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Encounters | An occasional feature

After 17 years, Pinellas News editor and publisher writes weekly's obituary

ST. PETERSBURG

Robert Potter's run as editor and publisher of the Pinellas News is down to this: semicolons or commas?

He's alone in his newsroom at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, doing one last read of the final edition. Any other week, he might have been done already.

But this week, when he's done, it's over.

He marks suspect punctuation with a yellow highlighter.

Potter's grandfather was a newspaperman, too. Owned the Independent-Messenger in Emporia, Va. His dad later bought it and two weeklies in Culpeper, Va., that he merged and made daily. Ended up with five papers in all.

Now his dad's Culpeper Star-Exponent is owned by Media General, the company that also owns the Tampa Tribune. And the Pinellas News, which Potter bought 17 years ago, will simply cease to be.

He spent Wednesday writing its obituary.

The world has been changing, he notes. AOL and the modem reshaped our lives. The dwindling legal notices business reshaped his.

Potter has been down this path before: the time-to-change-careers path. A week before his wedding in the 1980s, his job running an Air Force Aero Club abruptly ended. He became a commuter airline pilot.

He watched his employer suffer through bankruptcy, and by the '90s knew another life was in order. He figured newspapers would be around a while.

He moved the Pinellas Park News to St. Petersburg, dropped the Park and focused on legal notices. The law requires certain legal action be published in a newspaper. Potter was your guy.

Notice of foreclosure, $150. Notice of adoption, $200. Public hearing, $10.75 per column inch.

The recession hit. Legal work plummeted.

Plus a Sarasota publication, Gulf Coast Business Review, had started to publish the notices cheaper for seven counties. You could spend $25 instead of $35 to print a notice that you're doing business under a name that's not your own or your corporation's.

At its height, Potter published 12,000 copies of the Pinellas News. At the end, he published 1,000. Some weeks, he sold 250 at 25 cents a copy. Some weeks, say, when it rained, he sold none.

Here's what he'll miss most.

Wrapped around those legal notices was his newspaper. Every Friday, he set up an easel at 9 a.m. to plan the next issue. He wrote an acronym down the side of the page: CHIPS. Community. Hot topics. Issues. Perspective. Sports.

He hired kids out of college, gave them their first breaks. They figured out whether they couldn't get enough of this journalism thing, or couldn't wait to get out. They became attorneys, journalists, professors.

That's what he'll miss most. Not driving "the route" — out to the plant to pick up the paper, then around to all 46 coin boxes. Not switching his staff from two full-timers to four part-timers.

He'll miss the kids who used his small brick newsroom at 533 Fourth St. N to figure out what to do with their lives.

The phone rings at 3:12 p.m. "Robert, Pinellas News."

Someone wants to buy an ad.

"Unfortunately, we're putting out the last issue of the paper," he explains. "We're closing."

He offers her the number of another paper, tells her to talk to Bob.

"Even if you're going out of business, you take care of people," he says.

He doesn't know what's next. He has reinvented himself before. But this time he's 57, with a teenage daughter and another in college. He'll figure it out. But first he's going to put out this paper.

He reads his lead headline one last time. It's all caps, right under the mast that says "Since 1954."

"THAT'S ALL FOLKS."

Becky Bowers can be reached at bbowers@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8859. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/bbowerstimes.

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Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes they play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes they may be part of it. To comment or suggest an idea for a story, contact editor Mike Wilson at mike@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2924.

After 17 years, Pinellas News editor and publisher writes weekly's obituary 03/28/10 [Last modified: Monday, March 29, 2010 7:26am]
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