A transplant from tar-heel country, Scott Maxwell has spent the better part of the last two decades reporting for the Orlando Sentinel as the Taking Names columnist. In his 20 years of reporting, Maxwell has seen it all – describing the Florida political reporting scene as “addictive.”
Maxwell is Fluent in Floridian. From covering the last several election cycles to documenting natural disasters, Scott has earned a masters in Floridian Fluency, all while peppering his writing with his patented wit and astute perception. Some of his best stories are about Florida politicians, but also his readers’ reactions – which range from enthralled to disenchanted.
On this episode of Fluent in Floridian, Scott Maxwell discusses the changing landscape of the print media industry, his time as a Florida journalist, and his social media presence.
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 Chris Cate and in this episode created by SalterMitchell PR, Heidi Otway, the president of SalterMitchell PR, talks to Orlando Sentinel columnist, Scott Maxwell. In their conversation, they discuss Scott’s path to journalism, how he’s see the industry change and how he uses humor in his writing. Scott also talks about some of his most memorable interviews, and about his favorite social media platform. He also looks ahead at 2020 and share’s how he tries to make hate mail fun, and you can hear it all right now.
Heidi Otway: Well Scott, thank you so much for joining us on our Fluent in Floridian podcast, I know you’re from North Carolina, so you weren’t always fluent in Floridian. Tell us about your experience coming here after college and making a career, and a life here in Florida.
Scott Maxwell: Yeah well I was from North Carolina and always enjoyed that state, grew up there and went to school there, but then after I’d worked up there for about four years there was an opportunity down here and I think like many people, I thought that it would be a year or two and it’s now turned into about twenty. There’s something about his state that’s sort of intoxicating and if you cover politics it’s actually addictive.
Heidi Otway: Well what made you wanna be a journalist?
Scott Maxwell: Well I grew up in the seventies which was sort of the era of Watergate, and when you watch something like what happened there, there was something really intriguing about the idea of a couple of ink stained wretches being about to topple something as powerful as the presidency. So I got interested in that from a young age and I think that’s always sorta been my mantra to speak truth to power. I think the meek don’t always have the voice that the powerful do, so one of the things I often tell people is that a goal of any good journalist, and I consider it mine, is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, and I do a little bit better at the second half but those are sorta guiding principles.
Heidi Otway: So when you were younger growing up, were you curious? You know what’s kind of drove that passion to tell what was happening?
Scott Maxwell: Yeah that’s a fair question and I’m not sure I have a great answer, I can tell you with all honesty that I was a bit of a smart ass growing up and I see that unfortunately in my own teenage son and I think that it’s sorta that questioning nature. It’s when somebody just tells you this is the way something is, you say why, or you say prove it. There’s an expression in journalism that says “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” And that’s one I’ve always sorta subscribed to, so I figure just sorta born with that nature of wanting to question what you’re told.
Heidi Otway: I’m sitting here wanting to laugh really hard, and I notice that in your bio you said that you love to laugh and you seem to find humor in a lot of things so tell me about how do you find humor in your writing and in you reporting.
Scott Maxwell: Well one of the things I learned a long time ago was that politicians don’t really mind being lectured at, they get that all day. You know they can just roll their eyes, turn the page and move onto the next thing, but one thing politicians really dislike is being laughed at. It really makes them uncomfortable, it makes them angry and that’s what I kinda like to do, is make them uncomfortable and angry so I’ve learned humor is a good technique. I also find that a lot of the policy things that we write about are pretty dull and dry, and they don’t naturally or inherently attract an audience to them, so my goal is to try to give them something that would attract them, to sort of drag them in in the first place. An audience that wouldn’t normally go there, I find humor is a pretty effective way to do that.
Heidi Otway: Well that segways perfectly into my next question and that’s two of your trademarks are Maxwell’s Malarkey Meter and Maxwell’s Hate Mail, so tell us a little bit about how these things got started and how they’re developing now.
