How Florida’s newspapers grew, prospered, and struggled in a state rich in stories

By Gary R. Mormino and David Shedden

Featured image above: Mabel Norris Reese, owner and editor of the Mount Dora Topic newspaper, was a civil rights activist as well as a journalist. Her editorial questioning the local sheriff’s shooting of two of the “Groveland Boys,” four young Black men wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in 1949, led to threats and violence against her and her family. She died in 1995.

The East-Florida Gazette, Florida's First Newspaper
The East-Florida Gazette, Florida's First Newspaper

It was 1782, the last year of the American Revolution, when British loyalist  Dr. William Charles Wells arrived in St. Augustine.  A member of a prominent Charleston, South Carolina printing family, he brought with him a pressman, a “considerable amount of printer’s type,” and a plan.

On February 1, 1783, after hiring an African-American carpenter to help assemble the printing press, Wells launched  Florida’s first newspaper, The East-Florida Gazette, nearly a century after the first Colonial newspaper made a fleeting appearance in Boston.

With Florida still under British control, Wells’ partisan weekly flaunted its allegiance with a British coat of arms across the top of the page. It also provided its readers with what it must have considered necessary knowledge for daily life. In its third issue, readers learned about a new liquor regulation and the quality of local bread and “riotous disorders” that caused “the morals of many of the people” to be “disturbed” and “corrupted.”

The British-aligned weekly lasted little more than a year, closing up shop, not coincidentally,  as Florida returned to Spanish control.

Florida’s second newspaper didn’t emerge for another 32 years. Fittingly, it was in Spanish. Fernandina’s short-lived El Telegrafo de las Floridas, supported the government of French pirate Louis-Michel Aury’s “Republic of Florida”  during his two-month takeover of the island in December 1817.

And so began Florida’s rich newspaper history.

In the almost 240 years since William Charles Wells established Florida’s first newspaper on Cuna Street in St. Augustine, newspapers have recorded the most extraordinary events in our state’s history: the Seminole Wars, secession and a Civil War, Reconstruction, the appearance of the first railroad and automobile, the 1920s Land Boom and Bust, the Great Depression, World War II and VJ Day, rocket launches, the 2000 election, 9/11, and the Great Recession.

In his book, Territorial Florida Journalism, historian James Owen Knauss writes that “at least 45 papers were published at one time or other in Florida” before it acquired statehood in 1845. Forty years later, the number had more than doubled, with the state boasting 94 newspapers that included advertising, according to the 1885 Ayer American Newspaper Annual. Most were weeklies, but six published daily.

1909–10 Lewis Hine’s photo of a Tampa street urchin and paper boy. He is Tony Valenti, the son of an Italian immigrant widow. He became a fabulously wealthy fruit & vegetable broker in Tampa.
1909–10 Lewis Hine’s photo of a Tampa street urchin and paper boy. He is Tony Valenti, the son of an Italian immigrant widow. He became a fabulously wealthy fruit & vegetable broker in Tampa.
Boys with paper routes is an iconic memory of the ’50s and ’60s. In 1964, these Tallahassee Democrat paperboys took part in a newspaper-sponsored bike race.
Boys with paper routes is an iconic memory of the ’50s and ’60s. In 1964, these Tallahassee Democrat paperboys took part in a newspaper-sponsored bike race.

Newspapers established during this time included Florida’s first African American-owned newspaper, the New Era, founded in Gainesville in 1873 by Josiah T. Walls, who served three terms as a Congressman between 1871 and 1876.  Also among Florida’s  late 19th- and early-20th century African American newspaper editors and owners were Walls’ friend and fellow Union soldier Matthew M. Lewey, who founded the  Florida Sentinel,  Gus C. Henderson from the Winter Park Advocate, and John Willis Menard from Jacksonville’s Southern Leader. (See related story).

A ritual and a relationship

Newspapers mattered.  For generations of Floridians, a morning without the Winter Haven Daily Chief or the Belle Glade Sun was empty. Its front-porch delivery came with a “thwack,” a sound as familiar as the clinking of milk bottles or a percolating coffee pot. From the Apopka Chief & Planter and Apalachicola Times to the Zephyrhills News and Zolfo Springs Truth, political candidates have been exposed, public education has been defended, and football coaches have resigned, because of dedicated journalists of the Fourth Estate.

Newspapers have observed the mundane: weddings, births, and funerals; junior high proms, football scores. They have played the role of civic booster, promoting philanthropic causes and helping secure new industries.

