The Newsroom Phil Built

As Phil Lewis embarks for new adventures after 35 years at the Naples Daily News, many former staffers have waxed nostalgic about his leadership and his journalism. It’s my honor to do the same here.

I grew up in Phil’s newsroom, the one on Central with dirty carpet and back copies of papers stacked so high on reporters’ desks they were once deemed a fire hazard. Strolling through the newsroom, Phil commanded respect with both his size and reputation. The reporters I worked with called him the “Tall Blond.”   

He earned respect because of his passion for journalism. The corner office never insulated him. Phil was always a reporter first, hungry for his staff to get the next scoop.

In my years working with Phil, he was always calm and cool. Criticism was always private and constructive. I never heard him raise his voice or come unglued. This is unusual, given that newsrooms are pressure cookers full of cuss words and egos and turf wars.

But despite his cool demeanor, those who had worked with Phil for years could read the worry on his face. “He’s stressed,” reporter Denise Zoldan would say. “He always breaks out when he’s worried.”

Many times, my reporting caused the worry. Over the 10 years I worked for Phil, a parade of folks marched through the upstairs newsroom to pitch Phil on why he should fire me. The joke in the newsroom that hit too close to home was that Phil used to have friends before Gina started reporting on Stadium Naples.

Years later I received many accolades and journalism awards for the Stadium Naples coverage, but it was Phil’s courage and steadfast support that allowed these stories to make it into print and so stir the public’s conscience.

Stadium Naples was the $100-million golf stadium brainchild of ESPN founder Bill Rasmussen that ultimately ignited a corruption scandal that resulted in the arrests of three county commissioners, the former county manager, and six private developer partners, including their attorney and Rasmussen.

The Stadium Naples stories got rolling just before Phil was promoted from managing editor to executive editor. I was 25 at the time, working the county government beat, and had been at the paper less than a year.

One day, while I was covering the county commission meeting, then County Commission Chairman John Norris pointed at me sitting in the back of the chamber and announced that I was lying and continuing to report facts I knew weren’t true. Norris had been publicly fighting with Clerk of Courts Dwight Brock over where tourist tax money had gone to support the Senior PGA golf tournament. Phil had seen it all go down on TV and when I got back to the newsroom, Phil asked me if I knew what Norris was talking about. I didn’t. Phil dashed off a letter to Norris and asked him to specify what facts he was referring to, noting that the paper would eagerly correct errors of fact. Norris responded that I had wrongly reported that public dollars went to the foundation created and controlled by ESPN founder Bill Rasmussen, and Phil asked me on what I’d based the reporting. I showed Phil copies of the county government checks to the foundation that tracked the public money…and contradicted Norris’ claims.

I learned the most important lesson of my reporting career that day from Phil.

His job as editor was to “trust but verify.” My job as a reporter was to carefully document everything and keep organized. That lesson ultimately saved our jobs — and careers — when seven years later, Rasmussen filed a retaliatory libel suit against the Naples Daily News seeking $10 million.

By then, I had kept everything. I had amassed tens of thousands of documents — at least 20 banker boxes of public records, court documents, law enforcement reports, Securities and Exchange Commission filings, private documents, and interview notes. The documents allowed our attorneys from Baker and Hostetler to crush the case at the earliest possible stage and the judge’s ruling was upheld by the Second District Court of Appeals.

The story began in 1997 with no feat of investigative reporting: Late afternoon on a Friday we got a faxed press release that casually disclosed that Norris was a partner in the Stadium Naples deal. Eric Staats and I broke the first story the next day. A few weeks later, I obtained a confidential business memo that showed that County Commissioner Norris knew he would receive a no-money-down 12.5 percent limited partnership stake in the $100-million Stadium Naples development months before he cast key votes to give Rasmussen’s foundation hundreds of thousands in public money to support the senior PGA golf tournament that was to be a marquee event for the stadium. He also had voted to waive audits of the public money, after the fact.

Such confidential private business documents give editors heartburn when they make their way into reporters’ hands. I hadn’t done anything to encourage the source to steal the private business document, so Phil opined I could use it in my reporting. Norris and his partners had been careful to legally form the partnerships after Norris had cast the key votes. But the memo was evidence that the terms of what Norris would get in the deal had been ironed out months before his votes.

We had the smoking gun.  

The public outcry in the Letters to the Editor came immediately. I continued to dig up facts. Editorial Page Editor Jeff Lytle hammered the ethical issues on the editorial pages. Opinion columnist Brent Batten raised questions and followed up on his own earlier reporting about gifts and free golf given to the commissioners. Editorial cartoonist Mark Giaimo added biting satire.  

Early on, there was heavy community pressure on Phil and Publisher Corbin Wyant to back off on the Stadium Naples stories. They wouldn’t. Both insulated me as much as possible from the high stress of that pressure. They had my back. Phil had set the standard that he would trust, but verify. Later, Publisher Bob Burdick backed up the Stadium Naples work.

Just tell the readers what you know, Phil would say. And that meant tell readers what I could prove and document.