Scott Maxwell: Well the Malarkey Meter is really basically what people would refer to as fact checking and there are organizations that do it better and more regularly than I do but yes it does segway into what you’re talking about with humor. Years ago, and I mean I started the first one fifteen years ago or something like that, it was basically to come up with catchy name and malarkey was the one I chose, a word my grandmother used to use for when people are hearing something’s that’s just bologna, that’s not true, and I think we had different ratings for something that was ‘totally true’ to ‘major malarkey.’ So I’ve done those and as we’ve segwayed into video, now done those on video as well. Video is also the way I come up with sort of the hate mail, and I cannot claim total genesis of this idea, you may have seen, or your audience may have seen Jimmy Kimmel, I think he does “Celebrities Read Mean Tweets.” And it was really funny to watch people straight read awful things that were said about them and so it might surprise you but I get a good number of hate mail through the years. I think one of the funniest things to do is just to sort of laugh at them, so I’ve tried to put them in a video, I don’t know about once every couple of months or so five or six of them, and just read them and give a pretty general response.
Heidi Otway: So you’ve been at the Sentinel for about twenty years now, so what is the difference back then when you first got into journalism, back in 1998, as opposed to how it is right now?
Scott Maxwell: Oh my gosh it is a world of difference, I’m only in my mid-forties but I feel like I’ve aged about sixty years just in this profession. When I started writing my column which was about sixteen years ago, because I worked for the papers, reporter for four years first, my job was to write three columns a week. That was pretty much it, and now it’s three columns a week, and blog, and tweet, and Facebook, and do videos, and do TV, and do radio, and Google+, I don’t even know what the hell Google+ is. But all of these things we’re doing, so it is completely a new world order and you have to sort of learn the new ropes as they come along.
Heidi Otway: So of all the channels that you’ve named, what’s your favorite to write about? What’s your favorite to actually communicate on?
Scott Maxwell: I still like Facebook, obviously I like my platform on OrlandoSentinel.com It gets out there, but I like the communication that Facebook provides and people own most of what they say, that they have to put their name up there, you know unless they go to great lengths to create a fake account. I find that people really welcome that dialogue, we sometimes will toss out things on OrlandoSentinel.com “Hey give us a suggestion for something.” And maybe we’ll get five or six suggestions, for instance I do a list called “101 Things to Love about Central Florida” every Thanksgiving I put that out, and I get reader suggestions. We throw that out there on OrlandoSentinel.com or Twitter, we’ll get five, ten, maybe thirty or forty. Every time I do that on something like Facebook, I get hundreds, sometimes a thousand suggestions, and I think that there’s just a conversation that happens in that venue that doesn’t happen in most.
Heidi Otway: Do you think that there’s gonna be a shift in the way people communicate with the changing dynamics of social media? Has it made you a better columnist, a better reporter, a better writer?
Scott Maxwell: That’s an interesting question, I guess in some ways possibly, one thing’s that funny is I now share every- I mean all of us do. We share everything we do on social media, and so one thought that always goes through my mind, every time I post something, or most times I post anything is that for instance Facebook is such a weird creature that I know my mother’s going to read it, I know my childhood pastor, the guy who married my wife and I is going to read, so it does make me think a little bit more carefully about what I’m writing and the words I chose. But I also think that while the internet has been so wonderful in so many ways, and it helps research and reach more people, it’s as you may know, devastated the newspaper industry because we have raised an entire generation, maybe two generations now of people who have been raised to believe that they don’t have to pay, that there’s no value in paying for local news and it takes money to have journalists to gather the facts whether it’s at the planning and zoning meetings or school board meetings or anything else. So that part of it has been pretty rough.
Heidi Otway: Yeah and social media has also kinda fueled this whole discussion around fake news and the sharing of information from our leaders in the political realm. What do you think the impact is on the journalism industry you know fake news, and just the rhetoric from people on different sides of the aisle?
Scott Maxwell: I think it’s really troubling and disturbing and frankly the most depressing part about it is I’m not sure we’re going to be able to turn that tide back. I had a guy- who when I was doing one of those Malarkey Meters in fact, I wrote about something that was not true and he sent me an email and he said “Oh yeah, well-” It was about a candidate he liked, I won’t name names but it was Rick Scott and he said “I bet you you can’t tell me this isn’t true about Rick Scott” and I said “Well actually, I have a piece of information that I can send to you that will prove what you have been told is wrong, but before I spend time doing that, can you tell me if I give you the facts, will it make any difference?” And dadgummit that guy did respond back and said “No I don’t wanna see it.”
So I don’t know how you overcome that, if you’re in a bubble where you just want to believe what you want to believe and you have politicians say, not Scott in particular but generally politicians who are saying that’s okay, I don’t know how we combat that.
