July 19, 2023

It was the spring of 2021 when Antonio Fins began hearing the question: “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if DeSantis ran?”

The speculation that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis could be a contender for the Republican presidential nomination spread throughout the state and, in time, nationwide.

“So that’s been out there for more than two years,” said Fins, the politics and growth editor at The Palm Beach Post.

Former President Donald Trump was the first to announce his campaign back in November 2022. Six months later, in May 2023, DeSantis finally announced his campaign in a Twitter Space marred by technical glitches.

“If you’re a Florida political reporter, I think you could see that coming for quite a while,” said Zac Anderson, political editor for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune who also covers statewide politics for all of Gannett’s newspapers in Florida.

Trump has since been indicted — twice. The first was in New York over a case involving a hush-money payment to an adult film star during his 2016 campaign. Then, in June, Trump was indicted in Miami on federal charges of mishandling classified documents at his Florida estate.

Last month, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez jumped into the presidential race. And for a few hours, it looked like U.S. Sen. Rick Scott may run, too — which would have made him the fourth high-profile Florida Republican to fight for the nomination. Scott denied The New York Times’ story hours later.

Politics reporters in Florida now find themselves at the epicenter of Republican presidential politics this election cycle.

Poynter spoke with journalists who are focusing on the run-up to the 2024 election to better understand what it’s like to cover politics right now in the Sunshine State. The nationalization of state politics; a shrinking press corps, especially among newspapers; and more limited access to politicians have contributed to an intense and fascinating job for these journalists.

“Everybody kind of knows a bit of Florida, and I think that that continues to make it the center of American politics in many ways,” said Mary Ellen Klas, the Capitol bureau chief for the Miami Herald. With a state as large, dynamic and diverse as Florida, there are components that make this an important state no matter who is in charge, she said.

Fins said the current political campaign is more intense than he’s ever seen it in his more than 36 years of following politics. “But now we’ve also got this big legal case that could have all kinds of ramifications on not just the race, but ultimately the presidency, too.”

A poster of former President Donald Trump and banners are held up by supporters in front of the Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. U.S. Courthouse, Tuesday, June 13, 2023, in Miami. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell, File)

Fins reports and writes and oversees three reporters at the Post, one of whom covers politics.

“As a politics reporter, you’re covering two stories that are tied and interwoven. One is the traditional political campaign. You have Trump and DeSantis as candidates, and now you’ve got Mayor Suarez,” said Fins. “But now there’s this other completely different yet interwoven story, which is the court case against Mr. Trump. He’s not only indicted in New York state on felony charges up there, but we have the federal indictment, on the documents and the classified and top secret files. That’s a story that we have to cover.”

Gannett’s TCPalm newspapers and USA Today are also helping cover the Trump case for all Gannett papers, including The Palm Beach Post.

Trump has been a major focus of both the Post and its sister paper, The Palm Beach Daily News, for decades thanks to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort. Back in 2021, the former president’s departure from the White House to the Florida resort launched a new phase in the Post’s coverage.

“What has made 2023 a completely unpredictable panorama right now is that we expected this cage fight between Trump and DeSantis,” Fins said. “And so far it’s not.”

If the polls are correct, Fins said, Trump has huge leads over DeSantis and everyone else. That’s something that Fins said most people did not predict.

Last month, the political world turned to a Miami federal courthouse where Trump was expected to appear for his historic federal arraignment. Hundreds gathered — both supporters of Trump and protesters. Scores of journalists packed the sidewalks. The day was so hot that a real pig’s head on a wooden spike appeared to have roasted by the end of the day. Fins was working nearby, out of a Miami Dade College classroom, to anchor the Post’s coverage with live reporting feeds from reporters Stephany Matat and Valentina Palm. “That was pretty crazy,” Fins said of that day. “But they did a great job.”

Matat began working at the Post as a politics reporter covering state politics in June 2022. She remembers her early conversations with Fins, her editor. He told her this would be a very busy job, with hectic days and peaceful ones.

Then in her first week on the job, Matat was sent to cover a DeSantis press conference. She described feeling terrified because it was her first press conference in person. That same week was a March for Our Lives rally in Parkland. There was also Pride Month coverage. And there was the time Matat was still in gym clothes when she covered the story of Trump’s home being searched by the FBI.

“I had every expectation it was going to be like this, and it’s definitely lived up to that,” she said. “You never know with this job.”

More livestreams, less access

Fins sees a lot more people writing about politics — and more people commenting.