And they’ve stood sentinel as Florida watchdogs, as investigative reporters uncovered corruption and laid bare the most powerful officials and institutions.

The Tampa Tribune, established in 1895 by Wallace Stovall as a weekly,  was the first newspaper to open a capital bureau to better hold state leaders accountable. In 1946, when Governor Millard Caldwell and state legislators resolved to modernize public education, it hammered the dreadful conditions in the state’s schools. A decade later, State Senator Harry Stratton of Callahan admitted the Tribune “is just about the best newspaper published in Florida.” He only found one thing wrong. Stratton confessed he wished it were published in Russia “where nobody would read the damn thing!”

At its zenith, The Tampa Tribune, which  shuttered in 2016, boasted a readership ranging from Tallahassee to South Florida.

If, as Ralph Waldo Emerson believed, “an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man,” newspapers surely represent generations of readers and reporters, printers and proofreaders, and delivery boys and girls.

Emerson’s observation encapsulates the St. Petersburg Times. Like most newspapers, the Times’ family tree is twisted and complicated. Debuting in 1884 as the weekly West Hillsborough Times, the newspaper with a circulation of 480 was published in the back of a Dunedin pharmacy. It changed ownership many times in the next 17 years. The paper moved to Clearwater in late 1884 and then in the early 1890s moved to St. Petersburg. Under the leadership of editor W.L. Straub, the newspaper pleaded for prohibition and the liberation of the Pinellas peninsula from Hillsborough County.

Paul Poynter, a veteran newspaper publisher, purchased the newspaper in 1912, shortly after Pinellas County was founded. His son Nelson became editor in 1939 and bought  the paper from his father in 1947.

Nelson Poynter is regarded as one of Florida’s greatest journalists, a quixotic crusader. Poynter, with foresight, was greatly concerned for the independence of local journalism. In 1975 he created the non-profit Modern Media Institute, later named the Poynter Institute. He said that “MMI’s job is simply to be way, way ahead – to fill gaps in journalistic training not being filled by existing institutions…Our society is changing so much from year to year that any medium, whether printed or electronic, must keep up with these changing interests of the people in communicating with each other, or that medium will die.”

Upon his death in 1978  he bequeathed his Times stock to the Institute to keep his newspaper locally owned and independent. Historian Raymond Arsenault writes that “Over a 40-year span (1939-1978), Poynter transformed an unremarkable Florida daily into one of the most respected, honored, and commercially successful newspapers in the nation.”  From its first Pulitzer Prize in 1964 through 2021, Times journalists have been awarded 13 Pulitzers.

Nelson Poynter, legendary publisher of the St. Petersburg Times, was long concerned about the independence of local journalism. In the years before he died, he bequeathed his Times stock to the journalism institute he created.
Nelson Poynter, legendary publisher of the St. Petersburg Times, was long concerned about the independence of local journalism. In the years before he died, he bequeathed his Times stock to the journalism institute he created.
Family portrait: Back row, far right, Frank Stoneman, who would later found and head the Miami Herald, holding his daughter, Marjory. Marjory Stoneman Douglas would become the Herald’s first woman reporter, a famed environmentalist, and the champion of the Everglades.
Family portrait: Back row, far right, Frank Stoneman, who would later found and head the Miami Herald, holding his daughter, Marjory. Marjory Stoneman Douglas would become the Herald’s first woman reporter, a famed environmentalist, and the champion of the Everglades.

Florida Pioneers

The Stevens family typified the mobility of Americans and journalists.  Will Hawley Stevens moved to Florida from a small town in Illinois, where his family ran a newspaper. In 1913, he launched the weekly Stuart Times, which eventually became the Stuart News. “It didn’t take much to start a newspaper 50 years ago,” said Wallace Stevens, his son, in a commemorative issue celebrating the Stuart News’ golden jubilee. “My father got the loyalty and support of the people in the community who realized that the town needed a paper.” Stevens never graduated from journalism school; indeed, he never got past the sixth grade. But he was a smart and savvy printer. “Dad was the best speller I ever knew,” his son said, an invaluable skill before spell checker.

After selling the Stuart newspaper,  Stevens migrated to Hollywood and launched  the free Hollywood Tattler and the Hollywood Sun, eventually combining them as the Hollywood Sun-Tattler. Stevens sold the newspaper in 1943 and bought a dairy. The Stuart News was purchased by Scripps Howard in 1965 and is today part of the Treasure Coast Newspapers and is among 18 state newspapers owned by the Gannett Company.

