By Nancy Smith
You probably can’t imagine how much fun I’ve had at Sunshine State News over the last 10 years. I don’t think anybody could.
How many 65-year-old legacy journalists, trussed in a straitjacket of newsprint, get a chance to jump into the future overnight? Before Sunshine I was clueless about online news production. Sophisticated search engines and algorithms? A foreign language. The company was taking a massive risk on me. But I’m so grateful they did. I was getting a chance to create something that had no equivalent.
That was Sunshine State News — in 2010, a queer duck in a capital city where the politics were conservative but the newspaper culture was end-to-end liberal. There was nothing like SSN in Tallahassee. We were the only news organization in Florida — with the possible exception of Javier Manjarres’ “Shark Tank” in Miami — that professed free-market, less government solutions could fix the problems challenging our state. As the decade progressed, other sites saw the gap and developed their own conservative content — Biz Pac Review (BPR), The Capitolist and Florida Daily, for example.
Our sole reason for being was to fill that gap — to tell the other side of the stories represented by mainstream media’s single voice.
Turns out this edgy, right-of-center, pioneering news site fit me like bark on a tree. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you, SSN has been the most fun and at the same time the biggest challenge I’ve had in an altogether colorful 50-year journalism career.
But the time has come to say goodbye.
Ten years at the daily rigors of publishing a complete edition are enough. It’s time to hang up my editor’s hat for the second time. I’ve returned to Stuart where I have family and friends — it’s home, it’s where I started in Florida in 1977. I leave SSN with deep satisfaction and pride in knowing our mission is accomplished, we blazed the trail, and now it’s time to pass the baton.
This is Sunshine State News’ final edition.
Certainly, it’s a bittersweet moment for me. Sunshine came along at just the right time and that’s what I’ll remember most fondly.
I had no idea in February 2010 that a staunchly conservative, anti-establishment revolution was about to turn Florida government upside down.
We certainly fit right in — if not in the Capitol press corps, at least in the temper and tumult of the day.
From the beginning, every one of us on the Sunshine State News’ seven-member staff believed we had a date with destiny, that February 2010 was an auspicious moment for a new publication — and for thinking anew about the intersection of politics, business, conservative principles and journalism.
SSN was determined to depart from the left-leaning herd and find that untold story. We had energy and enthusiasm to burn and a lot of years in a dying newspaper culture. I think of it now as Pulitzer dreams and a Podunk reality — each of us had a lot to get used to covering the Florida Legislature from an entirely new perspective.
This is where I’d like to thank the press corps for their warm and fuzzy welcoming hug. I’d like to, but can’t. No smoochies from these folks.
We were about as welcome among resident journalists as a set of training wheels at the Tour de France. Ostensibly, reporters for mainstream outfits like The Miami Herald and the (then) St. Petersburg Times were outraged (they said) because SSN wouldn’t disclose the names of its owners — never mind that not a one of these reporters had a clue whose money and what demands were propping up their own newspapers and salaries.
When the press corps put out the call for volunteers to take part in the annual press skit, News Editor Kevin Derby and I gave up our Sunday to attend a planning meeting at Times Bureau Chief Steve Bousquet’s home. Turns out we were ambushed. Apparently, a number of skit regulars — including Pulitzer Prize winner Lucy Morgan — hearing SSN would be attending, protested by boycotting the meeting. They said if SSN was in, they were out. So we stayed out.
That was the end of skits night for us. In nine years, SSN was lampooned during at least two productions that I can recall, but not once were we asked to join the Press Center reporters on stage at The Moon.
I’m convinced the mainstreamers’ opposition to Sunshine had more to do with our “despicable” conservative philosophy than it did with concealing the identity of our owners. Why do I think that? Because in July 2017, when the Times procured a $12 million loan from eight investors, itsCEO and Chairman Paul Tash refused to identify four of them, and the press corps fell silent as a stone.
It didn’t enhance SSN’s welcome among Press Center reporters that in the winter of 2010 our staff was sucking all the air out of Adams Street, having the time of our lives and drawing a lively lunchtime crowd. It was an election year, after all. What politician can resist a camera in the Silly Season? Among his many talents, Lane Wright, our broadcast journalist, was a professional photographer. Lane had created “The Sunshine Minute,” a short interview with any candidate who wanted one. And who didn’t? When he set up a camera, chair and umbrella virtually in front of the Governor’s Club, lawmakers were lining up to get their “Minute” recorded. The feature ran on the right-hand side of the SSN Home page with huge success for most of that first year.
We had a big-screen TV in an architect’s office window, where a giant Home page displayed and updated copy 24/7. Admittedly, we weren’t exactly recreating Times Square, but when foot traffic on Adams was at its most brisk, there it was — our best advertisement.
We quickly discovered our readers were hungry for our fresh look at topics and issues. Each week, it seemed, we got closer to where we wanted to be — and set even greater goals for Sunshine.
