In a couple of weeks, he'll be going into what he considers a prime-time beat — covering crime for the Baltimore Sun. His last day at the Times is this Friday.
For the 35-year-old Colorado native, it's always been a dream to live near Washington D.C. And he couldn't be happier about his new assignment.
"I have quite a few friends up there, but I was wary of living in Baltimore having watched every episode of the ‘Wire’ (ironically I’m taking the same beat once held by David Simon)," George emailed Cl late last week. "But friends who have passed through raved about the city, and once I interviewed at the Sun I realized just how important the position was to the paper and to the community. One of my friends joked that taking the Baltimore cops beat is like becoming the White House correspondent for the Washington Post or a Hollywood reporter for the LA Times."
But it wasn't an easy decision for him to leave the Tampa Bay area, which he admits has grown on him since he first began reporting for the Times in January of 2004.
"The challenge of the job in a new urban environment excited me. The Times made it very hard for me to leave, and I agonized over leaving a paper I love very much — not to mention the friends I’ve made over nine years. But I just felt the job was too good to pass up and it offered me a new challenge after working as a general assignment reporter for the last several years," he says.
Working as a GA reporter has allowed George to cover all types of stories. Among his favorites was his April 2009 story on former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Vidal Mills' search for the killer of his son, 17-year-old C.J. Mills.
Another report that ended up having serious ramifications was his series of stories in 2010 and 2011 that detailed a Seffner group home for developmentally disabled men that allowed sex among its residents, including sex offenders. His reporting led state Senator Ronda Storms to sponsor a bill to regulate such activities (it failed to pass), as well as the resignation of the man running the state's Agency for Persons with Disabilities.
A serious fan of good reporting, the University of Colorado grad says while in college he "devoured" stories written by reporters like David Finkel, Anne Hull, Rick Bragg and Thomas French — who all just happened to spend part of their careers at the St. Pete Times. He says while working for the Daily Camera in Boulder, his first job out of school, he began inundating the Times with clips, but was told at various times that he was either too young or too raw to make the grade.
So he then gave up on the Times and accepted a job in Newport News, Virginia. But after just a month working there, he received a call from an editor offering him a job in St. Pete. But that same editor told him it might be considered unethical, or at least not very sporting, to bail out on a job so soon. So the editor told him to call back in a year.
He did, and was hired in 2004, first working in the Times' Citrus County bureau (which no longer exists). He moved to the Tampa bureau off of Ashley Drive in 2006.
Like many of us who find ourselves in Florida from other parts of the country, Justin George wasn't a big fan of Tampa when he first moved here. But he says his own involvement in the community and his appreciation for what is happening in the city now make him one of Tampa's biggest cheerleaders.
And he says that that writing about the downtown redevelopment and its slow evolution into a place that is attracting young professionals has been exciting to observe and report on. "I will miss watching it, and I will miss Tampa," he says.
And of course he'll miss his friends, both at the Times and those he's met elsewhere in this community for the past eight years. "That’s been the hardest part," he confesses. "You can never have enough time to say goodbye."
Justin George's last day at the Times is Friday, November 2. He starts at the Baltimore Sun 10 days later. As someone who has socialized with him on more than a few occasions, let me say that he will be missed.