Joe Braddy

Former News Chief Managing Editor Joe Braddy is a Winter Haven resident and News Chief subscriber. He continues his writing, editing and media work on a personal and freelance basis. He launched this website on Sept. 11, 2011. He can be reached by e-mail at joebraddy@earthlink.net.

 

 

News Chief tenure produces more than 35 years worth of lasting memories

Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011

NOTE: This column originally was written on or about Aug. 22, 2011, and appeared in abbreviated form in a Sept. 11, 2011, special section of the News Chief newspaper (Winter Haven, Fla.).

By JOE BRADDY

WINTER HAVEN — Five years ago, for a weekly column I wrote for this newspaper (the News Chief), I told the story about my very first experience as a journalist.

In August 1976, just before the start of my junior year at Auburndale High School, I covered on a tryout basis for the weekly Auburndale Star the championship game of a city men’s league softball tournament.

I wrote that my five- or six-paragraph sports story — oh, how I worked on that little story — didn’t just tell the Star’s readers about the game, it came to serve as the “obituary” for my plans at the time to become an architect.

As things turned out, that story also served as the beginning of a long professional and personal relationship with the News Chief, which owned the Star and which celebrates its notable centennial on Sept. 28.

It’s interesting, I was thinking the other day, that in the News Chief’s first 100 years, I was associated with the company for more than a third of them, culminating in February after a five-and-a-half-year stint as managing editor.

A lot of memories can build up in 35 years. Please indulge me as I share some that readily come to mind.

First recollections of the News Chief

Long before scrapbooking became a national fad, I started a series of high school scrapbooks during my sophomore year (1975-76) at AHS. And the News Chief — known then as the Winter Haven Daily News-Chief — and Star were my best sources of material.

Often, I would bother my mother for loose change so I could pedal my bike to the old TG&Y department store (now a Winn-Dixie store) off Havendale Boulevard, plop the coins into the newspaper racks, get the latest issues and take them home so the stories about AHS could be clipped out. The News Chief, because it was a daily (really, six days a week at the time), got most of the coins, especially the day after football Fridays. My three high school scrapbooks are filled with sports stories by the likes of former News Chief staffers Dick Scanlon and Chip Lewandowski.

Perhaps some teenagers who kept high school scrapbooks in succeeding years pasted in their pages some of the sports stories that I wrote as a newbie newspaper professional. It’s a nice thought at least.

High school and the ‘stringer’ years

During my junior year at AHS, after that initial summer softball story and my first newspaper “byline,” I dived head first into the high school journalism program, which had strong ties to the local paper, the Star. The association was so close that high school students, senior Andy Warfield and I, served as the Star’s sports staff in 1976-77. Andy was the Star’s sports editor his senior year and I was the sports editor my senior year.

Andy and I doubled as correspondents or “stringers” for the News Chief, and often our stories, topped by our respective bylines, would appear in the daily.

It was pretty cool stuff, getting into games for free, working from the stadium press box or roaming the football field sidelines with a camera, getting out of school for afternoon basketball and baseball games, and being published in “The Chief.”

Trips to the News Chief office on Sixth Street, S.W., were common, because the weekly Star was printed there. I was fascinated the first time I saw the Star running on the News Chief press, and the ink there began creeping into my blood. To this day, the smell of a newspaper printing plant — the mix of ink and newsprint — is a pleasant experience for me. And though I’ve worked from newspaper bureaus, there’s no substitute for a newspaper office with a pressroom attached. There’s something really satisfying about “putting a newspaper to bed” and then feeling the floor under you vibrate as the press runs and prints off thousands of copies.

Barely age 20 and on the News Chief staff

After graduation from high school in June 1978, focus on a couple of years of college separated me from day-to-day newspaper work, but by late November 1980, a door opened for me to work full time at the News Chief following a brief run as community editor at the sister Star.