We had Gov. Charlie Crist’s number in so many ways as he lunged toward new, more liberal relationships. As early as mid-March we wrote about his antics — what the Obama hug really meant, his reluctance to cut the chord with his long-time protege and handpicked party chairman Jim Greer (Greer was indicted on felony charges ranging from money laundering to fraud), and — my personal favorite story probably because we’ve got such great photos — his friendship with Fort Lauderdale attorney Scott Rothstein, who was serving time in a federal prison. Rothstein threw Charlie a 52nd birthday party and gave him a wrapped and ribboned $52,000 check during the singing of “Happy Birthday.”
Over many months, Rothstein’s massive Ponzi scheme parlayed ill-gotten gains into campaign contributions to dozens of Florida politicians and both political parties, including $600,000 to the RPOF. The story was huge for us. We weren’t first with it — it was around longer than Sunshine State News. But we kept the fuse lit on the Rothstein-Crist connection and readers thanked us for it.
Charlie Crist’s slam-bam-thank-you-ma’m treatment of the party he so professed to love a month earlier was almost as much fun to cover asSen. Mike Bennett’s April 29 playtime on the Senate floor, with a Senate computer, during a discussion of the ultrasound/abortion bill. The Bradenton Repub apparently got bored, checked his personal e-mail and sneaked a peak at scantily clad, nipple-baring beach babes. And got caught by our reporter and videographer Lane Wright, who was filming in the press gallery behind him. It was a Kodak moment that went viral on YouTube, seen by half a million people around the globe, with commentary in at least five languages.
The Tallahassee media (who, I’m convinced, would have killed to stumble across the video themselves) jumped to Bennett’s defense, arguing what he was looking at came nowhere near pornography, and isn’t it stupid SSN is getting worked up over what amounts to an old-time postcard?) Never mind the inappropriateness of a senator using his state-issued computer during an important and, frankly, delicate floor debate about respecting women.
Meanwhile, change was afoot in Florida government. U.S. Senate candidate Crist was dying in the polls. One of the polls showed him 20 points behind his Republican primary opponent, Marco Rubio. Rubio, son of Cuban exiles and former speaker of the Florida House, was fully emerging. As Crist was flip-flopping his way toward the party door, Rubio grew more and more eloquent, more and more sure of his conservative principles — the rock star of the 2010 election cycle. Rubio’s ascendancy was dazzling and Sunshine State News was there to call it.
It was no longer a question of, Will Charlie defect? It was, When will Charlie defect?
At Sunshine, we had a pool going — a free lunch for the staffer who came closest to the date Charlie Crist bolts. Reporter Kevin Derby nailed it.
For the first year at Sunshine, I made a mini-career of writing columns about Charlie Crist. I enlisted the help of longtime Scripps Howard Newspapers cartoonist Gale Engelke, who seemed to tap a well of pent-up frustration about this populist career politician. Lawmakers were printing out and framing Gale’s cartoons.
As the 2010 campaigns heated up, so did we at Sunshine State News. And so did a Republican newcomer to the gubernatorial race, Rick Scott. A millionaire. An outsider. The founder of Columbia Hospital Corp. and later CEO of Columbia/HCA, whose company became embroiled in a scandal over its business and Medicare billing practices.
Scott woke Bill McCollum up.
He also snubbed the media wolf pack in Tallahassee. It was as if a rabid animal had bitten the whole lot of them. They went for his throat.
Throughout the entire gubernatorial campaign, Scott with his let’s-get-to-workisms was the Maytag repairman, the loneliest guy in town — when he came to town, that is. Which wasn’t often. The Capitol press corps paid zero attention to the wind beneath Scott’s wings — the burgeoning tea party movement in Florida and many in the business community who believed Florida government needs to run like a business. So he returned the sentiment. He never attended a single editorial board interview.
Of all the daily newspapers in Florida that make candidate endorsements, every one of them without exception recommended guber hopeful McCollum in the Republican primary, and Democrat Alex Sink in the general election.
At Sunshine, we were never sure if Scott’s victories in both meant that newspapers don’t have the clout they once enjoyed, or that voters just knew what they wanted — they didn’t need help deciding.
The most fun we had at Sunshine State News in 2010, without a doubt our greatest contribution to readers and to the election process, was the dozens of polls we commissioned. Over and over, week after week, they were either the most accurate polls taken, or very close.
On Oct. 5, nearly a month before the close general election, our Sunshine State News Poll conducted by Pennsylvania-based Voter Survey Service, predicted a Rick Scott victory over Alex Sink by 2 percentage points. In fact, our poll was off the mark in only one race in both elections: We predicted a squeaker in the GOP attorney general primary, with Jeff Kottkamp beating Pam Bondi.
In spite of our polls’ accuracy, few of our colleagues in the press corps mentioned our results. We weren’t to be trusted, apparently. We weren’t one of them.
It took less than a year in Tallahassee to see the beauty of our exclusion.
We came to realize we live in an entrepreneurial age, not an institutional one. The web, among other forces, has crushed much of the comparative advantage that big newspapers once enjoyed. Yes, newspapers are still alive and well in Florida, and I thank God for them. But we who deliver news without paper and ink had a calling. We wanted to be part of the stable of outstanding reporters who add a distinct voice to the public conversation in a new way.