In 1903, Frank B. Stoneman moved the Orlando Daily Herald to Miami, renaming it the Miami Evening Record. In 1910, after financial setbacks, Stoneman sold the paper to noted local attorney Frank B. Shutts, an associate of railroad magnate Henry Flagler. Shutts became publisher of the newspaper, renamed the Miami Herald, and Stoneman continued as editor. In 1915, he hired his daughter Marjory Stoneman Douglas as a reporter. She fell in love with the Everglades, already threatened by draining and human avarice, and lived her life as one of its greatest defenders.

During Florida’s 1920s land boom, the Herald gained fame for publishing more advertising space than any other paper in the country. In 1937, Shutts sold the Miami Herald to the legendary newspaperman, John S. Knight.

Newspaper rivalries, showmen, and a growing state

The Miami Herald’s Jeanne Bellamy began her 1952 survey, “Newspapers of America’s Last Frontier,” with a rousing story from the 1890s. “Pistol in hand, the first newspaper editor of Florida’s Gold Coast leaped toward the office of his rival. The editor of the second newspaper met him at the head of the stairs and hit him on the head with a printer’s mallet.” The Gold Coast’s oldest paper was The Palm Beach Sun, begun in 1887. The paper migrated from Melbourne to Juno then to West Palm Beach.

While most newspaper rivalries didn’t end in violence, they  were often personal and contentious. The Miami Herald vs. the Miami Daily News, the Sun-Sentinel vs. the Miami Herald, and The Tampa Tribune vs. the St. Petersburg Times.

Newspapers reflected the personality and competitiveness of their publishers. The St. Petersburg Evening Independent may have created the best advertising gimmick. Its owner and publisher, Kentuckian Lew Brown, provided St. Petersburg with its nickname, “the Sunshine City.”  His most famous promotion, the “Sunshine Offer,” guaranteed a free newspaper every day the sun failed to shine. In 1936, after almost 500 sun-filled days, the publicity genius John Lodwick and Brown packed a room with 18-month-old babies and published a group photograph captioned, “Sunshine Babies — never have known a cloudy day.”

The legendary Al Neuharth, who took over Gannett Florida in 1966 and became its driving force, participated in one of newspaper history’s strangest stunts. His Today newspaper,  later renamed  Florida Today and whose colorful style inspired the future USA Today, was located along the Space Coast in Cocoa. Neuharth knew many of the astronauts and was especially intrigued by the Apollo 14 lunar mission. He was determined his newspaper would be on board.  The head of NASA and various politicians soundly rejected his pitch.  He urged Buddy Baker, Today’s community service director, to find a way.  Baker knew the night spots, such as the Carnival Club, where the astronauts were regulars. Assisted by legendary drummer, Buddy Rich, he persuaded mission commander Alan Shepard to include the microfilm of the “local” paper on the 1971 lunar voyage.

Martin Andersen perfected the role of newspaper impresario. Only in America could a near-penniless high school dropout become a political powerbroker and crusading editor. When he died in 1986, the Orlando Sentinel eulogized him as “tough, savvy, blunt, down-to-earth, controversial, at times strident and hot-tempered, at times generous and compassionate, he was one of the last two-fisted publishers of the old roughhouse school of one-man-newspapering.”

In 1931, Texas publisher Charles E. March, owner of both the Orlando Sentinel and the Orlando Evening Star, dispatched 33-year-old Andersen to rescue the newspapers. With Olympian ambition, this threadbare Citizen Kane took over two struggling newspapers with a combined circulation of 10,000. A colleague explained, “Andersen was at his most indelible when he sat down in the editor’s chair and hurled timidity out the window.”

Andersen was a showman. He once purchased gallons of orange perfume from Woolworth’s and poured the liquid into the ink spouts of the press.

Over the course of a half century, Orlando leaped from a city at the crossroads of a rich agricultural region to a metropolitan center and tourist mecca.  Anderson pushed to make it the state capital, and when legislators rebuffed his efforts he took out an advertisement in the Tallahassee Democrat, hectoring, “Keep your state capitol . . . We are a friendly city. We are not scavengers, chiseling the payrolls of other towns.”

Andersen exemplified the impact of newspapers in fostering a growth culture in Florida. James C. Clark, a former Orlando Sentinel journalist and today a University of Central Florida historian, expanded upon this premise.

