From 1968 until this week, the Gabber Newspaper published weekly in Gulfport. Through three owners, two recessions and 9/11, the paper hit the streets every Thursday.
This week, the owners — The Gabber was one of the last family-owned papers in Florida — announced the March 25 issue would be their last. For the duration of the pandemic, if not forever.
To the rest of the world, the closure of a weekly paper covering hyperlocal news is just one more journalistic collapse. The Gabber didn’t run AP stories, cover state or national politics, run restaurant reviews or pay a large staff. What does it matter if a paper like that closes?
Here’s my answer.
I walked into The Gabber offices for the first time in September 2003. I had no real clips to speak of; I showed the publisher brochures I’d written about the county’s artificial reef program and wastewater treatment facilities.
The specifics of what happened that day are burned into my mind, but what I remember most is this: I was newly unemployed, newly divorced and newly arrived in Gulfport. Ken and Deb Reichart, the owners, took a chance on me. Through them, I became part of my community; I learned what it meant to be a small-town reporter. The Gabber covered city hall with a microscope larger papers couldn’t. Every other Tuesday I had a front-row seat to some of the best reality TV in the world — but I also learned compassion for our elected officials and realized how fortunate I was to have landed in a town where people cared enough to argue over how many chickens every home could have (five.)
Small-town city council meetings didn’t always offer excitement, but my job included all of Gulfport’s happenings. I covered a kidnapped goat (later found in a bar, producing one of the best headlines ever: “So this goat walks into a bar”), the duck scandal of 2013 (we called it Waterfowlgate) and Gulfport’s annual tree lighting in the park.
To the community, The Gabber meant more than something to read every Thursday. One night the former mayor, who had some health issues, didn’t look so good, so I gave him a ride home. When a duck in a local park had a broken wing, people called the paper and begged us to help. When we got wind of a Little League scandal, Ken urged caution, reminding me that yes, we needed to report the truth but we needed to wait and see if the city could fix it before we destroyed Little League.
“If we run that story, Gulfport doesn’t have Little League,” he told me. “Think about that.”
(The city manager did fix it, and Little League remains.)
The Gabber, from the owners on down, had a lot of faith in the power of community, and the community, in turn, had a lot of faith in it.
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I didn’t realize how much Gulfport relied on The Gabber until one of the delivery companies we used grew unreliable. Until we hired a new delivery company, I was scared to walk downtown on a Thursday morning; people would see me and demand I do something about the lack of a paper. Also — as many local businesses and organizations learned — you could buy all the advertising you wanted elsewhere, but if you didn’t send a news release to The Gabber, your event may as well not be happening in Gulfport. The owners were generous with that, too, spoiling local organizations with almost-guaranteed press. All you had to do was send a news release and they’d squeeze it in the paper. They served on the local Chamber of Commerce, marched in the Fourth of July parade and, at every turn, understood what it meant to be good corporate citizens.
Somewhere, I still have the first photograph I took at The Gabber: two women renovating an old vegetable stand into a restaurant called the Leaky Tiki. (It later became Pia’s.) I still have the last thing I did for them, too: my final opinion column, about leaving the paper. I cried when I wrote it, because it was time to move on, but I didn’t want to leave. The Gabber taught me what community meant, and I was scared that without it I wouldn’t have that community anymore. Of course, my community didn’t leave me. Gulfport’s always going to be Gulfport, sweet and a little offbeat and fiercely protective of its own, even when you don’t like each other much, and for that, I am grateful.
Which brings us to now. Almost six years later, my heart, even when I worked elsewhere, remains in the checkerboard-painted building on 49th Street S. For almost 13 years, the Gabber family was my own. The paper is a constant companion for many in Gulfport. We’re a little less Gulfport without it.
Perhaps this hyperlocal paper shutting its doors will go unnoticed in America, especially in the wake of a pandemic. For this small city by the sea, though, its absence isn’t only another paper gone; it’s a hole in the heart of the community it loved — and who loved it — so much.