcast. If you aren’t subscribed to the podcast yet, I hope you’ll look us up and subscribe to the show [00:27:00] on your favorite podcast app, like Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or Google Play Music. If you leave a review, that would be great too. Thanks to my team at SalterMitchellPR for making this podcast possible. If you need help telling your Florida story, we’ve got you covered. We offer issues management, crisis communications, social media, advocacy and media relations assistance. We also have our own in-house creative and research teams. Look us up at SalterMitchellPR.com for more information. You can also find [00:27:30] more information about the Fluent in Floridian podcast at FluentInFloridian.com. Have a great day.