Our staff at Sunshine came to realize the work itself mattered more than where they worked. In 2014 SSN moved out of The Press Center.
Incidentally, SSN was alone in endorsing Scott for election in 2010. Which may have been why the Tallahassee press corps was convinced Rick Scott was our mystery owner. It’s too coincidental, Lucy Morgan told me in a phone call. You come along out of nowhere, he comes along out of nowhere and you’re singing his praises.
One of the funniest experiences — funny looking back — was the night in January 2011 just after the governor was inaugurated — when I was invited to the Governor’s Mansion for dinner. Nobody else in the press corps was, just the editor of SSN. Reporters from the Times and Herald threw a tantrum that night, hovering outside the mansion in protest, their noses pressed against the gate for nearly three hours. Seemed to me, Scott was sending the old guard a subtle message. Until Scott’s inauguration, they had called the shots. They had friends in Capitol offices to help them get information, gain access, trade favors.
Didn’t happen so much after that night. Scott was the new sheriff. He brought in a lot of new people, chased out many of the old staff, leaving the press corps at square-one to forge relationships all over again.
Politicians, strategists and the media never fully fathomed Scott that first year. They never understood he already had made his mark on the world. He didn’t need to become governor to be a big fish; he already was one. Scott’s time at Columbia/HCA got the most attention — certainly from his enemies — but he also excelled as a venture capitalist, launching Solantic and other companies. His life optimized much of the American dream. Scott wanted to get Florida’s economy back on track. He was pure tea party. His focus on job creation and economic growth helped him beat McCollum in the Republican primary and then Sink in the general election.
Florida voters might have thought Scott cut an awkward, sometimes grating public figure, but they trusted him on economic issues like they trusted no one else.
Over the years, SSN has attracted national attention from top-flight news organizations such as Drudge Report, Fox News, Politico, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and even, yes, The New York Times.
We were honored in the summer of 2011 to see SSN’s Chatterbox voted one of Florida’s best political blogs by Washington Post readers.
We’ve also been fortunate to have some very good people work for us — some for a little while, others — mercifully — for much longer. Here are a few of them:
Kevin Derby, graduate of Trinity College, was my first hire, first to walk through the door at The Press Center. Kevin, who lives in Tallahassee, knows more about state political history than anybody I know — in fact, more about everything, come to that (he’s right now waiting to be called as a “Jeopardy” contestant). I wish him well at the growing conservative site Florida Daily, where he is managing editor and the publication’s inspiration.
Lane Wright. Our broadcast reporter. Rick Scott’s Press Office snatched Lane up in 2011. He went from the governor to a number of education nonprofits, and on occasion, still writes for Sunshine about charter school education.
Kenric Ward. A prolific writer and committed conservative who left us to become the Virginia bureau chief of Watchdog.org and then a reporter for The Texas Monitor. His work has appeared at Fox News, the Houston Chronicle, Washington Times, Washington Examiner, TownHall, Roll Call, and Human Events.
Jim Turner. When Jim was covering the Florida Legislature for us, he had his hands in literally dozens of committees and poured out at least three stories a day. Unfortunately for us, the News Service of Florida wanted Jim’s industry, too.
Allison Nielsen. Allison, who covered the Legislature from 2014 until early 2018, started with Sunshine just a few years out of college. She left to work for Congressman Tom Rooney, R-Fla. and now for Congressman Mike Waltz, R-Fla.
I knew Sunshine was a winner when the Florida Democratic Party felt the need to assign “professional commenters” to read the stories on our website daily and either trash the message or demonize the messenger. For example, I always knew whatever I wrote, “Frank” would find me “pathetic.”
Most of all, I want to thank you, our readers, whom we’ve come to think of as family. We discovered you’ve developed a connection. Your comments beneath stories show us how well you understand each other. Sometimes it actually strikes me as if we’re all sitting around a dinner table together, having it out over another serving of mashed potatoes. I’m going to miss a lot, but perhaps that camaraderie most of all.
I’ve appreciated your infinite patience. We didn’t do everything right all of the time, God knows. We sometimes were short-handed, we could make bad calls, we missed stories you wanted to read, glitches developed in our system. And you’ve always sounded off about them. But you also gave us another chance to get better. You stuck with us.
For nearly 10 years Sunshine State News gave a unique signature to the job of covering business and politics in the state of Florida. I’ll always be very proud of that.
From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for all of it. You have always been the heart and soul of who we are.
I think that well-worn line from Winnie the Pooh sums up what I’m feeling now:
“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard,” said Pooh.
Nancy Smith is the editor of Sunshine State News. She started her career at the Daily Mirror and The Observer in London before spending 28 years at The Stuart News/Port St. Lucie News as managing editor and associate editor. She was president of the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors in the mid-1990s. Reach her by email here, or follow her on twitter at @NancyLBSmith.