“So it has broadened the field. At the same time, the real negative is that our access to a lot of the political leaders is less than it used to be,” Fins said. “I think that when I got into this business, political leaders felt a need to talk to people like me.”

Today, because of social media, Fins said some politicians don’t feel that need because they figure they can tweet things out reach a larger group of people.

“The positive, yes, there are a lot more avenues and channels and sources of information, so we are able to get a more complete story quicker,” Fins said. “The downside is access to be able to question, and hold our elected leaders accountable, is less than it should be and certainly less than it was.”

Anderson said that the governor’s office is responsive when journalists reach out for comment. He also said that DeSantis, whom he covers closely, does take questions at news conferences. But he can’t recall any sit-down interviews with a Florida newspaper since early in DeSantis’ term. And, it’s generally been harder to get public employees to talk to the press. There’s also DeSantis’ team, widely known to be antagonistic towards the media.

“That is something that is different,” Anderson said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything where the governor’s press office and team has been so aggressive about going after the media, and trying to discredit the media.”

In this June 28, 2018 file photo, Ron DeSantis speaks to reporters after a Florida Republican gubernatorial primary debate at the Republican Sunshine Summit in Kissimmee, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)

Anderson said it’s not unusual for any source to push back against a story because they don’t like how it was framed. “But I don’t think we’ve seen this type of hostility towards the media in my experience in covering Florida politics,” he said.

His workweek is split between time at an office in downtown Sarasota and home. He keeps tabs on DeSantis mostly remotely but does travel quite a bit throughout Florida when the governor has a big event. Because Gannett has newspapers across the U.S., Anderson said, he doesn’t need to travel with Florida’s presidential candidates all over the country. “It’s helpful that we’re able to kind of spread the load there a little bit,” he said.

Anderson said he’s been able to follow DeSantis a lot more easily because so much is livestreamed now. He cited The Florida Channel (a public affairs programming service funded by The Florida Legislature and produced and operated by WFSU-TV) as a huge resource for covering state government as well as monitoring all of the governor’s official press conferences.

Livestreaming has really taken off in the last five years, Anderson said, though he said it’s still helpful to be on the ground whenever you can because there are unscripted moments where you see how a candidate interacts with voters, or how somebody interacts on the rope line after giving a speech.

“Some of those interactions with DeSantis and voters have gone viral, as have some of the questions that people shout at him,” he said. “I still think it’s super helpful to be able to cover it when you can, but that’s just not practical for me. So I just do the best that I can covering things remotely.”

Anderson said his work is dictated a lot of times by DeSantis’ focuses, such as his administration’s renewed fight with the College Board, this time over state officials’ desire to remove or revise lessons that include sexual orientation and gender identity. As the campaign grows, Anderson said there’s been more focus on the nuts and bolts of DeSantis’ strategy.

Newspaper declines and nationalizing coverage

Mary Ellen Klas, of the Miami Herald, remembers when cable television was emerging as a dominant influencer in the 1990s. And so political coverage was increasingly becoming nationalized as a result. The trend has continued with the added layer of the newspaper industry’s decline and rise in social media, she added.

“So the fundamental factor in being a political reporter is that everything is national now, and all of the issues that emerge for candidates — whether they’re local candidates or national candidates — often are framed in a national perspective,” Klas said. “That, to me, has been a remarkably big difference. And I think it has had an impact on how the public views politicians, and it changes what they expect politicians to be talking about.”

Reporters, Klas said, are trying to deliver to readers what they want to hear their politicians address.

Klas has been a statehouse reporter since 1988. During that time, she said, every legislator who came to Tallahassee had been interviewed by a newspaper editorial board or knew a local reporter and what it was like to interact with them.

“There was a relationship. It was sometimes good, it was sometimes bad, but they knew who we were,” she said. “Ninety-nine percent of the people that come to Tallahassee today have never been in a situation where they’ve interacted with an independent reporter who has the job of just telling the story for their local community. And that has had a huge impact, I think, on their perception of the media, and their perception of political reporters.”

Klas said she can’t keep count of how many people assume she’s going to operate like some cable TV news hosts. “They make an assumption that that’s journalism. It’s not,” she said. “That is entertainment, and we don’t do that. But they don’t know better, because they don’t know local reporters.”

Klas, who shares a joint bureau with the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times, has seen her team shrink dramatically through the years. She said there are now four people in her Tallahassee bureau. They’ve also lost their office. As a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, Klas wrote about how less local news means less democracy.