“Florida was young and became home to a number of first-generation publishers — unlike the North, where newspapers had been owned by the same families for generations. They could afford to buy what were then small-town newspapers and make them grow. . . . Jack Knight, whose family owned the Akron Beacon Journal, bought the Miami Herald in 1937 when Miami was smaller than Akron. He turned it into one of the best papers in the country, creating his own newspaper chain in the process. . . . Julius Davidson and his son, Herbert M. Davidson, purchased what is today the Daytona Beach News-Journal and ran it for 80 years.”

Miami Herald publisher Frank Shutts, at center, with two unidentified companions in 1920. Shutts, a businessman and attorney, sold the Herald to John Knight in 1937.
Miami Herald publisher Frank Shutts, at center, with two unidentified companions in 1920. Shutts, a businessman and attorney, sold the Herald to John Knight in 1937.
The St. Petersburg Evening Independent’s “Sunshine Offer,” guaranteed a free newspaper every day the sun failed to shine.
The St. Petersburg Evening Independent’s “Sunshine Offer,” guaranteed a free newspaper every day the sun failed to shine.
The printing press room of the Key West Citizen, circa 1964.
The printing press room of the Key West Citizen, circa 1964.

The environmentalists

As the state rapidly developed, the environment began to show worrisome signs. Many of America’s leading environmental writers hewed their craft in Florida. Some, like Marjory Stoneman Douglas, whose 1947 Everglades: River of Grass, forever changed public perceptions about the endangered wetlands, never left.

Ernest Lyons was a 25-year-old reporter when he joined the Stuart News in 1931, and served as editor from 1945-1975. Lyons was one of the first to realize that growth threatened Florida’s extraordinary environment. A new generation has discovered his writings, such as this excerpt from one of his newspaper columns about the destruction of the St. Lucie River by man made canals.

“There was never anything more beautiful than a natural South Florida River, like the North and South Fork of the St. Lucie and the winding cypress bordered Loxahatchee.

Their banks of cabbage palms and live oaks draped with Spanish moss and studded with crimson-flowered air plants and delicate wild orchids were scenes of tropical wonder, reflected back from the mirror-like onyx surface of the water.”

Few Floridians have lived a fuller life than J. Earle Bowden. Born in 1928 in Altha, near the Chipola River, Bowden attended Florida State University, where he worked on the student newspaper, the Florida Flambeau.  He wrote for Stars and Stripes while in the U.S. Air Force. Returning to his beloved West Florida in 1955, he was a sports reporter, and then editor, at the Pensacola News-Journal, For decades, he was also the paper’s cartoonist.

But Bowden is perhaps best known for his crusade to establish the Gulf Islands National Seashore. The idea to preserve the beaches and barrier islands from development was controversial.

When he passed away in 2015, journalist Troy Moon eulogized, “J. Earle Bowden, one of the great Pensacolians, has died. . . . As long as the Gulf of Mexico caresses the shores of Pensacola beach, as long as turtles and sea oats and sand dunes have a white sand beach to grow upon, Bowden’s legacy will be secure.”

Barbara Landstreet Frye, known as the “dean of the Tallahassee press corps,” interviews Florida Governor Bob Graham in the Governor’s Mansion in 1979. Frye became United Press International’s Florida capitol bureau chief in 1944 and held that position until she passed away at 60 in 1982. She reported on politics through 11 governors.
Barbara Landstreet Frye, known as the “dean of the Tallahassee press corps,” interviews Florida Governor Bob Graham in the Governor’s Mansion in 1979. Frye became United Press International’s Florida capitol bureau chief in 1944 and held that position until she passed away at 60 in 1982. She reported on politics through 11 governors.
“They burned like cigar boxes,” wrote a Florida Times-Union correspondent, on May 4, 1901.
Newspapers bring the war home: In Tallahassee, a Florida State College for Women student reads about the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Newspapers bring the war home: In Tallahassee, a Florida State College for Women student reads about the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Reporting tragedy and joy

Newspapers captured the most pivotal moments in Florida history: elections, wars, natural disasters.

The state’s most transforming election occurred in 1860. The October 20, 1860, St. Augustine Examiner left little doubt about what it considered its stakes

“Your country calls upon you to rescue her from the bloody hands of Northern fanaticism, from the torch of the incendiary, and the dagger of the assassin. Go to the polls and there do whatever freemen may do to put down Lincoln. The ally and confederate of John Brown.”

