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Friday, 18 March 2016 08:08

News Pioneers, Part 1: A History

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Dr. Jean Matthews Dr. Jean Matthews

Foreword: When I first penned this piece in 2001, it was in response to several inquiries from Lee County residents, particularly those close to the Beach, who wanted to know why there were several newspapers publishing in an area where generally one would be enough. While they had a point, historically, there were usually more than one paper in most locales. Not only did readers get a wider perspective, it also prevented a single paper from “representing” the views of all when it fact they did not. It has been fifteen years since that first printing and it seems time for an update since so much has changed in SW Florida during that time. Our waters, beaches, shores, wildlife and quality of life is under sustained attack by special interests and it is now critical that citizens get the news they need to fight these special interests. All across the nation people are fighting back against those who want to restore “a government by the people for the people.” The Sun Bay Paper is dedicated to getting the news to you that you rarely find elsewhere but first let’s take a look at how we got here.

Thomas Jefferson once uttered a statement about newspapers that has become one of the most often quoted.

This is what Jefferson said:
“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.” – Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787.

What is almost as interesting as the quote itself is the part that most journalists typically leave out. Here is the truncated version most often seen:
“If asked to choose between a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Essentially, Jefferson valued the ability to read and comprehend the news perhaps more than the existence of the newspapers themselves. It leads one to believe that if alternatives to get vital public information were readily available, Jefferson might not have been so enamored with the written news media.

Not too long ago, Cardin, writing for U.S. News and Reports commented.

“Across the nation, small towns and big cities are losing something irreplaceable—their local news. From conservative publications to more liberal media outlets, all have been affected by changes in the newspaper industry that have made it increasingly difficult to survive as an independent voice. Do we need to create new options that will help ensure the survival of investigative and insightful reporting that is most often done today by newspapers? I believe we do,” said Cardin.

Cardin was particularly concerned that the model used by many newspapers – beholden to advertisers to the extent they avoid the “Hard News” necessary to protect citizen’s from political manipulation by entrenched special interests – was making them less effective and valuable. We agree.

But like many important issues, it’s necessary to understand how we got to where we are to appreciate what we have and to know where to go from here.

Accordingly, we are reprinting a history of Beach News this week as part one of a three part report. Next week we will bring the history up to date and in the final segment we will examine how and why “Hard News” is becoming an increasingly rare commodity as the information “wars’ escalate. For just as “knowledge is power,” “William R. Ingedern makes it clear that “the modern world belongs to the half-educated, a rather difficult class, because they do not realize how little they know.”

Understand the lessons of history, no matter how recent and you will beware those who would leave you with a half or incomplete truth by understanding how they achieved the privilege of deciding what is “fit to print.”


“There were two things that we really wanted-a school and a newspaper.”

As Dr. Jean Matthews, long seen by many as the “Island Historian”, related this statement, the importance early islanders attributed to having a reliable source of local news moved me. Right after a school! If a newspaper ranked anywhere near a school in terms of community priority, there must have been a compelling reason, because certainly the education of children has always been a paramount consideration. Furthermore, the fact that it was a newspaper made it even more personal.

Pondering, it became apparent that the isolation felt by the 900 full-time residents attributed to the importance that was attached to having a community sounding board. For this reason there was a thirst for the printed word. People needed a forum-a place that would anchor the community spirit. When a compelling need arises, someone usually surfaces quickly to meet it. This article presents the memories of a few who worked to bring the news to Ft. Myers Beach.

After asking a few questions, it became apparent that Rolfe “Bunny” Schell figured prominently in the minds of local historians. A search revealed that Schell had moved away from the Beach, but as luck would have it, attorney Bill Shenko came up with a phone number. When contacted, Schell, now living in Dade City with his wife Lois, was more than happy to talk about his early years as the publisher of what Schell says is now the Beach Observer. {Since first publication, Rolfe is regrettably no longer with us.}

“The shopper was started by myself and Kay Purinton who had just returned from the Pacific after a stint as a photographer for the government. She was looking for a job, so there was now a photographer on the Beach. I suggested that we do a weekly-illustrated Shopper. I called it something crazy like the Mad Shopper. Kay would take photos of all clients’ goods to sell and I’d cover the editorial part as well as set the typography. I was doing nonfiction writing at the time and had started a small publishing outfit that I called the Island Press. I shipped out what I had put in camera-ready copy set up on an ancient machine called Varityper. (The Historical Society should have the original Varityper as I gave it to Lee Melsek from the News Press) By typing the line twice, you got right justified columns, which I used in my future books. The first one was called ‘1000 Years on Mound Key’, and was published in 1962.”