Marc Caputo, a national political reporter for the newly launched The Messenger, has been covering politics in the Sunshine State for decades for outlets that included the Miami Herald and Politico. He’s even, according to his Twitter bio, a Florida man.

In his time reporting on politics in Florida, the biggest change Caputo said he’s seen, outside of technology, has been the decimation of the local newspaper. He said they were the “heart and soul” of information dissemination for the public. This issue is not unique to Florida, Caputo acknowledged, but noted that there’s been a hollowing out of the Florida press corps, which was heavily newspaper-based.

“My first full legislative session in 2002, there was a huge, robust Florida press corps,” he said. “And now there isn’t.”

Another change Caputo has observed is the rise of smaller, “more agile” media enterprises that specialize in covering state politics.

Republican presidential candidates, from left, John Kasich, Carly Fiorina, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and Rand Paul take the stage during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Venetian Hotel & Casino on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

Caputo, who helped establish the Politico Florida bureau several years ago, remembers covering the 2016 presidential race where, along with Trump, two other Florida men — former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio — competed. He recalled how people thought that would be the biggest Florida politics story ever.

“This one is just orders of magnitude larger, because it’s Donald Trump’s third race, not his first. He’s the de facto incumbent,” Caputo said. “And all of those themes that we had in 2016, about the student fighting the master — or whatever metaphor you might want to use — has just sort of magnified because of the almost slavish way that DeSantis, in his gubernatorial election, had hitched his wagon to Donald Trump, Donald Trump’s brand.”

And now DeSantis is running against Trump. Caputo said it’s kind of a gripping story.

Klas said the nationalization of political issues and the decline in local journalism have resulted in voters having less understanding of the impact politicians can have on their lives and their local communities. “So there is less coverage of issues that matter to people, and we have fewer reporters saying, ‘We need to connect this issue with your life,’” she said. “That disconnect is broader than it’s ever been.”

A Republican politics epicenter

When asked what about Florida has made it the epicenter of Republican politics in 2024, Fins said when he began reporting in the state, it was governed by Democrats — the legislature was Democratic and the Supreme Court was made up of judges appointed by Democrats.

“What’s happened is that the population in the state has changed,” he said. “We used to get a lot of people moving here from the Northeast. If you look at northeastern U.S. states, from Maryland north, they tend to be Democratic states. So you would be getting an infusion of Democrats.”

Caputo said COVID-19 played a bit of a role in the population shift, but called it a complicated question.

And, by nature of Florida’s economy, demographics, and reputation, Caputo said the state naturally imports “Republican super-voters.” He also said it’s not just older, white voters. He added that Democrats, at the same time, have been unable to sustain the sorts of voter registration drives and organizations they need to remain competitive.

“And it’s just become either a positive feedback loop, or a vicious cycle — depending on what metaphor you want to use — where Republicans, having won the levers of power in Tallahassee and therefore are able to control the amount of money that goes into the political system, they’re just in this incredibly dominant position,” Caputo said.

In this Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019, photo, a housing development built in Everglades wetlands is seen from the air near Naples, Florida. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

The ambitions of Florida-based Republican politicians have drawn a massive amount of national coverage, often from journalists who have spent little or no time in the state. Florida’s reporters have mixed feelings about that work.

Klas said the national media is prone to not understanding the nuances of how Florida politics work, the most fascinating example of which has been with DeSantis’ tenure as governor. She said DeSantis has done a very effective job at getting national headlines for doing things like telling cruise ships that they cannot impose vaccine or mask mandates or penalizing local governments for mask mandates. She said all of those issues get national attention. But there’s something lost in the process.

“They don’t understand that what has passed the legislature is not exactly the way the governor has wanted it,” she said, adding that many times, the legislature can only get votes on bills if they water it down.

Fins said what he thinks the national media doesn’t get is what’s happening among the Hispanic and Latino electorate — and the factors many (particularly in South Florida) take into consideration when choosing who to vote for.

“I think people get it wrong that we can predict what’s going on in Florida,” Matat said. “I feel like I see a lot of stories that can be speculative, or that people think, ‘Oh, this is what’s bound to happen.’ But we never know what’s bound to happen. Florida is a very dynamic place. And when I say dynamic, I mean that it’s ever-changing.”

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Amaris Castillo is a writing/research assistant for the NPR Public Editor and a contributor to Poynter.org. She’s also the creator of Bodega Stories and a…
Amaris Castillo

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