City editors Mike Cote, then Dave Rush and by 1999 Allen Bartlett, coached my reporting and edited my stories. On the most sensitive stories, Phil would come in on Saturdays to back-read my stories before they hit the Sunday paper. I can’t remember him ever changing or pulling anything. But I think Phil, like me, didn’t sleep on those many Saturday nights. It felt like we were holding our breath until Monday morning: That’s when we’d get into the office to see what email and phone call reaction the story had touched off.

The Stadium Naples saga, eventually dubbed “Tedium Naples” by my newsroom colleagues, lasted seven years. The back story and behind the scenes details are too long to cover in this format, but the curious can find them in a longer piece at Watchdog City.

The Stadium Naples reporting took us on a ride we never expected: There were stolen brokerage firm documents handed over in a paper bag, a mob-tied Naples boiler room, the collapse of a $60-million Ponzi scheme, the discovery of another County Commissioner’s $100,000 loan that wasn’t paid back, the questionable conduct of the elected prosecutor who closed the case without filing charges, the extraordinary intervention in the criminal case by Gov. Jeb Bush at the urging of the local Republican Party leadership, the execution-style killings of two New Jersey stockbrokers, and the attempted murder of a Manhattan judge that became the basis for a “Law & Order” episode.

Phil and the Naples Daily News sued the Manhattan DA to get access to public records, and Phil sent me to New York to cover the stock fraud trial of Naples-based brokerage firm owner Anthony Marchiano, who was accused of defrauding customers of $100 million in pump-and-dump stock schemes linked to the Stadium Naples partner and nine other companies.   

The trial was supposed to last three months. It lasted for seven. Jilted customers from around the country followed our coverage on the Web. After four months, one of the former Naples brokers on trial approached me in the courtroom before the day’s proceedings got under way and told me I had one more shot at getting myself killed by reporting what was about to happen next. He then went behind closed doors and pleaded guilty as part of a deal with prosecutors.

Shaken, I called City Desk Editor Allen Bartlett. He told Phil, who wanted me to come home that night. Although I felt scared, I didn’t want to leave and stop covering the trial. “Do it for your editor,” Phil said. “I won’t sleep until I know you’re home safe.”

I eventually went back to my rented room in an apartment off Mott Street and covered the remainder of the trial, coming home just a month before 9/11.

The Stadium Naples case in Collier played out for two more years. After a series of plea deals, nine of the 10 defendants pleaded to reduced charges, with all charges dropped against one defendant. Only one commissioner served jail time. The case had finally ended in 2004. Then we got sued. Two stressful years later, Stadium Naples finally ended with an appellate ruling that our reporting was accurate. Truth was a defense.

Over the years, I received national, state and regional journalism awards and recognition for the Stadium Naples work. But Phil had put the weight of the entire newsroom behind me—financial resources and people including editors, copy editors, page designers, graphic artists, photographers and especially the editorial page.

But I wasn’t alone in receiving this kind of support from Phil.

Phil and his newsroom helped launch and nurture the careers of many talented reporters and photographers: Brigid O‘Malley’s “Above the Law” series chronicled the dealings of corrupt cops in Immokalee; Alan Zaiger told the heartbreaking stories of heroine overdoses on Marco Island in “Poisoning Paradise”; Janine Zeitlin documented modern-day slavery in a four-day series on human trafficking. Diana Smith gave a voice to the unseen Haitian community in her beautiful feature stories; Ralf “Ted” Kircher explained the threat to Southwest Florida’s most crucial resource in his story “Water”; Liam Dillon served as a watchdog during the building of Ave Maria; Marc Caputo dug into Everglades politics; Miriedy Fernandez’s stories exposed wasted tax money at the North Naples Fire Department; Cathy Zollo’s reporting launched the Daily News’ 15-part series called “The Gulf in Peril.” The multimedia series “Paradise at What Cost” explained the area’s affordable housing crisis. Visual guru Eric Strachan put the Daily News on the national journalism map for outstanding photography by nurturing talented photographers. There are too many more talented journalists who have worked in Phil’s newsroom to name here.

I left the Naples Daily News in 2006, and I cried for weeks after I resigned. I told Phil that I couldn’t imagine that my own father could have treated me any better than he did. He asked: “How can you go? You’re the one with the passion.”

“That’s why I have to go,” I told him. I had always dreamed of one day being the editor of the Naples Daily News. But I told Phil then, that I wouldn’t want his job. That dream died with the realization that the newspaper business model couldn’t survive. Scripps had decided to spend tens of millions on a new building. Alan Horton had retired as head of the Scripps news division. And the corporate winds and commitment to investigative reporting had shifted.

I left then with the desire to build a different news business model. It’s taken more than six years to build Watchdog City, and its future is a gamble. But the foundation of investigative reporting we learned at the Naples Daily News and the care and teaching of great mentors like Phil Lewis and City Editor Allen Bartlett are what drive co-founder Cathy Zollo and I. We care too deeply about public service journalism to sit back and watch it die. We had a newsroom staff of more than 100 the day I left. When Phil left the newsroom in June, the newsroom was barely a third of that size. 

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