Lack of funds characterizes many start-up ventures and Schell’s Shopper was no exception. Working with antiquated equipment and always under the gun, he and Purinton gave it the good fight.

“We started with no capital and split profit after paying for the small press printing done on a 10” X 15” copy machine in Bonita Springs. You wouldn’t believe the comical snags we had in the beginning”, said Schell.

What kind of snags we asked? “Well”, answered “Bunny”, “let me tell you a good one. Sometimes when it would rain we couldn’t get the paper out because our folding machine was so big and our garage-office so small the end of the machine sat out in the yard, so we just waited until the rain stopped and then we’d get the paper on the streets”.

Despite working with old equipment and a lack of cash the venture continued to grow. After a while, the Shopper was able to afford a little more equipment. More importantly, they acquired a press, which enabled Schell to print his own papers. The larger equipment and increased business also necessitated moving into larger offices on San Carlos Island by the Beach Bowl.

Schell recalled the hectic pace of these early years. “The idea grew and soon we were splitting a couple hundred dollars for our 3-day work. I heard of a used Davidson press in Miami and Ken Lewis and I drove over in my VW bus to look at it. It was quite ancient, but hardly used, so I paid the money and we took it home, putting it in a garage which later became a real printing room, with a second Davidson and a 14”X20” press”.

Just when the business started running fairly well, Puriton, suddenly quit. “The winter of our first year publishing the Mad Shopper ended with Kay deciding to go north for the summer. She had her fill of commercial photography so she quit. I decided that I could do it by myself, so I took on the writing, photography and developing, plus making negatives to burn on the litho plates, printing and distributing. It was now a five day job, but I received all of the profits which was about five times what we started out with, said Schell”.

Now working full-time on the paper, Schell turned to developing more editorial and article content for the Shopper. This eventually led him to consider selling the weekly so he could devote more time to book publishing. “I had several people wanting to buy it, and eventually an outfit from Orlando bought it, but I was fairly well through with newspapers and worked on magazines. I remained in book publishing until about 1995. Then Jean Matthews bought my ‘Island Press’, but I really enjoyed the times I had running the Mad Shopper”, Schell fondly remembered.

What stands out in Rolfe Schell’s tale, is the fact that his early publishing ventures still exist in some form today. The Mad Shopper became the Observer and Island Press, Schell’s later passion, still publishes books on the island. Only Dr. Jean Matthews, who bought it from Schell in 1994, has renamed it “Shoeless Publishing”. Several of her publications have sold remarkably well, particularly the remarkable book on early Beach history-”We Never Wore Shoes”.

Dr. Matthews still lives on Estero Blvd. in the house her father built in 1952. She says “growing up I always wanted to be a news reporter”. She’s fulfilled that dream in several ways, but most recently she was writing articles for the Fort Myers Beach Observer. “I used to write for the Observer on the comings and doings around town. It was entitled 'What’s Doing on Main Street'. I’d often include historical information”.

Dr. Matthews is a gold mine of information on the history of Fort Myers Beach. She remembers well the early sources of news on the Beach. “They started the Bulletin when I was in the first grade at the elementary school, sometime in the 50’s. At that time the Bulletin was ran by Ginny and Duff Brown.

The Browns were good friends of my parents, who had lived here since 1941. When asked if she remembered what the Bulletin was like at that time she replied that she certainly did.

“The Beach Bulletin was well received. Even though Duff and Ginny started on a shoestring, people supported them in spite of the fact that they weren’t a big corporation. At that time it was a full-service newspaper, like the Observer is now. The Browns would occasionally do features on historical events or in-depth stories. The residents on the island liked that and I suspect they would still like to see more stories like those. Duff and Ginny would give both sides of the story. They were the type of people who cared about Ft. Myers Beach and wanted to give people a chance to speak on the issues of the day. They were also extremely supportive of community projects. I recall they were an essential part of fundraising for our first library.”

