Editor’s note: This article was originally published in FORUM: The Magazine of the Florida Humanities, Fall 2021, issue. It has been edited for length.
It was 1782, the last year of the American Revolution, when British loyalist Dr. William Charles Wells arrived in St. Augustine. The South Carolinian brought with him a pressman, a “considerable amount of printer’s type,” and a dream.
On Feb. 1, 1783, Wells launched Florida’s first newspaper, The East-Florida Gazette.
In its third issue, readers learned about a new liquor regulation, the quality of local bread and “riotous disorders” that caused “the morals of many of the people” to be “corrupted.”
So began Florida’s rich newspaper history.
Newspapers mattered. For generations of Floridians, a morning without a newspaper was empty. Front-porch delivery came with a “thwack,” a sound as reassuring as the clinking of milk bottles or a percolating coffee pot.
Newspapers have recorded the mundane: weddings, births and funerals. And they’ve stood sentinel as Florida watchdogs. From the Apalachicola Times to the Zephyrhills News, mayors have been exposed, public education has been championed, and football coaches have resigned because of the Fourth Estate.
The Tampa Tribune, established in 1895 by Wallace Stovall, was the first newspaper to open a capital bureau to hold state leaders accountable. In 1954, state Sen. Harry Stratton of Callahan admitted the Tribune “is just about the best newspaper published in Florida.” Stratton, however, wished it were published in Russia “where nobody would read the damn thing!”
If, as Ralph Waldo Emerson believed, “an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man,” newspapers embody generations of printers and proofreaders, photographers and cartoonists, and delivery boys and girls.
Like most newspapers, the St. Petersburg Times’ family tree is complicated. Debuting in 1884 as the weekly West Hillsborough Times, the newspaper (circulation 480) was published in the back of a Dunedin pharmacy. 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 the tyranny of Hillsborough County.
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Paul Poynter, a veteran newspaper publisher, purchased the newspaper in 1912, shortly after Pinellas County was founded. His son Nelson became editor in 1939. Nelson Poynter, expressing concern for the independence of local journalism, bequeathed his Times stock to the Modern Media Institute in 1977 to keep his newspaper locally owned and independent. (It is now the Poynter Institute.)
The Stevens family typified the mobility of journalists. Will Stevens moved to Florida from Illinois, where his family ran a newspaper. In 1913, he launched the weekly Stuart Times. “It didn’t take much to start a newspaper,” remembered his son, Wallace Stevens. “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. “Dad was the best speller I ever knew,” his son said, an invaluable skill before spell checker.
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 Frank B. Shutts, an associate of railroad magnate Henry Flagler. The paper became the Miami Herald. In 1915, Stoneman hired his daughter Marjory Stoneman Douglas as a reporter. She fell in love with the Everglades, already threatened by draining and human avarice.
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 were as personal and contentious as their cities and publishers: the Miami Herald vs. the Miami Daily News and the Tampa Tribune vs. the St. Petersburg Times.
The St. Petersburg Evening Independent created an irresistible advertising gimmick. Owner and publisher, Kentuckian Lew Brown, provided St. Petersburg with its nickname, “the Sunshine City.” He famously guaranteed a free newspaper every day the sun failed to shine. In 1936, after almost 500 sun-drenched 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.”
Martin Andersen perfected the role of newspaper impresario. A near-penniless high school dropout, Andersen become a powerbroker. When he died in 1986, the Orlando Sentinel eulogized him as “tough, savvy, blunt ... and one of the last two-fisted publishers of the old roughhouse school of one-man-newspapering.”
With Olympian ambition, this threadbare Citizen Kane took over two struggling Orlando newspapers with a combined circulation of 10,000. A showman, he once purchased gallons of orange perfume 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 an agricultural region to a metropolitan center and tourist mecca.
Many of America’s leading environmental writers hewed their craft in Florida.
Ernest Lyons was a 25-year-old reporter when he joined the Stuart News in 1931, quickly realizing that growth threatened Florida’s extraordinary environment. He observed:
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 from the mirror-like onyx surface of the water.
Newspapers captured the most pivotal moments in Florida history. The Civil War left Florida desolate and destitute. The Florida Peninsular, a Tampa newspaper, documented the consequences, noting on Jan. 23, 1871, “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.”
African American leaders courageously founded their own newspapers to seek justice and serve their community. In 1873, Josiah Walls launched Florida’s first African-American newspaper, the New Era, published in Gainesville. Publisher Walls also became Congressman Walls, serving three terms in Washington.