Until November 1982, when I went back to the Star as editor, I was in the News Chief sports department. It was during this period, 1981 I believe, that the News Chief became a true daily, moving to seven-day-a-week publishing. It had previously been a six-day-a-week paper, with the Sunday edition printed and delivered on Saturday afternoons and containing mostly Friday’s news. First, a Sunday morning edition was launched, temporarily leaving a void on Saturdays, and then a Saturday morning edition was started.

Monday through Friday, the paper published for afternoon delivery and continued that way until about 1995 (I wasn’t on the staff at the time), when it converted to morning delivery throughout the week.

Though the addition of a morning paper each Saturday and Sunday increased the workload and changed our work schedules, it was all pretty exciting for the News Chief staff and particularly for those of us in the newsroom. If a newspaper is going to call itself a daily, then, by golly, it should come out seven days a week.

It was also during this time that the News Chief received incredible national recognition for journalism. The paper earned a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner — the award from the Society of Professional Journalists is almost in the league of the Pulitzer Prize — for an investigative series titled “Bad Apples of Education.”

Shepherded by then-Executive Editor Ken Fortenberry and written by investigative reporter Mark Vogler, the series was about the failure of the Polk County school system and districts throughout the state to weed out teachers or teacher candidates with a history of felonies and other crimes. I recall that the series led to the passage of some state legislation that required more stringent background checks for teacher candidates.

Some things you can’t forget

My many years with the News Chief — I worked for niche newspaper called Canada News from November 1993 through February 2000 but still freelanced for the Chief — saw many big news events at the local, state, national and international levels, but for me there was only one “Stop the press!” moment.

It was on Jan. 28, 1986, that crystal clear but — for Florida — bitterly cold day when the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch from the Kennedy Space Center.

We were still publishing an afternoon newspaper and I was working the news desk that morning. We had planned to “hold” the newspaper to get in the story about the shuttle’s liftoff, but continued launch delays eventually forced us to release our pages — minus the launch story — to the pressroom.

I had already started a meeting with some of the copy editors in the conference room when word began filtering out that something with the shuttle had gone terribly wrong.

I vividly recall dashing back to the pressroom, finding the lead pressman, Curly Bennett, and yelling to him over the noise of the press: “Curly, shut it down! The shuttle has exploded!”

Within an hour or so, we had reworked the front page and a couple of inside pages of the News Chief to get in as much as we could about the Challenger tragedy. After that, we immediately began work on a special edition.

I am almost certain that the News Chief was the first newspaper on the streets in Polk County to announce the shuttle disaster. In that case, our afternoon printing cycle served us well and served our readers well.

There were other unforgettable times, like the Christmas freeze of 1989, when we were forced to publish an already planned early issue even earlier because of “rolling blackouts” from Tampa Electric Co. The last story we pulled from the typesetter, just before the power went out again, was a major breaking development in the U.S. military invasion of Panama: The location, but not yet capture, of Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, who had fled during the invasion.

And then there was 1990, the year that made me wonder why I had given up on architecture to make a career out of journalism. In that year alone, the News Chief was sold to a new company; we broke in a new publisher; we switched to Macintosh-based desktop publishing; we redesigned the newspaper; we engaged in some consolidations with the Haines City Herald and Lake Wales Highlanders, two new sister publications resulting from the sale of the News Chief; we had local, state and national elections to cover and report on; and the United States was gearing up for war with Iraq over its invasion of Kuwait. (To make matters more interesting, my wife was pregnant with our second child.) But, I — and we — got through it all.

Sept. 11, 2001, was another momentous day for the nation and for newspapers across the land, but because I was working in the News Chief prepress and technical services departments at the time, I wasn’t involved in the journalism of the day. Instead, I was there to support the newsroom and its efforts to produce issues that recounted the horror of the terrorist attacks. The same held true when three hurricanes struck Polk County in less than a month in 2004.

Change, change and more change

I was coached and later coached others to accept and go with the flow of change in this business, and at the very least I can say I was adaptable. I had to be.