When Abraham Lincoln was declared the victor, the Tallahassee Floridian responded with spartan resolve: “Lincoln is elected. This is the beginning of the end, Sectionalism has triumphed. What is to be done? We say resist.”

The war left Florida desolate and destitute. The Florida Peninsular, a Tampa newspaper, documented the consequences.  On March 3, 1866, the paper observed, “No more war claims were to be paid due to lack of funds. Poor people were refused help as there was no money.”  By January 23, 1871, conditions had deteriorated: “We now have no Sheriff and are at the mercy of the lawless, the rowdy, and the drunkers. Firearms are freely used in the street and the lives of peaceable citizens are in danger daily.”

The greatest fire in state history occurred in Jacksonville. “They burned like cigar boxes,” wrote a Florida Times-Union correspondent, on May 4, 1901, describing thousands of homes lost in a conflagration that stretched a half-mile wide and two miles long. “Thousands of people are homeless,” the paper reported, “bereft of all their earthly possessions, except the clothes on their back.” Heroes emerged. The newspaper applauded the “cool and calm” ladies working at the Western Union office, who refused to evacuate, when the fire was 40 feet from their building.

When a wall of water obliterated Cedar Key in 1896, one of the first reporters to arrive announced, “Cedar Key is a place of desolation and death.” When Hurricane Andrew walloped Homestead in 1992, a Miami Herald journalist likened it to  “a Category 5 chain-saw . .  that cut a swatch of ruin like no storm before it.”

The war over there

World War II was one of journalism’s finest hours.  Newspapers helped the public understand the faraway war, printing maps of combat zones, saluting local heroes, and lamenting the deaths of our “boys.”

Papers introduced readers to the horror of war. On April 10, 1945, a letter appeared in the Fort Meade Leader: “I’ve seen the most terrible thing imaginable. . . . Buchenwald Concentration Camp No. 12, as the Nazis called it . . . Anything you read about the horrors perpetrated by these fiends is true — and double — I have seen the horrors myself.”

Jack Bell was known to several generations of Miami Herald readers by his column’s colorful name: “Town Crier.” A colleague wrote in his 1967 obituary that Bell was the “defender of the little guy, benefactor of the sick child, a soft touch for the down-and-outer. He was a critic of the powers that be and an advocate for those without counsel; he defended the weak and the poor from abuses by authority.”

Born in 1895 on a farm in Illinois, he enrolled in college where his pitching prowess attracted scouts. But World War I interrupted his major-league dreams. He operated a machine gun with the 363rd Infantry, receiving the Distinguished Service Cross.

During WWII, Bell was Florida’s answer to famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle, writing about GIs in the foxholes. After interviewing captured German General Von Rundstedt, the Miami Herald announced on June 5, 1945, that Jack Bell, the Town Crier, would cover the India-Burma campaign for the Knight chain.

Newspapers covered the war’s ending, recording the happiest day in Florida history. “Many motorists started their car horns tooting,” reported the Tarpon Springs Leader, “and many others add still more clamor and din to the occasion, tying tubs, cans, and boilers to the back of their automobiles.” The Tampa Tribune recalled gingerly, “Young and old joined the kissing contests. Acquaintance was not necessary, although some girls insisted on kissing only sailors.”

But it wasn’t only war and  natural disasters that cast a pall over sunny Florida. The state’s newspapers mirrored Southern attitudes toward race and custom.  Newspapers reported in graphic detail the ritual and horror of lynchings. In a 1909 editorial, the Tampa Morning Tribune candidly defended the shameful state of race relations and decades of segregation.

“As at presently situated, the negro is a political asset of the South. He is practically disfranchised. He is permitted to use the ballot very infrequently and, even then, his vote is perfunctory, ineffectual exercise of an empty right. In Florida, the negro has no voice whatsoever in the selection of U.S. Senators, representatives in Congress, Governors, statehouse officers, members of the Legislature, county officers.”    But over time, newspapers, which so often reflect the worst of  human prejudices, sometimes provided the best hope for justice, thanks to the work of the state’s investigative reporters.

In 1949, four Black teenagers were arrested, accused of raping a 17-year-old white woman in Groveland, in Lake County. Sheriff Willis McCall was a die-hard segregationist and sadist. McCall shot two of the men when they were in custody and handcuffed together. One of the wounded young men was shot 400 times.

