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Read it and don’t weep

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Sunday, February 01, 2009
My family landed on the Space Coast of Florida in 1968, bewildered Rust Belt astronauts trying to make their way. We were Ohio transplants who had followed the sun and the promise of renewal like so many fleeing the cold and dreary Midwest. Dad was a salesman, so within weeks he had hatched the idea for a (sometimes) weekly newspaper called the Beach Bulletin.

The BB was a shoestring family operation: Dad was the publisher, sold the advertising and wrote the stories; my sister and I helped set the type and create the pages; all five kids delivered the paper; and Mom worked a restaurant job to actually bring in some money. The misery of working for my father was compounded by having to deliver the paper on foot under the hot Florida sun on weekends. With that kind of delivery system, our circulation was only about 1,000 papers (and I’m glad we didn’t have to audit the figures). Add in the fact that high school friends were dotted all along my route, and you’ve got the perfect teenage nightmare, ink stained and wretched.

So of course I became a journalist and the joke about ink in my blood became part of family lore. When I graduated in 1977 from the University of South Florida, newspapers were one of the most exciting worlds you could enter. Post-Watergate, it was full of idealists wanting to uncover corruption and change the world. That glamour took a while in coming. I started out working for five years at a string of tiny Florida papers, covering fish fries, house fires, traffic accidents, the police blotter, the school board, county courts. I wrote features about local beauty queens and record-breaking tarpon. Those little papers were filled with the ordinary stuff of life and in the mundane there was always magnificence. The teacher who saved a life through poetry or the cop who saved one “just doing my job.”

s_Robin Robin Doussard, Editor
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People would call me or just stop by the newsroom with all sorts of story ideas and when I would reject one as too small or uninteresting, my news editor would deliver the cruel but honest truth: There are no boring stories, only boring writers. Still, I figured when I moved on to a big daily, there would be no end to exciting stories involving high-level corruption and interviews with big celebrities.

That part turned out to be true, but something was also lost. My big papers didn’t care so much about fish fries or local beauty queens. I didn’t get as many phone calls from people with story tips, and they didn’t just stop by anymore. I can’t blame them, what with the security guard and the metal detector in the lobbies. But what I learned at the small papers — that everyone has a story of importance and beauty despite its size — stayed with me. I like to think that even the BB, which had a short but glorious run of six years, also left its mark.

When I decamped the newspaper business five years ago, the industry wasn’t in great shape. As our story on page 26 details, it’s now in a freefall, but small papers still have a chance. I’m glad about that. When there’s no outlet for the story about a giant tarpon or twin midget brothers with a walk-in closet and 1,000 pairs of shoes inside, the world will be a greatly diminished place.


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