If I were to take a couple of seconds to say thank you and happy New Year individually to every single reader who visited FlaglerLive over the past year, it would take me roughly 50 uninterrupted days and nights: we ended the year with 7.6 million visits to the site, 2.5 million of them unique (most of our readers tend to drop in several times a day). That averaged out to about 21,000 visits a day, our most successful year since we launched in 2010. So I’ll say one big Dubai-fireworks-style thank you to everyone at the same time.
Let’s hope 2018 is just as successful, preferably not for the same reasons: I’d happily take many fewer visits in exchange for fewer hurricanes, fewer murders, fewer unnecessary tragedies, and a lot less absurdist drama in government.
It’s not been the easiest or more heartwarming year. This is the year when journalism wasn’t just suspect, as it should always be at least a little in healthy, pluralist societies, but when “fake news” took on the unsavory whiff of fascist societies where anything that doesn’t fit the prevailing party line is so branded and not merely dismissed but attacked and demonized in efforts to discredit. It hasn’t worked. Not here, not anywhere. Major news organizations had one of their best years too. We’ve all learned to manage the trolls, whose methods—it should be apparent to all by now—are about as impressive as 1970s porn scripts. Containing their assaults doesn’t happen by chance. It takes a degree of vigilance and yes, a certain amount of intolerance for the intolerant. Not all opinions and methods are equally valid. Commenters here have found out quickly that there’s no easier way to get black-listed than by dropping words like “fake news” and trolling for its own sake. There are more interesting ways to disagree. That’s not one of them.
Still, free and vibrant expression seems to have gotten stronger, not weaker. Sure we’re polarized, but we’re also challenged, made to rethink assumptions and figure out different ways to engage with those who now seem so alien. That’s the case for anyone on whatever side of any fence you choose. And there’s nothing so dull as unanimity, groupthink or lack of debate. But it takes a certain skill to engage the opposition (actually, oppositions) these days. I admit that I haven’t quite figured out that more constructive language yet. When I look back on my own takes on the year’s challenges I sound like a broken record, not yet able to speak the kind of language that adds more light than fury. But if St. Francis managed to be understood by birds and reptiles, I’m sure there’s a way.
Besides, most of the news locally is still a bit of a distance from the national scene’s tragicomedy. We had our own issues. September alone drew more than 900,000 visits to the site because of Hurricane Irma and its more onerous step-child of a ‘noreaster, which left parts of Flagler Beach and western Flagler reeling. It was also Flagler and Palm Coast’s most violent year by far: five murders, a record (the previous record was four in three separate years), a record number of traffic fatalities (the record was 31, we’re well beyond that though I don’t yet have an exact final tally).
Success in the news business is relative at best, qualified by necessity. There’s natural growth in readership, as has been the case most years. The web is living up to its promise. But there’s also the inescapable. Readers seek out news when the news is bad. You might say that you want more “positive” stories. Your reading habits tell a different story. You don’t particularly care about a great play, a school’s wonderful achievement, or even a county’s centennial. Those are quick clicks if that. No lingering, no deep reads. But anything with a hint of violence or disaster or tragedy or crime will get you clicking faster than a texting teen. The stories are in great demand. But I’m not sure it’s the sort of success we should be proud of.
Government reporting should be the heart and soul of a local news site. Whatever your local, state or federal governments do, what researchers in health and science are uncovering or developing, how schools are evolving will always affect your life a zillion times more than if someone is shot next door, killed on I-95 or mauled in a freak accident on an amusement ride. But if government, school, health or investigative reporting gets its fair share of readership, it pales compared to anything that hints of gore. It explains why local elected officials are in a permanent state of bewilderment at how little their own constituents know about their own town, their own county, the differences between the two, whose taxes prevail where, what pays for cops or ambulances, how little power local governments ultimately have on so much that citizens like to rail about. But Flagler is no different than any other place on earth and FlaglerLive isn’t about to change news readers’ habits ingrained in since cave days: those cave paintings in the south of France, the stone age’s blogs, don’t show the sun rising, either. They show beasts getting gored.