Thanks to the persistent work at the time of Mabel Norris Reese, owner, editor, and reporter for the Mount Dora Topic, history has redeemed the Groveland Four and exposed Sheriff McCall. “One of the bravest women in Florida history,” says Gary McKechnie, who is heading a drive to erect a statue of the celebrated journalist.

In 2012, Gilbert King, a former journalist, received the Pulitzer Prize for his magisterial book on the subject, Devil in the Grove. In 2019, the Orlando Sentinel apologized in an editorial for its late 1940s and 1950s Groveland coverage. “We’re sorry for the Orlando Sentinel’s role in this injustice. We’re sorry that the newspaper at the time did between little and nothing to seek the truth. We’re sorry that our coverage of the event and its aftermath lent credibility to the cover-up and the official, racist narrative.”

Mabel Norris Reese, owner and editor of the Mount Dora Topic newspaper, was a civil rights activist as well as a journalist. Her editorial questioning the local sheriff’s shooting of two of the  “Groveland Boys,” four young  Black men wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in 1949, led to threats and violence against her and her family. She died in 1995.
Mabel Norris Reese, owner and editor of the Mount Dora Topic newspaper, was a civil rights activist as well as a journalist. Her editorial questioning the local sheriff’s shooting of two of the  “Groveland Boys,” four young  Black men wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in 1949, led to threats and violence against her and her family. She died in 1995.

Then in 1963, a murder occurred in Port St. Joe, a paper mill company town in Gulf County. Two white gas station attendants had refused service to two young Black men, Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee.  An argument ensued. Days later, police discovered the bodies of the two white men. Police beat the Black suspects and coerced a confession. An all-white jury sentenced them to death on the very day of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Three years later, Curtis Adams, Jr., convicted of killing a gas station attendant in Fort Lauderdale in 1963, confessed to the Port St.Joe murders.  Yet prosecutors refused to reopen the Pitts and Lee case.

And so the situation may have remained if not for a dogged  Miami Herald reporter named Gene Miller. Miller began investigating the tangled proceedings and his unwavering attention to the case — he wrote 120 articles – persuaded two ACLU attorneys to represent Pitts and Lee. Meanwhile, a woman retracted her story that the men committed the crime. Still, justice would not budge. They remained in prison.

But in 1974, Arthur Kennedy, a Southern-born, Yale-educated lawyer, obtained a copy of Gene Miller’s soon-to-be-released book about the Pitts-Lee injustice: Invitation to a Lynching.  Kennedy happened to be Governor Reubin Askew’s legal adviser. The governor read the book and ordered an investigation. In 1975, Askew pardoned the two innocent men. They had spent nine years on Death Row. The State of Florida awarded Pitts and Lee an executive pardon and $100. Miller’s book sold few copies, but he admitted that he had written it for an audience of one: Governor Askew. Miller won the Pulitzer Prize for his crusade for justice. In 1998, nearly a quarter century after the innocent men’s release, the Florida Legislature awarded Pitts and Lee $500,000 each.

Gene Miller, center, with Freddie Pitts, left and Wilbert Lee, right, who were death-row inmates when Miller, a reporter with the Miami Herald, wrote story after story that eventually helped free them in 1975. Miller won his second Pulitzer Prize in 1976. When Miller died in 2005, 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.”
Gene Miller, center, with Freddie Pitts, left and Wilbert Lee, right, who were death-row inmates when Miller, a reporter with the Miami Herald, wrote story after story that eventually helped free them in 1975. Miller won his second Pulitzer Prize in 1976. When Miller died in 2005, 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.”
In 1968, Lucy Morgan described her new beat at the St. Petersburg Times as “roam around Florida and cause trouble.”
In 1968, Lucy Morgan described her new beat at the St. Petersburg Times as “roam around Florida and cause trouble.”

A golden, if transitory, age

Fueled by the talents of some of the most acclaimed reporters, photographers and editors in the nation, Florida newspapers experienced a golden age in the years between the 1940s to the early 21st century. Herald journalists, columnist and best selling author Carl Hiaasen, Edna Buchanan, and Gene Miller were among those who won Pulitzer Prizes for their achievements. They also brought a literary style to their work that drew upon the successes of “New Journalists,” such as Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe and Hunter
S. Thompson.

A newspaper-rich state with circulation buoyed by transplants, six papers vied for national recognition, with scores of Pulitzers among them: the Miami Herald, The Tampa Tribune, St. Petersburg Times, Orlando Sentinel, South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Palm Beach Post.