In the years I worked for the News Chief, from August 1976 through February 2011, and with a gap of six years and three months in between (from mid-November 1993 to late February 2000), I worked for six ownerships and 11 publishers, and I worked for or alongside 10 editors. A tried to the best of my ability to be a constant and a steadying influence — a bridge through all the change.

I came to believe that all of these business shifts — going in this direction under one brand of leadership and moving 180 degrees with the next — wasn’t necessarily good for the newspaper, and that its most effective days as a voice for the community and a force for good locally probably were the years it was owned locally, by the W.E. “Bill” Rynerson family.

But, in 1979, the Rynersons decided to sell the News Chief and its related publications. Corporate ownership began with Multimedia Inc. and then passed on to Stauffer Communications, Morris Communications, very briefly to GateHouse Media and then, on March 10, 2008, to longtime competitor The Ledger in Lakeland and its parent, The New York Times Co.

The names of all my former publishers come to mind fairly easily: Jack Rynerson, Bill Clifton, Dave Bethel, Don Hatley, Lee Porter, Larry Beasley, Wayne Ezell, Robin Quillon, Armand Nardi, Nelson Kirkland and Jerome Ferson. (I was with Canada News when Joe Ben Oller served briefly as News Chief publisher.)

I respected all of my publishers, personally liked several of them and greatly admired four of them. And out of respect, I won’t list who falls into which category.

And the editors since 1976? I can name Jim Clark, Larry Kieffer, Ken Fortenberry, Walt Land, Rick Gunter, Gary Maitland, Tom Dardenne, Bill Runge, Christie Gilpin, yours truly and, currently, Bill Blocher.

Kieffer, a onetime editor of the Auburndale Star, was my first newspaper mentor. He was the one who gave me the tryout with the softball tournament, encouraged me as a high school student and then helped me get the job in sports at the News Chief in late 1980.

Fortenberry was a very good but aggressive editor, perhaps too aggressive for sleepy little Winter Haven. After leaving the News Chief, he bought a community paper in the one of the Carolinas, published a series of investigative stories that got a sheriff convicted of corruption, suffered threats to his family and ended up being featured in a segment on the CBS news show “60 Minutes.”

Land’s rise to executive editor was very interesting. He began his career at the News Chief as a news clerk, moved to sports and later to the news desk, and then was promoted to editor when Fortenberry left. And it was Land who promoted me from city editor to managing editor in early 1987.

It was during Land’s tenure as editor that the News Chief led local reporting about the controversy surrounding the school system’s use of polygraph tests on students. (One of the students forced to submit to a polygraph test happened to be the son of a News Chief newsroom employee.) That series of stories and related editorials led to the School Board eventually banning the use of polygraph tests.

Gunter was a great community newspaper editor and a good fit for the News Chief and Winter Haven, and he developed a lot of friendships here. I recall well the great commotion that was raised in the community when he was dismissed from his job sometime after the first Gulf War.

A book’s worth of memories

My Aunt Mary Ogburn suggested recently that I write a book. That’s not a desire right now, but if I did write a book, it would be easy to fill the pages with memories of my News Chief-Auburndale Star days, the famous people I’ve met (Ted Williams, George Will and Bob Graham among them), the newspaper-related experiences I’ve had and the great people I’ve worked with.

My colleagues have included Ron Starner, a former News Chief reporter, opinion page editor and city editor and one of the most intelligent and versatile people I’ve known; and a former sports editor by the name of Durward Jackson Beauregard Sycamore Buck. (He said it; I didn’t make it up.) We just called him Dur.

Newspaper journalism isn’t the best career for folks with families — the hours are long, work often runs late into the night, the stress is high, expectations from the public are great and the work does follow you home — but the field can be extremely rewarding, and the News Chief has always provided me with a sense of purpose and a decent living.

I’m grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to serve the News Chief for a good chunk of the 100 years the newspaper has served this wonderful community. May she serve it for at least 100 more years.

 

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