Chief tenure produces more than 35 years worth of lasting memories
Nov. 9, 2011
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.).
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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