December 9, 2007

Acting on a tip

An interview with…

South Florida correspondent
New York Post

When NFL star Sean Taylor was shot last month in his Miami-area home, it was a national story. And scooping everyone was a former child actress with almost no journalism experience.

In April, Lisa Lucas graduated from Florida Atlantic University, where she wrote and edited for the student newspaper and freelanced two-dozen features to Forum Publishing Group, a chain of community weeklies owned by the Sun-Sentinel.

Before that, her steadiest work was as an actress. The fortyish Delray Beach resident co-starred in a series of popular ’70s holiday specials with Jason Robards (playing his young daughter) and made guest appearances on sitcoms like “Family Ties” and “Facts of Life.” Her last major role was in 1993, in the Robert Downey Jr. movie Heart and Souls.

When Sean Taylor, a defensive star with the Washington Redskins and University of Miami, was shot in the groin on Nov. 26, the story was covered nationwide. When he died a day later in a Miami hospital, reporters had lots of questions: Was this a robbery gone bad? Retaliation for something Taylor had done? (He was arrested for armed assault in 2005 for allegedly pointing a gun at someone, but charges were later dropped.) Who pulled the trigger? Where were they?

So the New York Post called Lucas and asked her to track down some leads. She had applied as a stringer only a couple of months earlier – at the urging of Steve Ellman, editor of the West Palm Beach-based nightclub magazine Closer and a former Post stringer himself. Lucas had written a couple of stories for Closer after graduating, as she tried to launch her freelance career. This was what they call in the acting business “a big break.”

She made the most of it. In six days – at $250 a day – Lucas racked up two solo bylines, two double bylines, and a tagline. She was first with many details, from Taylor’s sister’s connection to the suspects to how bumbling those burglars turned out to be.

“The big inside information I got was when I tracked down one of the suspects lawyers, Landon Miller,” Lucas says. “He told me about how the crime ‘almost didn't happen.’ The crew of burglars went into the house, heard a noise, and thought there was someone in the house. So they left and got halfway down the driveway before one of the guys said, ‘No, that was me you heard, let
s go back. So they went back into the house – and that's when the shooting occurred.”

How does a novice freelancer land an assignment from the New York Post?

A few months ago, I sent a resume and some clips to the Post to put my name on a list for stringers in Florida. And, basically, I forgot about it. Then, two weeks ago, the phone rang and it was the Post. The editor covering the Sean Taylor story said she got my name out of the Rolodex and “heard” I was “good.” Of course, I didn't ask from whom, nor did I deny it. I just said,
Whatever you need, I'm on it.

With only a few freelance clips from Forum, weren’t you nervous covering this?

Oh yeah. From the minute the phone call came until 8 o
clock that night, I was on a pure adrenaline rush. I kind of panicked at first. There was a moment when I thought I was in over my head – especially, since I had never written or reported for a daily with only a few hours’ deadline.

So what did you do then?

I called some friends in the journalism business, and they said just start with the police and go from there.
My acting background helped with my reporting and investigation technique.

The hardest part of the story?

Figuring out where to start and who to call first. I wanted to find a direction that no other reporter had already gone down.

So what did you do then?

The Post
had given me a cell-phone number for Sean Taylor
s attorney and family friend, Richard Sharpstein. But he didn't answer. So I looked him up online, found a different number for a Richard Sharpstein, and called it. A man answered and said he would love to talk to me and would call back in 10 minutes.

When he didn't, I researched Sharpstein again and found his law firm number. I called there, and when I told the secretary I had just spoken with him, she said that wasn't him – and that wasn’t his number. So I felt like a real jerk, since I had just told the Post editor I had tracked him down. Now I was going to have to say he was an impostor.

A few minutes later, the secretary, who felt sorry for my novice plight, had Sharpstein call. It turned out it was him I had spoken to, at his home number. He was kind enough to give me 20 minutes between his cell phone ringing off the hook and his television appearances.

What’d you get?

The biggest coup came when I called Sharpstein the following day and his wife answered. An hour later, she and I had become
best friends, and she even had friends of the Taylor family and Buck Ortega from the New Orleans Saints – who was Taylor’s college roommate – call me. I drove all the way to Homestead on Sunday night for the wake and viewing just so I could meet Janice Sharpstein, and both she and Richard gave me a warm greeting and a hug. So, not only did I score a great source, I made a new friend who’s invited me to visit her home in North Carolina.

The most shocking part
of the story?

I was thrilled when I heard a reporter on Anderson Cooper
s show quoting almost verbatim from my story about Sean Taylor's sister. I knew that no one else but the Post had reported the facts about her involvement with the potential suspects as I had. And that’s thanks to my new best friend and the information my source shared with me. Scooping one of my idols, now that's a rush!

The funnest part?

I must admit, it was quite a rush saying, Hi, this is Lisa Lucas from the New York Post every time I made a call. I’m a New York girl and the Post (politics aside) has always been my paper of choice – easy to read on the subway, and who can live without Page Six?

The weirdest part?

One thing I found somewhat disturbing was the lack of compassion some of the press had for the grieving family.

I know that a reporter has to be somewhat cold-hearted and callous, but when the editors would jump on something I reported and then turn into something sordid and sensational, it really made me realize that there’s very little heart involved in this job – at least as far as straight news reporting. I think that
s why I’ve always leaned towards feature writing and human-interest pieces.

How many hours did you put in?

The first few days I put in about six hours a day, half of the time on the phone and half doing research – like property searches, reverse lookups for numbers, background info to get family names – on the computer. But by the third day, after I had lined up my sources, I really only put in a couple of hours to get my story. And I rarely left my house – once to go to the wake way down in Homestead.

How did you file your reporting?

I did my reporting and would call whatever editor was covering the Taylor story for that day. Actually, they werent editors – they were rewriters. I would call, read them my notes, and they would type the story as I spoke. A couple of times, I had to pull over while I was driving because they were on deadline and couldn't wait till I got home. The weird thing is I got my byline everyday, but I never actually wrote a word of the story. I supplied information and quotes.

One piece of advice you'd give a fellow novice journalist trying to do what you did?

There isn’t one piece, there are many little ones…

Be tenacious, stubborn, and not afraid of rejection. Follow any leads, even if they’re dead ends, you might turn up remnants of a clue that could lead you to the next important connection.

And humility. I think being humble and honest with the people is helpful in getting them to cooperate. I think, at least for this assignment, the best thing I did was establish relationships with all the people that led me to my new best friend. So park your ego at the door and don't pretend you know it all. Youd be surprised how much help you may get if you let someone know you need it.