Like “Bunny” Schell earlier, Matthews remembers several amusing stories about island life.

“I remember an early issue of The Bulletin when a public service announcement from Mildred Basset, then the principal of Beach Elementary, gave notice to the parents to be sure and have their kids wear shoes for the next several weeks because the cafeteria was being worked on”.
Matthews also remembers that the Browns took on the paper, not because they could make money but, rather, to do something that the island needed.

“We had a desperate need for a paper. After getting a school, it as one of the most exciting events to happen around here. We needed a way to get community news out. Before the paper if you found out something it was probably because Jeff Brame told you. He and his wife Ruth opened Gulf View Shops, which is now part of the Red Coconut. They had a phone and a telegram. When something happened, Jeff would jump in his red jeep and roar around the island and spread the news. If you lived on a boat, which many did, Jeff would jump in the water and swim the message out in his mouth-he was quite a character”.

According to Matthews, before there was a paper on the Beach, “we were considered the playground for Fort Myers proper”. “Islanders wanted an identity, but the only way to get info around here was to talk”, Matthews elaborated.

Matthews also remembers ‘Bunny Schell’ well. “He was a great mind - a tremendous talent. It seemed like he could do just about anything he set his mind to and not only just do it, but do it well. In 1960, when Hurricane Donna came, Bunny and I wrote a book about it entitled “The Last Big One.”

Matthews remembers the devastation of Donna well. “This hurricane was bad! In many places houses were picked up off their pilings and slammed onto the beach”

In Dr. Matthews opinion Hurricane Donna had a lot to do with the current state of Beach development.

“In the year after Donna, property started to sell like mad. The boom was on. Condo’s on the south end-people building houses left and right-I just couldn’t believe the growth coincided with the devastation of Donna.”

This sudden growth was not well received by many of the residents on the island. Many felt it contributed to the decline in social ambiance that existed in the first 60 years of the 20th century.

“When we used to get out of school and come by the Surf Club or the Mermaid, we knew whose daddy was there because we recognized every car”, said Matthews. “”Entertainment used to be at people’s homes, there was a strong sense of community”, she continued.

Does this sense of community exist now? Her answer revealed her insights on current island social life. “Some people feel a sense of community, but a lot of people feel it’s gone. There are many, many sub-communities on this island that are viable and exist without the need to contact the other sub-communities. During the 60’s we had tremendous pressures that alienated one generation from the other. Prior to this we never locked anything up. The trust of older residents in people who moved in began to evaporate. We have far more transients today than we had then. They come for different reasons, if they come for any reason at all. It would be nice if we had some way of connecting, romance and all, but there’s just no trust”.

When asked why, Matthews was ready with an answer. “The problem is too many people in too small a space. The need to control space and possessions creates a gap between islanders. I’m afraid this is going to be an ongoing dilemma. It used to be that the dribble of folks who came to winter were our friends-we couldn’t wait to see them. We didn’t look at them as a separate group. They pitched in and helped the island work and were just generally part of the island social structure. I remember they spent hours and hours planting coconut palms.“

Matthews also feels that things get blown out of proportion today. She talked a little about this.

“When I was a kid, Lee Melsek (now a reporter for the News Press) and I used to swim in the Back Bay all the time. We didn’t have anything but raw sewage going into the bay. Heck, we only had septic tanks and leach lines. If a tourist saw some sewage today, they’d probably go crazy.

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, is one of our most respected newspapermen. He told us why he felt the hard news stopped.

“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 businesses open during the summer were the Surf Club, The Mermaid (now the Beached Whale) and Thompsons’ grocery formerly located around mid-island. [Ed. Note: There’s one for the archives.]

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 now works 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 Clause. 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.” {Whitehead retired from the Naples Daily News, worked briefly with the Sun Bay Paper, and retired last year.}

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 first part of our “History of Beach News Pioneers is in no way a comprehensive report on early 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.

To conclude this segment, [Ed. Note: There’s one for the archives we’d like to leave readers with an old saying by journalist Peter Finley Dunne that has frequently been used by Charlie Whitehead during his years as a reporter.

“The job of a newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and inflict the comfortable.”

Carl Conley

Ed. Note: Next week, in part two of our three part series we will examine the more recent changes that have affected the news in our area.

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