Among the stories that seem to have mattered especially—locally—last year, aside from storms and violence, were the various local governments’ varied approaches to legalizing and banning pot dispensaries. Not that pot dispensaries are that critical in the end. But local governments’ reactions to the new constitutional amendment legalizing them were critically revealing. Flagler Beach and Palm Coast barely allowed dispensaries, Bunnell and Flagler Beach did not. All four governments’ reactions pointed to a prevailing divide and pronounced condescension between elected officials and constituents, with our elected officials for the most part making decisions still informed by discredited, half-century-old assumptions rather than any evidence they could point to.
It was also the year of Rick Staly: the new sheriff has unquestionably made his mark, living up to a promise to be a hands-on sheriff who seems to be everywhere at all times and to back up the publicity with substance. His detectives have closed key cases, he’s seen through an initiative on domestic violence, he added five deputies in Palm Coast and 10 in the county, and he has the ranks’ confidence—and, from all appearances, that of residents.
I’m pathologically skeptical of all police powers. To me big government isn’t Washington or Tallahassee. It starts with the cop on the beat. I respect what cops do but I don’t worship it any more than I do anyone in uniform, and find it unhealthy to do so. But Staly has so far managed to fill me with confidence too, and when I see cops on the street I feel safe, not skeptical or apprehensive. Something else proves it: this department just completed its fifth year in a row of not having a single person shot and killed by a cop. St. Johns and Volusia have nowhere near that record. That’s a remarkable achievement that doesn’t get the attention it deserves, because it’s the opposite of gore. And it’s not as if there haven’t been cases where cops could legitimately have taken defensive shots. They didn’t. The department takes non-lethal conflict-resolution seriously, and it shows. There aren’t enough medals for that.
I have a few issues with Staly’s folksy streak—his “Green Roof Inn,” his “fugitive bingo,” his susceptibility to social media pandering—which to me trivializes the example he’s setting and the gravity of crime and punishment. But I have to remember we’re still in Florida, not Scandinavia, and Southerners still like to confuse their sheriff with a TV character: as long as he’s delivering the goods, and he is (I find him and his tenure a lot more measured and open-minded, and a lot less dogmatic, than his critics made him out to be during last year’s election) it’s a very small price to pay.
The year’s biggest disappointment to me was Palm Coast: that city council and its three new members—Milissa Holland, Bob Cuff, Nick Klufas—was elected on a gale of promise. It gave us a whimper of a year. What a shame. Holland has had a personally difficult year, no question. But it’s a council of five, not a council of one, and when one council member has challenges, others should step up. None did, guaranteeing that Jim Landon, the city manager, continued his reign as chief puppeteer, even as a lame duck: the council also surrendered to his scheme of keeping him on until he runs out the clock to his retirement in 2019 (he’s building a house in Hidden Lakes and living in his RV meanwhile), because while it takes us a year or so as a nation of 350 million to choose a new president, they’ll have us believe that it takes Palm Coast two years to find a replacement for his highness.
Meanwhile it’s been a terrific year for the city cosmetically, with those ridiculous $425,000 sun shades installed at city park, $550,000 lights for sports fields, an $8 million community center revamp, a footpath through the F Section nobody wanted, a new restaurant at the ever-failing Palm Harbor golf course, and of course that PR radio show not too many people listen to and that $200,000 sign Landon almost got to hang on an I-95 overpass, what would have been a veiled paean to himself, the ultimate victory of fluff over substance. Thankfully residents put their foot down when the council wouldn’t (it was one of FlaglerLive’s most-read and commented story of the year, with more than 400 comments on the site and a few hundred on Facebook). The council finally got the message and killed the sign. As for anything substantial, anything visionary, anything that could start redefining this giant subdivision into a city worth the name—anything these new council members promised? Zilch. It was a lost year. A year of surrenders.
In this as with so much else, there’s always 2018. Thank you for continuing to make FlaglerLive part of your days. I sincerely wish you a relatively happy, a safe, and most of all a sane new year.
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