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Breaking the mold in journalism

Lucy Morgan

Editor's note: Lucy Morgan is one of the recipients of the American Association of Community Colleges' 2012 Outstanding Alumni Award. They will be honored this month at the annual AACC convention in Orlando.

In the early 1970s, Lucy Morgan was the divorced mother of three and a full-time reporter in the predominantly male world of newsrooms when she decided to attend Pasco-Hernando Community College (PHCC) in Florida.

Within two years, she received an associate in arts degree; within a decade, she won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism—the first woman to win in that category.

Even though by 1985 she had reached the highest honor in journalism, Morgan didn’t forget her humble start or the humble beginnings of PHCC, and how it helped her hone the skills she needed in her career.

“I started taking classes when the college opened its doors in an old high school building with portable classrooms set up in a nearby parking lot and finished before there was a regular campus,” recalled Morgan, an investigative journalist for the St. Petersburg Times Journal. “I took courses as I could schedule them around working full time and taking care of three children—often taking a course because of the time it was offered. I do think it taught me a lot about flexibility—and forced me to learn to do a lot of things simultaneously. Multi-tasking was a necessity.”

Shattering the stereotype

Morgan refused to take the traditional route for female reporters. At the time, most women at newspapers covered fashion shows and society functions, but Morgan chose the world of investigative reporting, scrutinizing corrupt politicians, drug smugglers and mobsters. More than one powerful politician has slipped out the back door rather than risk a confrontation with her, and her investigations sparked death threats. An angry subject of one of her expose even put out a contract for her life.

However, nothing deterred Morgan in her quest for truth. In 1973, she twice refused to reveal a confidential news source and was sentenced to eight months in jail. Three years later, the Florida Supreme Court overturned her sentence, granting reporters a limited right to protect confidential sources. This was an important expansion of the freedom of the press privilege that still protects reporters today.

Her tenacious and honest reporting did not go unrecognized. In 1982, she was runner up for the Pulitzer Prize based on her groundbreaking investigative work on drug smuggling that led to the arrest of more than 200 people. Three years later she made history by becoming the first woman to win the Pulitzer in investigative journalism for uncovering corruption in the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office. The story helped to oust the sheriff and other elected officials. For the same work, Florida Society for Newspaper Reporters awarded Morgan the prestigious Paul Hansel award for distinguished journalism.  

Morgan wasn’t finished making history, though. At the St. Petersburg Times, she became the first woman to be the Tallahassee office’s bureau chief and the first woman to be appointed to the Times Publishing Company’s board of directors. In 1991, she was named associate editor of the newspaper—again, the first woman in that post. In the same year, she was also profiled in a chapter of Women on Deadline, a book about female journalists.

Taking on elder care

Later in her career, Morgan’s journalism took a more personal tone, but still continued to break new ground. In 1997, her moving series of stories about caring for her dying mother—“What Price Dignity?”—encouraged hundreds of St. Petersburg Times readers to share their stories of nurturing sick and dying loved ones.

What began as a personal journey turned into an investigation about living wills, advance directives and nursing home regulations. A follow-up public forum drew 300 participants.

The series was awarded the Media Award from the American Society on Aging and inspired legislation that gave the terminally ill and their families more authority to control health care and end-of-life decisions. Congress also passed a law requiring a field office for an inspector general in each state to monitor Medicare expenditures and prevent abuse.

Recognition for a life’s work

Her lifelong commitment to the truth was praised in 1998 as one of the nation’s most tenacious political journalist in the American Journalism Review’s article “The Shrinking Statehouse Press Corps.” 

She is also admired by those outside the field of journalism. In 2005, the Florida Senate renamed its press gallery the Lucy Morgan Press Gallery in recognition of her more than two decades of dedicated journalism. A year later, the Florida Commission on the Status of Women and Gov. Jeb Bush inducted her into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame.

Her accomplishments have also been honored by her alma mater. In 1994, Morgan received the LeRoy Collins Distinguished Alumni Award from the Florida Association of Community Colleges, which recognizes outstanding achievement among community college graduates.

Morgan, who continues to work as a senior correspondent for the St. Petersburg Times and provide commentaries on Florida politics for National Public Radio, said her educational experience gave her the best preparation possible for her career and encourages others to take advantage of what community colleges offer.

“I've encouraged our grandchildren to start with a good community college before moving on to get a four year degree,” she said. “It’s just a better-rounded experience than they can get at universities, where classes are always more crowded.”