This column is in response to our Aug. 7 cover story, "The incredible shrinking newspaper," on changes at the Orlando Sentinel. John Haile was the Sentinel's editor from 1985 to 2000.

There is a place in Orlando for quality alternative media criticism, and it was a major undertaking for the Orlando Weekly to tackle a story as complicated as the changes at the Orlando Sentinel.

While some of your analysis seemed well reported, parts fell short of journalism's basics. The weakest part of your work was when you used an anonymous source to assess my 15-year tenure as editor.

I'm not an expert on what's happening at the Sentinel today. All I know is that editor Charlotte Hall faces an enormous task providing quality coverage of a complex community in the face of changes within Tribune Co., the Sentinel's parent, and among media generally.

The challenges of my years were different. They were about building a great newspaper and creating whole new media, as well as a lot of exceptional reporting. Yet the Weekly framed those years with malicious anonymous quotes from a source without offering other views or even calling me for a response. That is a basic of Journalism 101. It's also basic fairness.

Those were years when many very good journalists worked together to put in place a newspaper ranked among the best in the country. We worked to assure a culture of strong journalism values stood both in our newspaper stories and in our groundbreaking work in new media. We worked hard to bring much greater diversity to our staff and reporting.

It was a time of huge expansions of local news and national reporting, additions in Washington, D.C., new bureaus in Atlanta and San Juan, Puerto Rico, a foreign team and one award-winning investigative and explanatory project after another.

We added new sections, including freestanding broadsheet local sections for several counties outside of Orange, revived Florida magazine, and beefed up Business and then Sports. Sentinel reporting was recognized with an array of top awards year after year.

Three of those were Pulitzers, a first for the Sentinel. The first was Jane Healy's Pulitzer in 1988 for a series of editorials on managing Central Florida's growth; the second was on the Volusia County sheriff's reprehensible practice of racial profiling in traffic stops along I-95, in 1993; and the third was John Bersia's editorial series on predatory lending in 2000, a campaign I was able to work on directly with John through many key steps.

You also let your source hide behind a cloak of anonymity while alleging journalistic cowardice. The irony! Such anonymous quotes can rarely be justified, but even then basic journalism demands seeking out other views or certainly calling up the target of the allegation for a response, yet the Weekly did neither.

A call might have turned up Sentinel investigations on such things as Shrine circus profits; Florida's medical malpractice "crisis"; actions that led to UCF president Steven Altman's resignation; Disney's grab of low-income housing bonds; Martin Marietta's missiles near Orlando's tourist strip … and the list goes on.

The Weekly quotes someone as saying I was "bored" with the newspaper and more interested in starting new things such as Central Florida News 13. I hoped people would have seen that we recognized the threat the Internet posed and moved to get ahead of it.

With leadership from many good people in the newsroom, the Sentinel became the new media model for the world. It had the first truly integrated newspaper newsroom with its wildly famous, or infamous — pick your word — multimedia news desk.

The Sentinel staff led the change. The newsroom culture changed, and that's what most other news organizations that tried to replicate our model couldn't figure out.

The sad part is that the rest of the industry, by and large, didn't follow Orlando's lead. Many good journalists elsewhere resisted, believing wrongly that just doing more of the same would hold off the future. What we saw subsequently was that the Sentinel and a few other similarly innovative newspapers could not stand alone against the Internet's impact, and the results swept over the entire industry.

An argument could be made that if most newsrooms had been where the Sentinel's staff was 10 years ago, many of today's problems might have been avoided.

Did everyone in the newsroom love what we did? No. Some believed new media initiatives detracted from print journalism. But the journalistic standards were high. The commitment to community and quality reporting was there, and I have to believe that, whatever the demand on resources, those values still drive every journalist who comes through the Sentinel door today.

To address an Orlando-related issue in 800 words or less, send your column to bwhitby@orlandoweekly.com.


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