Another Pulitzer winner is Lucy Morgan, who lived the credo of Mr. Dooley, the character created by early 20th-century Chicago journalist Peter Finley Dunne, who explained that a great newspaper “comforts th’ afflicted and afflicts th’ comfortable.”

Morgan speaks with a Southern lilt, and has written with full-throated clarity and purpose during a 50-year-journalism career. Politicians and sheriffs quickly learned not to patronize Lucy Morgan. Her path to the Florida Newspaper Hall of Fame began awkwardly in 1965. “A woman knocked on my door and asked if I would write for the Ocala Star-Banner. I was a stay-at-home mom with three little kids. I had never written anything before. . . . The woman said the local librarian told her that I read more books than anyone else in town and she thought, if I could read, I could write. They paid me 20 cents an inch.”

After two years as a general assignment reporter in Ocala, she joined the St. Petersburg Times in 1968, working a beat she described as “roam around Florida and cause trouble.” In 1973, she was convicted of contempt for refusing to disclose a confidential source and sentenced to jail. In 1976, a three-year legal battle ended with new rights for reporters when the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling, Morgan v. State, overturned her earlier conviction. She and Jack Reed shared a 1985 Pulitzer Prize for rooting out corruption in the Pasco County’s Sheriff Office.

Morgan took on a North Florida sheriff who was demanding sex from female inmates. She interviewed the inmates and reported their stories. Justice triumphed. Soon after, when Morgan walked into her office, “there were a dozen roses on my desk. The card read, ‘from the women you believed.’ ” Morgan became the St. Petersburg Times’ Tallahassee bureau chief in 1985, retiring in 2013.

Florida’s greatest afternoon newspaper was the Miami News, which began life as the weekly Miami Metropolis in 1896,  and became a daily in 1903. In 1923, former Ohio governor James M. Cox purchased the newspaper, renaming it the Miami Daily News-Metropolis.

In 1925, at the heart of the great land boom, the paper became the Miami Daily News, and Cox erected a headquarters, the Miami News Tower,  which stood as a monument to the hallowed newspaper. The structure became the famous Freedom Tower in the 1960s, a symbol of liberty and processing center for Cuban émigrés.

The Miami News and its journalists received five Pulitzer prizes, including the first ever won by a Florida newspaper – in 1939, for its campaign to recall the Miami City Commission – and for Hal Hendrix’s investigations uncovering Soviet missile bases in Cuba. Other News luminaries included Tom Archdeacon, John Keasler, Lou Salome, Bill Baggs, Jane Wood Reno, Howard Kleinberg, and cartoonists Don Wright and Ann Mergen.

But clouds were forming in the Miami skies over the News. “Unforeseen by those who celebrated Miami’s 50th birthday in 1946 were social forces at play that would eventually kill the Miami Daily News,” wrote former Miami Herald executive editor Tom Fiedler in 1996. Fiedler noted that in 1946, new municipalities — Bal Harbor, Surfside, Bay Harbor, and others – sprang to life. Americans and Floridians could now live in the suburbs and work in the cities.

But at a cost. “For evening newspapers like the Miami News,” wrote Fiedler, now dean of the College of Communications at Boston University, “it would eventually mean death. The time subscribers devoted to reading before dinner was eaten up by the commute.”  The Miami News published its final edition on December 31, 1988.

9/11 and a shifting landscape

Beginning in the 1990s, analysts noted troubling trends in the newspaper industry. Only the St. Petersburg Times, among the large dailies, was locally owned. T.D. Goldman wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review in 2015, “But the Times is a singular journalistic institution — a paper that has long stood out for its culture, its independence, and a sense of its own history.” Most of the state’s newspapers were controlled by large chains.

Still, the newspaper business was profitable because Floridians depended on newspapers to find a house or bargain and read about weddings and sports.  Thursday newspapers bulged with grocery and department store advertisements.

But new technologies were starting to erode newspapers’ ability to bring breaking news and earn revenues. Newspapers did what they could to compete.

Most Americans first heard about Pearl Harbor over the radio and President Kennedy’s assassination on television. On both occasions, newspapers rallied with “Extra” editions. The 9/11 tragedy played out on live television, but  newspapers published special editions. The Tallahassee Democrat, for example, rushed to press 15,000 special-edition issues.  In Naples and Fort Myers, newsstands reported they could not keep up with the demand for newspapers, as collectors and readers emptied shelves. In the midst of the tragedy, newspapers were experiencing an Indian summer – a fleeting moment when most readers preferred the paper copy to online versions.

