In praise of newspapers and other rare gifts
One day soon, I’m going to drive over to Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Gainesville, the city where I live, and find the grave of Matthew Lewey.
Somehow, if belatedly, I’d like to connect with him.
Lewey was founder and editor of one of Florida’s first Black newspapers, the Gainesville Sentinel, launched in 1887 as Reconstruction ended.
He renamed it the Florida Sentinel in 1894, moving the growing enterprise to Pensacola, and later to Jacksonville.
And today, more than a century later, his paper’s name still lives on in a Tampa incarnation. But his name is for the most part forgotten.
Born in 1848 in Baltimore to free parents, he was a lawyer, Florida state legislator, mayor, and Union Army corporal wounded in battle.
By 1907, Lewey was prominent enough to be featured in The Negro in Business, by Booker T. Washington, his friend and fellow officer in the National Negro Business League.
Yet I’d never heard of him.
Through my years working at Gainesville’s newspaper and city magazine, somehow the life of Matthew Lewey, in its glory and, no doubt, its struggles, slipped by.
In this issue of FORUM, we look back through the inky pages of Florida’s newspaper history. From its 18th-century loyalist beginnings through its rip-roaring wonder years to today’s ground-shifting transformation, the fortunes of newspapers and Florida are forever linked.
In our story about Florida’s Black press, you will meet generations of journalists, like Lewey and the Reeves family of the Miami Times, who marshalled their newspapers’ might to fight discrimination and to depict the richness of Black lives in full.
Against today’s backdrop of newspaper layoffs, we talk to newsroom exiles pioneering a non-profit model of news gathering that offers a promising way forward.
I confess my bias, but as you read these stories, I hope you’ll see what I see: the hard-working heroes of Florida journalism. Many do the work with little fanfare; others are acclaimed Pulitzer Prize winners, like the Miami Herald’s legendary Gene Miller, whose tenacious reporting and gripping prose helped free four people wrongly convicted of murder.
Either way, the reward is neither a fat paycheck nor a balanced lifestyle. When Miller died in 2005, an exonerated Wilbert Lee told the Herald, “I think about all those nights and weekends, over all those years, Gene spent working on my case when he could have been home with his wife and children. He was a very great person. He believed in justice and he was a fighter for justice.”
Working on this issue, soaking in these stories, has soothed some of my angst about the future of newsgathering. I’m growing more hopeful that the fierce impulse to shed light and right wrongs will overcome any obstacle to delivering the news.
So on that happy note, let me shift gears, as I practice what I urge others to do when they encounter some small victory: Savor the moment.
So here we go: We are tremendously honored and delighted to tell you that FORUM was named Best Overall Magazine in its category at the recent Florida Magazine Association Charlie Awards Gala in Sarasota, capping 14 awards FORUM brought home, including eight top awards, the Charlies; five silvers, and one bronze.
Savoring the moment, I’m fairly sure, doesn’t call for long speeches. So I’ll just say this: The talent of everyone I work with has made my experience with FORUM so satisfying and joyful.
And that brings me here: These last four years as FORUM editor have truly been a gift. I’ve learned to understand my state more fully and deeply. It’s opened my eyes to the essential mission of this gem of a nonprofit, Florida Humanities. It’s allowed me to work with the most talented scholars, writers, photographers, designers and editors anywhere, as we’ve chronicled the state’s history, culture, environment and literature.
But if the last year has taught me anything, it’s about the fleetingness of time. I’ve lived under pressing deadlines longer than my vanity will allow me to admit — so lucky because I’ve loved my work. But now is the moment, I’m convinced, to experience life without constant deadlines.
So this will be my last issue as FORUM editor. But perhaps not goodbye — you may see me soon working on another project for Florida Humanities.
Whenever anyone has offered a kind word about our work on FORUM, I’ve always replied, “I just don’t want to break it.” Joking, but always fully aware of how precious and rare this magazine is. It has been the greatest privilege.
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