Last week we left Dr. Jean Matthews, owner of Shoeless Publishing, as she was relating how the island had changed during her lifetime. Recently she observed how these changes filtered down to news sources. “I noticed about two years ago that the local papers stopped covering controversial subjects.”
Joe Workman, who lives on the Beach with his wife Grace, and is one of our most respected newspapermen, talked about some of the reasons this may be so.
“It’s not easy to separate the money from the story. This is one of the greatest problems in a weekly.”
Workman worked for the News Press for 35 years. “I started as a reporter and went through a series of promotions, copy editor city editor, regional, then Assistant Managing Editor, Associate Editor and finally spent my last 15 years with the News Press as a Columnist,” a job that along with City Editor he considers the best he’s had.
One thing is for sure his long tenure and varied positions have given him unique perspective on many issues, some of which are active and controversial right to this day.
“The island was a lot different back in the 60’s. On my days off I’d go to the south end of the Beach to read and I might see 2-3 people,” he said and then continued, “back in those days most of the shops just closed down in the summer, we really didn’t have season and off-season, it was winter and summer that determined the pace of the island, about the only business open during the summer were the Surf Club, The Mermaid (now the Beached Whale) and Thompsons’ Grocery [Ed. Note: There’s one for the archives] formerly located around mid-island.
When asked how he compares the island then to the island now Workman didn’t hesitate, “I’m not crazy about the rapid growth-particularly high rises-too much of the development has not been orderly.”
“Several factors have played a role,” he said, “but one of the reasons was encouragement by the county commissioners.”
“The county was giving the Beach accesses away to adjacent land owners. “They’d request that the county vacate and they would! This continued until the News-Press crusaded against it with help from the Jr. Chamber (Jaycee’s). This campaign brought a halt to vacating the accesses”. This statement shows how much the printed word can influence people, and, in turn, public policy. Workman says this is a positive role for newspapers, one that he wished was taken more seriously today. Tom Myers a respected local businessman concurs with Workman. “At one time the News Press took island issues a little more seriously. Now we seem to be, for lack of a better word, like a stepchild. The only time they love us is when it’s a crisis or some kind of a juicy story.”
Myers has a good memory for island history and his recollections of the newspaper business are no exception.
“Fran was good friends with Carol Lamb, who used to be the Editor of one of our local papers. Of course we both knew Lou Slack from his time with The Mad Shopper. The island was a different place-a laid back kind of community. The people who owned and ran the newspapers were an integral part of the island’s social group. I think a new newspaper would add to our community”.
Workman echoing some of these sentiments remembers how Rolf Schell and Jean Workman talked about the limited capital and other problems associated with bringing the news to the Beach. Well, Workman echoed some of the same sentiments.
“It’s very hard to start a new newspaper. It takes a lot of capitalization. Another thing is peoples reading habits. I’ve observed that even in towns with terrible newspapers, people are set in their ways. It’s habit. They get used to picking up a certain paper and getting them to change is tough. If a paper is good I believe it can be done but it’s a long up-hill trip.”
Workman who came to Ft. Myers in 1962 and moved on the Beach in 1968 says that while “he doesn’t really remember all the newspaper people here on the Beach, since his connections were in town, he does have a recollection of a few.
“My wife, Grace, whose father was the Episcopal Priest on the Island, worked for Ginny and Duff Brown. They had the Mad Shopper after ‘Bunny’ Schell. It’s now the Observer. The Beach Bulletin was a small newspaper that focused on community news instead of being an advertising vehicle. I used to run into Duff at the Surf Club. He told me that a newspaper chain once said he had to sell his paper because he wouldn’t have the ability or capital to compete. You know, not too many people know that Duff’s wife, Virginia ‘Ginny’ Brown’s mother was a very famous newspaper woman out of Philadelphia -one of the pioneering women in the business.”
Workman also remembers when Dave Holmes was the editor of the Beach Bulletin. “They (Dave and his staff) wrote the paper, printed it and even delivered it. Up until a few months ago he was the editor of the Pine Island Eagle. Now he works for the News-Press. That’s some of the problems with newspapers-the turnover is tremendous. I worked for the News-Press for 35 years and I’ll bet I only know about 10 now.”
Starting on the Beach with a weekly and using that experience to segue into a job with a local daily is not all that uncommon. Charlie Whitehead, who worked for the Naples Daily News, wrote for the Beach Bulletin from 1984-87. He lives on San Carlos Island with his wife Debbie and their four children. He lives in the same house his Grandparents bought in the 1960’s. Whitehead loves being a newspaperman and his enthusiasm shines through. He says that at one time Lou Slack when he was working the Observer was “a great character-sort of the unofficial mayor of Fort Myers Beach. He used to play Santa Claus. I remember when Charlie Bigelow wanted to buy Bowditch Point. Lou went downtown (which he usually never did) in his Santa Claus hat and stood up during public input and told Charlie he’d better buy the Point.”
When it comes to Beach news, Whitehead has a great memory for people who played a part. “Barb Rae used to work at the Bulletin as Advertising Mgr.-she still lives nearby in San Carlos Park.”
“Pam Oakes used to by the Editor of the Bulletin. She now owns and operates Pam’s Motor City where she’s a mechanic.”
“Joe Workman, now there’s a good guy to talk with. He’s been around the business a long time and in many capacities.”
Whitehead’s recollections are too numerous to list them all, but he holds a special thought for Carol Lamb, who he says was “the most influential newspaper person on the Beach until 1988. She really went out of her way to get the news out. She was accessible and passionately cared about what happens to people on the Beach-young and old-rich and poor”. Lamb was a newspaper Editor for over 30 years. She eventually left the Breeze Corporation to run for County Commissioner in 1988 which she lost by a narrow margin.
Whitehead also expressed feeling about a reporter being close to their beat.
“The more local a newspaper person is the better. Living away from the Beach makes it harder to do a thorough job, no matter how hard a person may try. When you go home to another place you’re not in this community anymore.”
What’s the main difference between working on a big daily and a community weekly?
“A weekly is not a scoop oriented paper-but if you work the local angles hard enough you can occasionally get a breaking story. Before I came here the Bulletin was a family owned newspaper. The Staff was accessible. It’s very important that the Editor of a weekly be available.”
Difficulties often arise getting and keeping good editorial help. Whitehead says “this is because most weeklies are run on a shoestring. [Boy, we’ve heard this before!] A weekly paper is an unbelievable amount of work. It would take a tremendous amount of dedication to start a newspaper today, not to mention money.”
Loquacious and insightful, Whitehead has developed his own personal philosophy of what constitutes a good reporter. “When we reporters write something good about someone or something, it’s not because we’re their friend, or, when we write something bad we’re not their enemies.”
While this two-part attitude is in no way a comprehensive report on newspapers and reporting on the Beach, we hope that it has provided some insight on how print media arrived on Estero and San Carlos Islands and how the people involved with starting and running the papers have interacted with the social fabric of Ft. Myers Beach. The possibilities for exploration are limitless.
In conclusion, we’d like to leave readers with an old saying by Charlie Whitehead.
“The job of a newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and inflict the comfortable.”