Making Sense of the Media
1:37 pm
Fri July 12, 2013

The Lakeland Ledger Proves Small Papers Still Have Impact

The Poynter Institute's Kelly McBride and WUSF's Craig Kopp talk with Lakeland Ledger editor Lenore Devore about the paper's coverage of the Lakeland Police sex scandal.

Credit Lakeland-Ledger

Allegations of sexual impropriety in the Lakeland, Florida police department (LPD) have shaken the police department and the community.

A State Attorney's Office report details allegations of consensual and forced sexual encounters involving more than 20 LPD officers or former officers.

And the Lakeland Ledger newspaper can take a lot of credit for helping bring the scandal to light.

A battle between the paper and the LPD over public records disclosure helped uncover the sex scandal.

The Ledger's coverage of the LPD also shows that the community newspaper can still have a major impact -- despite declining revenues and staff.

"We see this as a public safety issue," said Lakeland Ledger editor Lenore Devore. "If police officers are doing things they're not supposed to be doing while on duty, how can they protect the public?"

But, uncovering stories like this takes warm bodies -- reporters.

And the Ledger has been through a lot of changes of late, from new ownership to a financial restructuring.

Devore said prioritizing has been the key to news coverage at the Ledger.

"I'm very proud to say that we have not, hopefully, let anything -- or at least not very much -- slip though the cracks," Lenore said.  "When we reorganized we put our priorities on reporters, so we were able to re-purpose some positions and change them into reporters  and that has really helped us.  We have been able to use those resources  to focus on this story because it is a big one."

So, the Ledger's coverage of the police scandal shows that the crusading local newspaper is still alive.

But Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute's "Sense-Making Project" says that does not mean they are all well.

"It's not going to make much of a difference in the financial bottom-line at the Lakeland Ledger or any other paper that does a big investigative piece," McBride said. "That's never sold enough papers to make much of a difference."

However, McBride said, losing small town papers because of financial pressures could make a major difference for small town life in America. 

"There's this idea that, in the future as newspapers get smaller and smaller, that citizen journalists will spring up and that, possibly, local bloggers or other activists would be interested in covering a story like this," explained McBride. " And then, maybe, later the newspaper would step in and finish the investigation.  But, I don't see that happening in every community.  So it is entirely possible that if small town newspapers disappear that there would absolutely be no accountability for small town government."