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Sarasota reporter wins National Headliner Award for business coverage

Sarasota Herald-Tribune story on State Farm's high rates in Florida

This AP photo from Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina illustrated a Herald-Tribune investigation into State Farm in Florida.

Update: Paige St. John’s story won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. Here’s more on how she did the story from American Journalism Review.

Paige St. John of the Herald Tribune in Sarasota, Fla., added today a National Headliner Award to her Scripps Howard Award for business and economics reporting for revealing abuse and deception in the Florida property insurance market.

She got started on the story by following up on State Farm’s announcement that it was pulling out of Florida to find that it really hadn’t. She writes:

“A Herald-Tribune investigation finds Florida’s largest insurer has instead found an easier way to profit from homeowners desperate for coverage. And the desperation State Farm helped create allows it to command some of the highest rates in the world.

The conduit for this back-door insurance is DaVinci Reinsurance Ltd., an offshore company with no physical office or employees of its own that sells policies to insurers to cover their storm losses.

The virtual corporation was launched in 2001 by State Farm and a Bermuda reinsurer with which it has close ties.”

Today’s Tip: Check the archives, Paige says.

To get started, she found a press release announcing the venture. She then tracked State Farm’s investment schedule year by year to check its ownership stake, she says.

She then turned to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, to which individual property insurers have to file a schedule of reinsurance treaties for each carrier, she says. She created a database with that information.

Paige St. John, reporter, Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Paige St. John

“Mashing this data with other databases on quarterly policy volume and exposure, transcripts of quarterly earnings calls, presentations to investment houses and copies of actual reinsurance contracts buried in voluminous insurance-rate filings completed the picture, as did color from a handful of industry insiders who knew about State Farm and DaVinci but had little clue as to how big of a role it was playing in Florida,” she says.

“The result is that State Farm and DaVinci’s presence in Florida was far greater than anyone knew.”

Paige receives $10,000 and the William Brewster Styles Award from the Scripps Howard Foundation.

In Basics, Featured, Investigation.

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