The origins of a Pulitzer-winning series
Greg Masters of American Journalism Review interviewed Sarasota Herald-Tribune reporter Paige St. John, who won a Pulitzer Prize earlier this week for a series of stories about the problems of Florida’s property & casualty insurance industry.
Masters writes, “Before coming to the Herald-Tribune in 2008, St. John, 50, worked in Tallahassee for Gannett as Florida Statehouse bureau chief. There, she covered the spate of hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 that resulted in massive insurance claims across the state. In the aftermath, big insurers left the state and insurance premiums skyrocketed. ‘Two governors doing their best with two different philosophies seemed unable to make any kind of change to turn that ship around,’ she says. Even without hurricanes in the next five years, insurance rates kept rising and companies kept leaving. ‘That left me and this paper and a lot of other people in Florida asking the question: Why?’
“She set out to answer that question when she joined the Herald-Tribune, launching a two-year investigation into Florida’s insurance industry. ‘It just kept getting bigger and bigger,’ she says. ‘We kept finding more and more we needed to say.’ Reviewing financial filings, she found that many insurers exhibited financial risk and were ‘barely capable of paying for house fires, let alone hurricanes,’ as she wrote in a February 2010 story.
“She uncovered a ‘market of small, domestic, Florida-only companies’ that sent money to the reinsurance industry to buy their own hurricane protection. ‘The majority of that coverage was coming from reinsurance companies based in Bermuda,’ she says.
“So she went to Bermuda ‘to follow the dollar,’ chasing down elusive insurers with notebook and pencil in hand. Once there, she realized that to follow the money trail, she had to go much farther: to Europe. She traveled to Monte Carlo and attended the Rendez-Vous de Septembre, an annual convention where reinsurance bigwigs negotiate contracts at the height of hurricane season. ‘In Monte Carlo, there was no distinguishing of who I was and where I was from. I was a reporter; I could have been from the Financial Times as far as they knew. And by then I was fairly well-educated and spoke the lingo of the industry and could directly talk to these people and ask them direct questions and get direct answers.’”
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