Yet, sadly, 9/11 was precisely the type of story that revealed the coming obsolescence of printed news. Hereafter, readers and viewers, accustomed to 20 years of 24/7 cable news,  would expect to know what happened five minutes ago, not last night.

According to the University of North Carolina “Expanding News Desert” report by Penelope Muse Abernathy, Florida daily newspaper circulation declined by nearly 50 percent between 2004 and 2019, dropping from 2.9 million to 1.5 million as the number of daily newspapers shrunk from 43 to 36. The number of weekly newspapers dropped 34% in the same time period, from 205 weeklies to only 128.

Although specific Florida numbers are not readily available, in 2020 the Pew Research Center released a report that said that U.S. newspapers across the country have shed half of their newsroom employees since 2008.

Other troubling signs by the first decade of the 21st century: Circulation was slipping, young people were largely indifferent to printed newspapers, and grocery stores and shopping malls no longer advertised in newspapers – indeed, the shopping mall was also falling victim to online shopping. Automobile, real estate and classified advertisements in newspapers shrank precipitously.

Investors and chains gobbled up Florida papers. In 2012, the New York Times Company sold the Sarasota Herald-Journal, the Gainesville Sun, the Ocala Star-Banner, the Ledger in Lakeland, and a dozen other papers to Halifax Media Group, founded in 2010 with the purchase of the Daytona Beach News-Journal, one of the last family-owned newspapers in the state. The New Media Investment Group, which owned Gatehouse Media Inc., acquired Halifax in 2016 for $280 million. In 2019, Gatehouse Media merged with Gannett, becoming the largest U.S. newspaper chain, owning 18 Florida papers, operating under the better- known Gannett name.

In 2020, the Chatham Asset management hedge fund acquired the McClatchey company, owner of the Miami Herald and the Bradenton Herald, among many other papers. And in 2021, the shareholders of the Tribune Publishing Company, owner of the Orlando Sentinel and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, approved the company sale to the Alden Global Capital hedge fund.

Courtesy of Tampa Bay Times.
Courtesy of Tampa Bay Times.

Across Florida, newspapers began selling their landmark buildings, taking advantage of rocketing real estate prices to help keep their businesses afloat. The fate of the building at One Herald Plaza symbolizes the changing newspaper landscape. A Malaysian gaming company purchased the 12-acre headquarters of the Miami Herald for $236 million. Built in 1963, the building, wrote journalist Andres Viglucci in 2015, “was the grand dame on Miami’s bayfront, when they started taking her down, chunk by chunk.”

She added, “But then she was built to be nearly indestructible, to keep the presses running even after a hit from the strongest of hurricanes, and, not incidentally, to remind everyone in the vicinity — and who could miss its commanding presence and the purplish nighttime glow of its massive neon letters suspended over Biscayne Bay? — of the power of those presses in the affairs of the city.”

Just think of all the journalism history that took place in that building. Under the leadership of publisher David Lawrence, for example, the Miami Herald received five Pulitzer Prizes.

But journalism, all would agree, is not reflected in a building or even in the reassuring and familiar feel of a printed page. The golden age of Florida newspaper history may be over, but journalists across the state are still finding a way to continue to tell the stories that become the first draft of Florida history, no matter how those stories are delivered.

Gary Mormino is the Frank E. Duckwall professor of history emeritus at University of South Florida St. Petersburg, where he is also scholar in residence at Florida Humanities. As a boy, Gary delivered newspapers for the Wood River Journal, the Alton Evening Telegraph, and St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Gary Mormino is the  Frank E. Duckwall professor of history emeritus at University of South Florida St. Petersburg, where he is also scholar in residence at Florida Humanities. As a boy, Gary delivered newspapers for the Wood River Journal, the Alton Evening Telegraph, and St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

 

David Shedden is the special collections librarian at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus library. He also served as the archivist and research librarian at the Poynter Institute for 28 years. Florida newspaper reporters were still using typewriters when he started working there.

David Shedden is the special collections librarian at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus library. He also served as the archivist and research librarian at the Poynter Institute for 28 years. Florida newspaper reporters were still using typewriters when he started working there.

Fall 2021 FORUM Magazine Chronicling Florida

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2021 Issue of FORUM Magazine. Visit our collection at the USFSP Digital Archive by clicking here.