Heidi Otway: Shifting gears you have the opportunity to interview so many different people, can you tell me who is the favorite person that you’ve interviewed and why?
Scott Maxwell: Oh Heidi, I should have a stock answer to that question, one person since we’re talking Fluent in Floridian, who I love to talk with is Bob Graham. The former Governor and US Senator, he just impresses me to no end and first of all you have to remember how popular he was. It is remarkable when measured against modern say sort of polls, he never dipped below the eighties, he was very moderate centrist democrat, nowadays if politician gets up to fifty it’s considered a rousing success. But the reason I still like to talk to him, is he’s been out of office for goodness twenty plus years, and is still traveling the state with nothing in it for himself really encouraging people to civically active, to care about their water, their air, the environment, participation, activism, running for office. I find him to be a really interesting guy and not that I’m any great shakes but I get a lot of requests to take coffees or lunches and I take a pass on most of them but not with Bob Graham.
Heidi Otway: Yeah he is one of my favorites people too, I grew up in Miami and he would come to Carol City high school where he was a teacher, and still teach economics classes when I was in high school, so one of my favorite people as well.
Scott Maxwell: There really is something humble about him, and I think the word public servant gets tossed around sometimes too casually because too often we have politicians to public servants, but I believe he is the definition of that.
Heidi Otway: What is one of your most memorable interviews that you’ve had? Maybe with someone who’s not Bob Graham.
Scott Maxwell: Well I can tell you- I don’t know if this is necessarily an interview ,but I can tell you one of the most memorable conversations I ever had was I had gotten a really rancid email from a guy, sort of a hate mail guy who had said just a whole bunch of awful things and I thought about just putting it to the side, not doing anything with it. But I decided to actually call this guy back, and when he answered the phone I said “This is Scott Maxwell.” And then I just proceeded to read the email to him, every word, and about halfway through the conversation he said I don’t wanna hear this and I said no, no if you’re gonna send me this, you’re gonna hear every word you had to tell me and he didn’t like it but he actually stayed on the phone and to make a long story short, at the end of that conversation we talked maybe four or five more times and I ended up writing column about it, and I think that was sort of a lesson in sort of just the viciousness that sort of permeates public discourse. When people are forced really to think about it, when they’re forced to own it, it can be something different. I’m not gonna tell you we’re best friends or anything like that, but I think we had a bit of a breakthrough and I try to remind myself I should do a little bit more of that.
Heidi Otway: So what do you recommend for folks who are trying to create more civility in our world? Is that an example of how you are able to bridge the gap?
Scott Maxwell: Yeah I think there’s some of that and I can’t always claim that I do a spectacular job of it, like I said, I think we all fall short on a lot of ways. But I think trying to have those conversations, I’ve heard people talk about sort of these basic questions, what do you mean by that? Or if you could ask it politely, where did you get that information? We are so good, we are a sound byte society, and people are so good at parroting the talking points they’ve heard on TV from a very divided media I would often argue. But when you push them to think a little bit harder I think we can all be better.
Heidi Otway: Scott I noticed that even in our industry in public relations we’ve noticed that people just don’t read anymore, and I think you kinda said that you know it’s sound bite, they’re repeating sound bites, how does that impact what you do when it comes to written words? Do you notice that maybe folks just don’t read everything, or they’re not fully comprehending?
Scott Maxwell: Oh absolutely Heidi, I’ve had a woman who called one time and told me she objected to everything I had in my column, and as she listed off everything she wrote I was confused at first and finally said “None of what you are saying I actually wrote in my column.” And she said “Well I didn’t read it I just knew what you were gonna say anyway.” So yeah, those things happen, there are people who will only read headlines, but I kind of have come to grips with the fact that that’s another one of those things I can’t change, the prayer that says “Accept the things you can’t change and accept the ones you can.” Excuse me I botched that, but I think people aren’t reading as much, we have to encourage them to but there are some people who just aren’t and I don’t know how we’re gonna get past that.
Heidi Otway: Well I didn’t wanna talk about elections at all, as currently you know where we are right now, but I do wanna ask you if we were to look ahead at 2020 what do you think that’s gonna look like in Florida and in America?