World War II represented journalism’s finest hour. Newspapers helped the public understand the faraway 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.”
Newspapers covered the war’s ending. “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.”
The state’s newspapers mirrored Southern attitudes. In a 1909 editorial, the Tampa Morning Tribune candidly defined the state of race relations:
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.
But newspapers also provided hope for justice, thanks to the work of the state’s crusading reporters.
In 1949, four Black teenagers were arrested, falsely 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 handcuffed.
Thanks to the persistent work of Mabel Norris Reese, owner, editor and reporter for the Mount Dora Topic, history has redeemed the Groveland Four.
In 2019, the Orlando Sentinel apologized for its 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.”
Fueled by the talents of its acclaimed reporters and editors, Florida newspapers experienced a golden age between the 1940s to the early 21st century. Miami Herald journalists Carl Hiaasen, Edna Buchanan and Gene Miller were among those who won Pulitzer Prizes for their achievements.
Lucy Morgan lived the credo of Mr. Dooley, the Peter Finley Dunne character, who explained that a great newspaper “comforts th’ afflicted and afflicts th’ comfortable.”
Morgan wrote with full-throated clarity and purpose. Her career began unexpectedly 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. ... 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.”
In 1967, she joined the St. Petersburg Times, 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. A Florida Supreme Court ruling overturned her conviction. (In 1985, she and colleague Jack Reed won the Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting for, as the Pulitzer board put it, “their thorough reporting on Pasco County Sheriff John Short, which revealed his department’s corruption and led to his removal from office by voters.”)
Florida’s greatest afternoon newspaper was the Miami News. In 1923, former Ohio Gov. James M. Cox purchased the newspaper. In 1925, Cox erected the iconic Miami News Tower. The structure became the famous Freedom Tower in the 1960s, a symbol of liberty for Cuban émigrés. The Miami News and its journalists received five Pulitzer prizes, including the first ever won by a Florida newspaper.
But thunderclouds were forming. “Unforeseen by those who celebrated Miami’s 50th birthday in 1946 were social forces at play that would eventually kill the Miami News,” wrote Tom Fiedler. 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, “it would eventually mean death. The time subscribers devoted to reading before dinner was eaten up by the commute.”
Afternoon newspapers could not survive: The Tampa Times published its final edition in 1982, followed by the St. Petersburg Independent in 1986 and the Miami News in 1988.
Beginning in the 1990s, media analysts noted troubling trends. Only the St. Petersburg Times, among the large dailies, was locally owned. Still, the newspapers were profitable because Floridians depended on them to find a house, clip a coupon and read about sports.
New technologies transformed the printed newspaper. Americans first heard about Pearl Harbor over the radio and President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on television. Newspapers rallied with “Extra” editions. The 9/11 tragedy played out on live television. 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 years of 24/7 cable news, preferred to know what happened five minutes ago, not yesterday.
Florida daily newspaper circulation declined by nearly 50 percent between 2004 and 2019. Other troubling signs appeared: young people were largely indifferent to printed newspapers and, for the most part, grocery stores and shopping malls no longer advertised in newspapers.
Investors and chains gobbled up Florida papers. In 2012, the New York Times Company sold the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and other papers to Halifax Media Group. 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.
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 symbolized the changing newspaper landscape. A Malaysian gaming company purchased the 12-acre headquarters of the Miami Herald in 2011 for $236 million. Andres Viglucci eulogized, “Who could miss its commanding presence and the purplish nighttime glow of its massive neon letters suspended over Biscayne Bay? — and of the power of those presses in the affairs of the city.”
But journalism is not merely a building or even in the tactile feel of a printed page. The golden age of Florida newspaper history may be over, but journalists across the state continue to tell the stories that become the first draft of Florida history, no matter how those stories are delivered.
Gary R. Mormino serves as scholar in residence at Florida Humanities. His first job was delivering the Wood River Journal. David Shedden is the special collections librarian at the USF St. Petersburg campus library and former archivist and research librarian at the Poynter Institute, which owns the Tampa Bay Times, winner of 13 Pulitzer Prizes.
The award-winning magazine FORUM is published by Florida Humanities, the statewide, nonprofit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities dedicated to preserving, promoting, and sharing the history, literature, culture, and personal stories that offer Floridians a better understanding of themselves, their communities, and their state. Current and past issues of FORUM are available at floridahumanities.org.