My last column: Good journalism still about sticking your neck out

Bob was a salesman. He didn't sign up for this, and I could see the doubt welling up.

A single error in this story would destroy him. I had no editor, nobody to check my work. If I screwed up, I was going to destroy everything my good friend had risen from the depths of the bottle to build.

I could barely sleep and lost 15 pounds.

The night before paste-up, Bob looked gaunt. I can't do this, he told me. Let's see if we can get the Gainesville Sun to print it.

What was I going to say? "Bob, I need this story to get a job. Who cares about our business and your family.''

I went in the bathroom and threw up.

We talked more. Then, without any prodding from me, Bob said, "Jesus, Mike, I own a newspaper. I have to do this. It's my [expletive] responsibility.''

It is the gutsiest call I've ever seen. Bob had no corporate safety net, no deep well of advertisers, no big-shot lawyers.

Bob bet everything he had built up on a principle. In that one moment he went from an ad salesman to the greatest journalist I would ever meet.

The land transactions were so complicated, and my writing so primitive, nobody in town understood a word of it. But they got the gist. So did the state ethics commission, which issued the appropriate wrist slaps.

The outlets that blackballed the paper eventually took it back. The advertisers stuck with Bob.

"If the mayor stepped in some [expletive], I suppose that's his problem," said the grocery manager.

The story landed me a job with the Melbourne Times, which led to Florida Today, which led here. I've worked on plenty of complicated, high-pressure stories and have received plenty of threats.

It all paled compared to the story I wrote for a weekly newspaper with a circulation of 4,000.

Bob eventually sold the business, bought an RV and hit the road with his wife.

Good, basic journalism and strong principles can pay strong dividends.

We saw that when reporter Dan Tracy spent months slogging through records, uncovering sweetheart deals at the Florida Blood Centers. Reporter Jim Stratton did likewise with Workforce Central Florida.

Henry Curtis, the best cops reporter I've ever seen, uncovered how the Orange County Sheriff's Office was lifting information from secret intelligence files to lobby against a gun bill in the Legislature.

Bloggers don't do this.

The talent bench at the Sentinel has been thinned but remains deep enough to keep an eye on things. For that the community is better off.

(Editor's note: This is Mike Thomas' final column. He is leaving the Orlando Sentinel after 28 years to take a job with Orange County Public Schools.)

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