We The Journalists: John Maines
After 20 years at one of the top daily newspapers in the nation, John Maines helped the Sun Sentinel win its first Pulitzer Prize. While he started out as a growth and development reporter, he quickly moved up in the ranks because of sheer curiosity with… computers.
By Dori Zinn
At a time when computer-assisted reporting was an experiment rather than a necessity, John Maines left his reporting job in Jackson, Miss. in 1989 and took to Washington D.C., learning how to use a personal computer for reporting. If he hadn’t taken the chance on working with databases almost 25 years ago, he probably wouldn’t have gotten his current paper its first Pulitzer Prize.
Despite many other accolades Maines and his colleagues have won, it was the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service that was the biggest. Maines, along with colleagues Sally Kestin, Geo Rodriguez and a host of other Sun Sentinel reporters and editors, teamed up for a three-part investigative series that documented extreme speeding by off-duty police officers in South Florida. The “Above the Law” series led to policy changes and disciplinary action against 163 state troopers and officers.
SPJ Florida: What’s one part of your job that most people don’t realize you do?
John Maines: I build web pages that allow people to search data I have analyzed, such as crime, school scores, IRS “lost” tax refunds, etc. I also build maps now and then – we had a very popular map the night of the 2012 presidential election that showed every precinct in our county, and whether they voted “red” or “blue.” Users could click on a precinct and see the results.
What’s the least glamorous part of your job?
Gathering data. Florida has a very good public records law, but public officials often ignore it or don’t have any understanding of how to get the data out of their computers. Or they want to charge outrageous fees to do it. So we need to push and push to get sometimes very basic data that ought to be available to anyone. Sometimes we need to get the lawyers involved.
Career highlight and lowlight?
The Pulitzer was of course the highlight. Lowlight was back in 1996, when as I said I was experimenting using computers and data. An editor told me “there’s no future for computers in journalism.” Time proved her incredibly wrong, but at the time I wasn’t sure if there was a future for me in journalism.
What’s the most frustrating part of your job?
It’s amazing how many reporters don’t know the first thing about using a simple spreadsheet, such as Excel. I wish more of them would learn Excel – they would find it an invaluable tool for reporting work. But it just doesn’t seem to happen enough.
What’s the most fun part about your job?
When I take data and work with it, sometimes it is a fishing expedition. When we find a great story in the data, that is the best part.
Do you remember a point in your career that you feel you wouldn’t be who you were today without it?
In 1989 I was getting tired of conventional journalism, so I decided to try freelancing. I quit my job as a reporter for Gannett in Jackson, Miss. and moved to Washington D.C., where I worked for four years. Many of the small publications there were using PCs for their work, rather than big mainframes that corporations used. It was working for these publications I learned how to use databases for my work. That really made a difference in my career path.
If you had to do your career over, what would you do different? What’s your biggest regret?
I’d probably move around more when I was a younger reporter – go to more new places, try different jobs. Maybe even take a shot at management.
Who did you admire or look up to when you started out?
No one individual that I can recall. But I certainly admired reporters who worked at the large publications – Washington Post, The New York Times, of course. There was some great writing back then. I guess if there were two people I admired the most, it was Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for their Watergate work. I remember reading their stories as the saga unfolded – I was a teenager – and then later reading “All the President’s Men.” What great stuff.
What piece of advice would you give to young people who are just starting out their careers?
I think I would say have some sort of backup plan if they are entering journalism. Maybe get a law degree. I know several reporters who have gone on to become lawyers, and I think they are better lawyers because of it. Reporting teaches you to think on your feet, and move quickly. The world of journalism is nothing like it once was where print ruled. Those days are gone forever.
What’s the future of newspapers as you see it?
That’s an impossible one to answer. No one has that crystal ball. We know that many newspapers are doing the same thing as the Sun Sentinel – trying to focus more on larger, investigative reporting, because newspapers are the only entities big enough and (still) wealthy enough to do that.
But at the same time they’re talking investigations, many publications are focusing on one measure of success – the number of hits on the internet. We have hit quotas, and there is panic on the online site when we don’t meet the quotas. Look at our web site any day of the week, and you will see photos of cheerleaders or galleries of Miss USA contestants. As I am writing this, there are emails going back and forth about a story idea our online people love: “You know you’re a South Floridian when …”
Those sort of things are popular, but we need to balance that with what’s important: Corruption in city hall; sharp increases in crime or death rates; unexplainable increases in tax rates, and so forth.
We can’t lose sight of that.
Throughout September, October and November, SPJ South FloridaFlorida will feature Q&As every Friday with Florida’s most prominent journalists. Want to see someone featured? Want to conduct your own Q&A? Want to join SPJ? Email us.
Dori Zinn is Vice President of Membership for SPJ Florida. Follow her on Twitter.