The murder of India Clarke
When India Clarke, a transgender woman, was found murdered in a local park in July, I and the rest of the local media initially reported the story as the sheriff’s department told us: that “a man in women’s clothing” had died. The story garnered national attention, not only because Clarke was the 10th transgender woman to be murdered this year but because almost every media outlet referred to her with male pronouns at first and brought up an earlier arrest for prostitution — coverage that many (rightly) argue is discriminatory toward transgender people. The next day, I spoke with Clarke’s family and friends, and another reporter and I wrote a story that detailed India Clarke’s life and death, as well as the national attention. Later, three of us collaborated on a story about law enforcement agencies’ relationship with transgender people, I covered the arrest of an 18-year-old in connection with the murder, and at the very end of my internship I wrote a story about Clarke’s friends’ efforts to help transgender African American women. While I can’t say I could have verified India Clarke’s identity and gender in my initial report, I wish I had done the initial report differently. I learned the hard way to aggressively question police narratives and to look at the bigger picture of violence against transgender people and the role media plays in the public’s perception of them.
This story, which appeared as the B1 centerpiece on Sunday, July 12, 2015. It stemmed from a news story the week before, in which one of about 25 historic cigar factories in Tampa burned down. Another intern, Shaken Samman, and I took stock of the remaining factories — some had been re-purposed, some were still used for tobacco-related businesses and some, like the one that burned down, were abandoned. We spend three days making phone calls and spreadsheets (I did the bulk of interviewing and writing; Shaker verified information about the two-dozen factories still standing), learning the history of this piece of Tampa’s history and connecting it to now.
A-Rod was up for a $6 million for hitting his 660th homer — but he’d also just come off a suspension for the drug use that made some of those homers happen in the first place. As a compromise, the Yankees decided to give some of that bonus money to charity, including two Tampa-based organizations (the Yankees have a long history in the city). Thing was, two of those organizations didn’t know the donation was coming, and the MLB wouldn’t immediately share some key information — like exactly how much money each organization would get. The trick was to convey the charities’ pleasant surprise, while letting everyone know that no one knew what exactly was going on. This article appeared as the B1 centerpiece on Tuesday, July 7, 2015.
This article, which appeared as the centerpiece on July 3 Hillsborough County regional section, was originally the idea of the story’s photographer. It bounced among a few different editors before it hit the regional. Some Googling and phone calls put me in touch with a few camps and community organizations. One Thursday I drove an hour to attend a low-key reading club, which made me doubt the quality of my own fourth-grade education.
This article, the B1 centerpiece on July 1, 2015, was the product of a press conference and a call to the chair of the Tampa City Council. It was the latest in the police’s response to a spike in homicides and gun violence this summer. The issue, a police captain told us in strong language, was that residents of the neighborhoods affected often refused to cooperate with police, allowing groups of young men to fight each other with abandon. It was hypocritical of the community to condemn violence while refusing to speak up about it, he said. Except his argument wasn’t exactly fair — the police also needed to be more involved in the community, the councilman said. And, many say, the police needed to go ahead and call the “loose associations of cowards marauding through the neighborhood at night” what they were: gangs. It was an interesting look at where some of the stakeholders stand.
When I called the police spokeswoman to ask about robberies at two restaurants within half a mile of each other (one of which I had been to and really liked), she was audibly excited. The arrest of three men in connection to the robberies – and several others in the area – came after a large police operation, and the department was proud. As for the restaurants’ neighborhood, everybody was quick to tell me that the robberies were isolated – a far cry from 10 or so years ago, when Seminole Heights was known for being seedy. That, more than anything, was the story. This article ran on B1 on Tuesday, June 30, 2015.
Every so often during a slow morning, my editor will have me call up the morning weatherman at our partner TV station, “interview” him and do a quick web post about the weather. Eventually, WTSP 10Weather Meterologist Bobby Deskins said, “Why don’t you come down to the station one day? I’ll show you around.” So I did. I’d never been to a TV news station before, and it was awesome. But the trip was two hours out of my day, so I thought I needed to get at least a story out of it. This was the result, which was the B1 centerpiece on Monday, June 29, 2015.
Bunnies and Bunnies-folo
My first real Florida Man story, and an interesting reporting exercise. I thought this was just your run-of-the-mill hotel-pool-rabbit-drowner article, but then Times senior researcher John Martin found out that yes, the alleged culprit was that Steve Rodd, a pitchman for Backstreet Boys creator Lou Pearlman’s Ponzi scheme. I shoe-leathered it out to the hotel where the bunny drowning happened, called Rodd’s family and former boss, went through several rewrites and shared an A1 story with the man whose tagline appears on the 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner for local reporting. Then, I went back to the motel, found the bunny breeder, talked with the sheriff’s office again and rewrote the story from the perspective of the bunnies themselves (the drowned rabbit had four siblings). Two of the rabbits, however, remain unaccounted for, which means that when informed Tampa residents find dead bunnies, they send me pictures of them, just in case.
This story was the Times’ B1 centerpiece on Sunday, June 14, 2015. It describes the funeral of Edward “E.J.” Harris, a 14-year-old boy who was gunned down in a Tampa park two weeks before. He seems to have been just a normal kid, and police still don’t know who killed him. E.J. was the fourth teenage homicide victim in 2015, and his death sparked heated discussion and debate about violence in the community and how a “no-snitch” culture impeded police investigations. I had not been involved in coverage of E.J. before his funeral, but covering the service presented an opportunity to capture the real effect of the violence: E.J.’s family’s pain; his church’s effort to comfort the community; the dozens of young teenagers who had to go to a friend’s funeral; the simple but powerful call to action: the violence has to stop, because this could happen to anyone. The evidence is right in front of you.
This story was the Times’ B1 centerpiece on Saturday, June 13, 2015. My assignment was to go to the second day of Metrocon, Tampa’s anime convention, and just . . . look around. I walked in, talked to a ton of people (some in very elaborate or very scanty costumes), took some pictures, left, and put all my notes in article form. It was a great exercise in scene writing.
Poor Montreal Canadien goalie Carey Price. The video of a dude dressed as an astronaut dancing for him went viral, the Canadiens lost that game, and they didn’t make it past the eastern conference Stanley Cup semifinals. After the Tampa Bay Lightning Astronaut (who’s actually a walking advertisement for an electronics company) became a fixture at games, I interviewed the guy behind the costume. He told me some great stories, and I had a lot of fun writing the article. Unfortunately, the astronaut’s purported good luck did not extend to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals, when the Chicago Blackhawks won the game and the Cup.
My editor sent me a post she’d seen on Facebook: an intricately-decorated miniature doorway, one of many placed anonymously in public places in Zephyrhills, Fla. I was not able to make it to the small town for “on-the-ground” reporting, but I interviewed a woman who’d “found” several doors, a community leader who loved-loved-loved the project, and the Tiny Doors artists themselves, who gave a great interview via Facebook and who made it into the article unidentified.
Hey, an editor said one day in the middle of the Stanley Cup playoffs, go find out how the heck you keep a rinkfull of ice frozen during a Florida summer. Getting in touch with the ice manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Amalie Arena turned out to be harder than expected, but once I made it into the underbelly of the arena, the answer to my editor’s question turned out to be interesting, complex and enjoyable to distill. The story appeared on 1A on Friday, June 5, 2015.