Scott Maxwell: Divided, it’s hard for me to envision any individual or trend that is going to lead us to any sort of national kumbaya, or coming together so I think it’s going to remain divided and the irony of that is that I think it’s a shame. It sounds like a Hallmark card but I truly believe there is more that unites us than divides us, as Americans, as Floridians, I often tell people that if politics is a football field most of us are somewhere between the forty yard lines, we’re a little bit to the left or we’re a little bit to the right. But most of the debates we see playing out are happening way deep into the end zones, they’re the extremists, the fringe and they’re commandeering the conversation and until we as an elector into the body politic citizens sort of force the discussions back into that rational stage, where most of us are I’m not sure if things will get much better.
Heidi Otway: Yeah recently I heard the term called the “Exhausted Majority.”
Scott Maxwell: That’s good I hadn’t heard that one but that seems very apropos.
Heidi Otway: Yeah well Scott thank you so much, we always wrap up the show with four questions and I want to ask these of you because I’m sure you’re gonna give me some really good responses.
Scott Maxwell: Uh oh okay I’ll try.
Heidi Otway: Okay, it’s fun. So the first question is who is a Florida leader you admire, and you kinda touched on it but I wonder if there’s someone else? Or it could be the same person.
Scott Maxwell: I think I might have to go with Bob Graham there, and it’s not just because it’s a cop out, I struggle sometimes to find somebody who I really admire or put on a pedestal, I don’t think anybody’s perfect in fact if this sort of goes into another topic but I think we are too quick to really pounce on someone for an individual flaw, I don’t think there are many people who have perfect souls and the sort of social media mob acts too quickly. But for the most part I like Bob Graham, and there are those I respect, you know Jeb Bush, he’s on the different side of the aisles from me and heck the last time I heard from him was a few months ago when I think he sent me an email, it was either a nincompoop or something like that, he wrote to say I think “For a smart guy you just wrote a really dumb column.” I think was the way it began, but I believe in his motives, I believe he’s there for the right reason even if we have different viewpoints on some policy issues.
Heidi Otway: What Florida person, place or thing deserves more attention?
Scott Maxwell: What deserves more attention? I’m gonna come up with a great idea as soon as I’m done talking, but I think maybe our natural beauty, yeah I’ll say that. The natural beauty of the state, we get most of our attention, especially here in Orlando for the theme parks, but there is so much to really appreciate whether it’s the serenity of Mosquito Lagoon, the springs that are all around, the trails that we have that go miles and miles, Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades which are ecosystems really unlike anything else anywhere in the world. In fact the only ecosystem where both alligators and crocodiles coexist and I think both of those things are both underappreciated by outsiders but also by the people who live here as we see in the environment. I think if there’s one thing we are really not doing a good enough job that is tending to our natural resources and we keep letting them get fouled, we keep letting politicians- politicians keep letting companies and developments to foul them and then billing the taxpayers to clean them up. It would be much simpler, and much better for all of us if we kept things clean in the first place.
Heidi Otway: Well that segways right into my next question, what is your favorite Florida location to visit? It would be a city, a restaurant, a beach, or whatever you like.
Scott Maxwell: You know I really don’t know that I have a big one but we live here in Orlando, sort of Orlando Winter Park not too far off of Lake Sue, it’s one of many lakes and I can see it from our bedroom. I tell people we are two lots and about two million dollars off of the lake, but I think I find the serenity of the lake near us as peaceful as anything else.
Heidi Otway: Okay, and finally do you have a favorite sports team, and who’s your favorite team?
Scott Maxwell: I presume you want a Floridian one because I would have to tell you I would be betraying myself I am a die hard Tar Heel, I went to Chapel Hill and we are big basketball fans when you are born onto Tobacco Road and go to school there you sort of eat, drink, and sleep that so that is my number one sport. But here in Orlando I go to Orlando city soccer games as much as anything else.
Heidi Otway: Well Scott, thank you so much for your time today, being a guest on our Fluent in Floridian podcast, have a great afternoon. Thank you so much.
Scott Maxwell: My pleasure Heidi, take care.
Chris Cate: Thanks for listening to the Fluent in Floridian podcast, this show is executive produced by April Salter, with additional support provided by Heidi Otway, and the team at Salter Mitchell PR. Need help telling your Florida story? SalterMitchell PR has you covered, offering issues management, prices communications, social media, advocacy, and media relations assistance. You can learn more about Salter Mitchell PR at saltermitchellpr.com, you can also learn more about the Fluent in Floridian podcast and listen to every episode of the show at fluentinfloridian.com or by searching for the show using your favorite podcast app. Have a great day.