I was doing my biweekly check of the Observer at dawn this morning to see what they might’ve beaten me to. Brian’s farewell, goodbye and not amen was first up. I never saw it coming. Certain things aren’t supposed to change. The sun rises from the east, Catherine Robinson is the mayor of Bunnell, Brian McMillan is the editor of the Palm Coast Observer. How quickly we forget our David Hume, patron saint of journalism 101: don’t ever let your skeptical guard down, not even about the sun rising in the East.
I texted him immediately. Of course he didn’t reply. It’s not like him not to, even at 7 a.m., but he probably wanted his story to play for a while before FlaglerLive’s version mucked it up. As I surely intend to. I’m sure I speak for a good deal of the community when I ask: what the fuck, Brian?
No one can begrudge him the answer, as he explained it to me when we did speak a bit later. It was time for a change. Not that I’m suggesting he has 18 wives and 60 concubines, but he does have a zillion kids and you don’t shepherd a Rehoboam-size family on a community newspaperman’s salary. And print journalism’s salt mines are drying up faster than the Aral Sea. He told me that of the dozens of journalists he edited and mentored in his tenure, only two remain in journalism. This is not a profession for people who like to have a life, or a reasonably decent paycheck. There are exceptions. The Observer couldn’t afford to be one of them anymore than, say, the News-Journal. Not to its ranks, anyway.
So much for the mechanics of it, none of it a surprise. Still. This is a lot more consequential than mechanics. For Palm Coast and Flagler County especially. There’s the loss you feel whenever a great journalist leaves the profession before his time (forgive the sexist pronoun for now: Brian identifies as he/him). He is 42. He is at the top of his game. The community newspaper he led could have been the hoaky, puerile, narrow-minded chamber-of-commerce Pravdas most community newspapers are.
At its worst The Observer certainly could be that, especially around election time or when a particular issue rankles supercilious overlords like the homebuilders, realtors or check-writing sugardaddies a-la-Mullins who like to massage public opinion (just as the way FlaglerLive can sometimes read like insufferably woke catechism). But The McMillan Observer was most times serious, fair, searching and honest, its news pages driven by principle and ethics.
We all know John Walsh, the paper’s publisher forever in search of his next kingmaking, isn’t in it for the journalism. Most publishers these days aren’t. It’s a business to them, and business is anathema to journalism, if business is the driving factor. But Walsh was not without his strokes of genius: usually he left the paper’s content to his editor and staff, often saying he never knew what would appear in its pages until it hit his driveway. I doubt that would have been the case without Brian. He kept Walsh honest. Brian’s character–genuinely kind, forbearing, unassuming (a rarity among us chip-shouldered walkers of Grub Street) was the soul of the paper. His gift for prose at once spare and tender, direct and occasionally poetic, his periodic columns where he opened a vein and bled from the heart, were the paper’s unsung treasures. Social mierda is a daily holocaust of English. No one cares about good writing anymore, or notices it. He did. I did not learn enough from him.
We’re all replaceable of course, not necessarily for the better. The Observer is lucking out. If there’s one saving wrinkle in this curtain, it’s that Jonathan Simmons is taking over after nine years there. I’ve often wished he was with FlaglerLive: his work ethic knows its way around salt mines, his humane skepticism knows its way around the animal farm of knaves and snakes in our community. He even reads Arabic better than I do. He and I have been friends, to the extent that our time allows it, which it does not.
Pre-Covid we used to hang out covering trials or interminable meetings until he stopped the trial beat and we discovered more effective ways not to waste our time at meetings. But the Observer is in the surest hands Brian could have passed it to, assuming Walsh respects the succession. It’s his call. It’s also his paper’s funeral if he doesn’t. Jonathan is going to have to learn to be Svengali’s arete.
Of course I wish Brian and his family well. I wish him wealth and completely understand he had no choice. He’s doing what he must, honorably and courageously, leaving something he loves for something his family needs and, as he says, opening the way for others at the Observer to advance.
It is no less of a gut punch. John McEnroe’s words–see the headline–have been ringing in my ear all morning. We started our mutual enterprises almost simultaneously 12 years ago, have been rivals, colleagues and friends since, beat up each other, looked out for each other, admired each other, and I don’t think we would have managed to do what we have to the extent that we have without each other. McEnroe says he mourned for two years when Bjorn Borg left tennis, also at the top of his game, just as his rivalry with McEnroe was peaking. I’m not comparing Brian and me to those two. We’re better, of course. But that’s what this is. I’m losing, if not my North Star, at least my Pegasus, and I think the community is, too.