Nonetheless the News published stories that would have been inconceivable at most small dailies. Sallah says reporters occasionally worked on projects for three months or more -- a rarity today, even at the nation's largest newspapers. When crack cocaine appeared in Palm Beach County in the mid 1980s, News reporters went beyond quoting cops and reporting arrests. They hung out for hours at a time in front of a place on SW Ninth Avenue in Delray Beach known as "The Hole," a string of small cottages with iron bars on the windows that served as a drive-thru drug mart. On December 28, 1986, Sallah and fellow reporter Gina Smith filed a story that began on the front page with a photo of an apparent drug deal at The Hole and jumped inside to a two-page spread dominated by a map pinpointing every known crack house in Delray Beach, complete with the address, the owner's name, and a photo of each place.
"We did a lot of ambitious stuff like that," says Sallah, "major stuff, major take-out pieces. We won every award [in the small-newspaper] category in Florida, which just shows how well the paper did."
Sallah wrote a piece in April 1987 that he still recalls as one of the highlights of his career. It was the story of Bob Drummond, a rich Boca developer who in the early '60s had it all -- a fat inheritance, boats, racehorses, a huge estate, even a private helicopter. But in April 1962, two of Drummond's four children were poisoned by an 11-year-old neighbor boy who poured weed killer into a milk bottle and put the bottle in Drummond's refrigerator. Drummond's three-year-old son, Randy, and his nine-year-old daughter, Debbie, drank the milk and went into convulsions.
Drummond and his wife, Gloria, loaded the children into their car and drove them about ten miles north to Bethesda Memorial Hospital in Boynton Beach; no hospital existed in Boca at the time. The children survived the trip, but both soon died of arsenic poisoning.
Convinced their kids would have survived had a hospital been located nearby, the Drummonds began a five-year fundraising campaign to get one built. The Boca Raton Community Hospital opened in June 1967.
Sallah heard about the story and realized no one had ever followed up. With the 25th anniversary of the children's deaths approaching, he tracked down the police and doctors who worked the case; the Drummonds' other two children, Bob Jr. and Robin; and Gloria Drummond. He even located the poisoner, Raymer Cassady, who was then 36 years old, living in Deerfield Beach, and working as a garage-door salesman. (Cassady, who didn't comment for Sallah's story, was charged with "delinquency leading to a death" and court-ordered to attend a Boston school for disturbed children. He completed his sentence at age 16.)
Sallah found Bob Drummond living in his car only a few blocks from the six-bedroom Boca home he had once owned. Drummond never recovered from the death of his children and by 1987 spent his time hanging around in bars and crashing with friends.
"That story totally blew the lid off the town," recalls Sallah. "You are talking about a big tragedy with prominent people. I remember Mrs. Drummond having to go to the hospital after she read it, she was so freaked out."
Such stories enabled News alumni to get jobs at papers like The Miami Herald, the St. Petersburg Times, and the Detroit Free Press. Sallah left in 1989, just in time, he says, to miss the News's ruination. "That godforsaken project -- thank God I was gone."
By the late 1980s, Knight Ridder had its corporate finger in the wind, trying to determine what readers wanted from a newspaper. The company had been criticized by Wall Street for putting too much emphasis on quality journalism and not enough on the bottom line. Daily newspaper readership across the United States had been in steady decline since the mid-'60s, and editors were scrambling to find ways to make their product relevant. They started calling readers "customers" and talked about filling the paper with brief, bite-size, superlocal stories. Public-service journalism came into vogue and so, unfortunately, did focus groups.