In 1999 Conley, who had already lived on the Island for nine years, went to work for Breeze Newspapers, who at the time published two separate papers on and around San Carlos and Estero Islands - The Fort Myers Beach Observer and the Beach Bulletin. We have already learned in Issue 33 of the Sun Bay Paper how both of those papers were started by individual islanders and later sold to Ogden Publications the parent company of the Breeze Newspaper Group.
"I majored in Creative Writing, taught English at Ohio University and had written features for The Cleveland Akron Jazz Report and The Chillicothe Leader, so when I saw an advertisement for a staff writer at the Bulletin, I applied with Editor Julia Campbell. I'll never forget the interview. She asked me to take a "grammar test" and I said no, but here are some writing samples. When she was read the first one, she looked up and said: "Oh my God, you're a real writer. She hired me on the spot, said the Publisher remembering with a note of humor in his voice.
For about six months the forty three year old Conley, who lived on his sailboat "Chel-Sea' in the Back Bay, ran up and down the islands atop a small motor scooter interviewing locals and businesses for Editor Campbell who basically gave the new reporter his head.
"People were writing letters into the paper telling us they really enjoyed the feature story approach I brought to the Bulletin. It was a lot like I did for the Leader, doing longer in-depth articles with notable human interest or historical connotations."
It wasn't long though before Group Publisher Robin Calabrese called Conley into her office and said he needed to cut down on the length of his articles and make them more like "newspaper journalism." Conley remembers that he didn't take the criticism well.
"I asked Robin if she had a background in writing and she said she had a two year degree in Accounting. I told her I had a Doctorate in Law and was the Editor of the Editorial Board, had half my Masters and a Bachelors degree in Writing and that I didn't think she was qualified to judge my work. That didn't go over well and she reminded me who was boss by simply saying - If you don't like the way we do it here quit and start your own paper."
Conley took her advice and quit. Later that day, he stopped at his then-favorite watering hole - The Surf Club to commiserate with his lifelong friend and tavern owner Bruce Cermak.
"I told Bruce what Calabrese had said to me about starting my own paper and he said - "I think you should, people like your writing and we need a real local newspaper written and published by someone who understands Island life, Conley said fondly remembering.
Cermak had backed another attempted startup newspaper on the Beach - The Mullet Wrapper - but felt the people involved in that publication lacked the writing ability and legal background that Conley brought to the table.
"Carl was very motivated and absolutely slept, ate and breathed the newspaper business; he was the right man at the right time and we had just incorporated as a Town and needed our own newspaper, so I was happy to invest in the project and Carl never let me down during his ten years at the helm of the Island Sand Paper," said Cermak with obvious pride.
Over the next ten years, Conley built the Sand Paper into a truly unique and profitable newspaper. Most of the local businesses eventually switched their advertising to the Sand Paper and that forced some changes at the Observer and Bulletin.
"I used to read both the Bulletin and the Observer but until Carl wrote about how both of them were owned by the same company I didn't even realize they had the same owners. And there was no doubt the Sand Paper had a lot more to read in it when Carl was running it. I loved the stories he did about Flipper, the Santini's, Sylvia Earle, Captain Paul Watson, Winny Yordy, Dave Green , A Name on Shindler's List, Paul Isom and the Fishing and Shrimping Industry. I mean there was a lot of material about a ton of good stuff in the Sand Paper during those years," said Remington Beggs who was the first "production manager" of the Sand Paper.
For the first six months Conley wrote most of the newspaper and though he continued to write some feature articles and the Editorials (he wrote all those but one over ten years) the paper was growing so fast it was time to bring in other people.
"One of the first positions I filled was the delivery driver. I hired Don Block who worked across the parking lot delivering Chinese Food for Ming Foo. He worked for me for almost ten years and when I sold the paper he went with the new owners and did all the staff working at the time of the sale," remembered Conley.
"Then I hired Ann Cherry as an office helper, then Massage Instructor and Spa owner, Bobby Mimmo who was the first official Production Manager a job later filled by Mark List who said he was looking for a job as a cartoonist when he walked through the door," added Conley.
Bobby Mimmo remember those early years well.
"I remember when I got my first issue of the Sandpaper. It was issue #1 and in the paper it asked if anybody wanted to either help get this new paper off the ground or volunteer to work at the paper, I had just started my business - Armando's Day Spa and thought it would be a good idea to get involved with a new start-up paper so I could get to know my neighbors and become a better part of my community, I first started out doing ad sales. I remember when I started finally getting a so many ads the guy who was producing the graphics for the ads was getting overrun. So, I went to Barnes and Noble and bought the instruction book on how to run the program we were using at the time and making the ads myself."
"It was really dynamic and Carl moved fast. We would talk about local happenings and all of us would make suggestions on different things we could put in the paper because everybody was contributing ideas on what to add and what to take out."
One of my ideas was to ask if it would be a good idea to take pictures of bands and put those in everybody liked that idea so I started doing that with the other things. I'd go out to the different venues at night and take pictures at the Beach Whale, The Cottage and even the good old Reef that was still alive at that time. It was rockin' this beach nightly.... enough to sit at the production desk and produce the paper for a time. Those early days were sometimes long ones, some days we were there for 12-14-18 hours straight on deadline day to get the paper out. I remember Carl once stayed up for two days to finish issue number 3."
I volunteered and earned some pay on and off for about a year-and-a-half. I figure I earned myself a desk top publishing degree... hands on," said Mimmo who really paid his dues supporting Conley's tireless effort to produce a local paper for the newly formed town of Fort Myers Beach.
Later still came Dr. Jean Matthews our Island "Historian."
"Jean was one of my favorite people at the time, she had written and published her own book "We Never Wore Shoes." about early life on the Island and since she grew up here knew so many people. Between Jean and I we wrote more human interest stories that there were 'grains of sand on the beach' and though that phrase wasn't literal obviously, it was our saying at the time."
Conley said there were three other employees of the Sand Paper that made a big difference in those early years - Karen Mills, Sean Carney and Keri Hendry.
Karen had worked for Hilton Hotels but after hurricane Charley and all the hotels closed she started working at the Sand Paper as the photographer and office manager. Of course, it helped she started dating Conley so it was a great fit. Karen later received a Special Chairman's Choice Award for her dedication.
Sean Carney came to the Sand Paper as a blues guitarist and singer, which is what he's doing again now but at the time he was seeking some down time so he became the government reporter for the Sand Paper.
"I call Sean my Little Brother because we were so close. He's Irish like me and we both play music. He was so typical of the people who worked at the Sand Paper in those days. Nobody was a professional journalist until we hired Trent Townsend and even though he had a degree in journalism I gave him his first job in his field, so we really had an eclectic non-conforming group of people, it was truly a fun and exciting time of growth for the paper" said Conley with a wistful sound in his voice.
Conley did far more than just work as the Editor and Publisher at the newspaper. He served on the Town's Newton Park Committee and later was put on the Advisory Board of the Uncommon Friends with his friend and fellow board member, Sheriff Mike Scott. Conley also served seven years on the Board of Directors and Executive Board for the Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce.
"I went through all the positions with the Chamber - Treasurer, Vice Chairman, Chair Elect and eventually was the Chairman of the Board in 2009. We had a very active Chamber at that time and I also did six years as "Santa" Co-chairing the Spirit of the Holidays and delivering toys for the kids on the Island. I was also Chairman of the Taste of the Beach the year we moved it to Bay Oaks."
Due to a long-standing friendship with Florida Senator Bill Nelson and his wife Grace, Conley was also able to bring national news to the Beach.
“Eventually I learned Bill was a great guy. He invited me to DC on several occasions where I was able to participate in high level hearings on NASA, bio-fuels, Everglades Restoration and other issues important to our Florida ecology and economy. Once he invited me to tour the Everglades on airboats with Senator Boxer from California but I sent Keri Hendry instead and I know she really enjoyed seeing our famed "river of grass' from such a lofty -perch and with some distinguished and dedicated people. Bill even treated me to lunch a couple of times in the Senate Lunch Room when I would travel to DC to do live reporting. I really felt like I was part of what was happening in our government and our "Washington Reports" were always well received by Sand Paper readers.," remembered Conley.
Based on these activities and more, Conley was recognized in 2006 by the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors when his staff entered him in the Golden Quill competition. Conley was a finalist and was given a Golden Dozen award for "excellence in editorial writing. He was featured on the cover of Grassroots Editor and flown to the Gaylord School of journalism where he addressed the Societies' members over a three day conference about his editorial on the topic of the environment.
In 2008, under Conley's leadership, the Sand Paper was designated Business of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce and the following year won the John Mulholland Award for environmental stewardship.
But all good things come to an end as change never ceases it relentless flow. Despite its ongoing success, the grueling schedule and work load required to successfully publish with fresh, exciting material began to wear Conley down and in 2008 the seeds of change were first planted.
"I was approached by a guy who oversaw five newspaper in the New England area. He had been in the newspaper business all his life and wanted to wind down. He also shared a love for sailing and when he learned I'd lived and chartered a sailboat here in the Gulf, he offered to buy the Sand Paper for a million dollars. I almost did it but when I learned he was going to fire all my staff -Mark, Keri, Don and Jim, I balked, rolled up my sleeves and went back to work," Conley said of the now abandoned sale.
But the seed was planted and kept growing and about a year later Conley listed the Sand Paper with the Coldwell Banker and it wasn't long before Bob and Missy Layfield from Iowa were making an offer to buy the Island weekly.
"I wanted a million and a half but we eventually settled on a million two hundred thousand but by financing part of it realized over a million four hundred thousand before it was all said and done. Of course I had obligations to Bruce, commissions to Coldwell and taxes but didn't have any debt otherwise so the deal went through in May of 2010 after a few false starts mostly because I kept changing my mind about selling because I felt the paper was my baby; after all I had birthed it and nurtured it to where it was at the time. We were routinely printing a 36 to 48 page paper and though its gone down quite a bit since then, I 'm very proud to see my efforts produced a newspaper that is still printing to this day," said Publisher Conley with a glint of pride in his eye.
As part of the purchase agreement with the Layfields, Conley also agreed to a five year non-compete that prevented him from publishing within 50 miles of the Sand Paper. Conley honored that agreement and when it expired in May of last year, he bought the old Chamber of Commerce building and, in August of 2015, started publishing what is now the area's latest source of news - The Sun Bay Paper.