John Walsh, publisher of the Palm Coast Observer, couldn’t contain himself this morning. And why should he with news like this, which he sent in an email to News-Journal Publisher Ron Wallace and to FlaglerLive: “I wanted to share (boast) this great news. We received a call from the Local Media Association (formerly Suburban Newspapers of America) that Brian McMillan has been selected Weekly Newspaper Journalist of the Year.”
McMillan—a poet at heart who never took a journalism class in his life and still hopes to write the Great American Novel one day—has been the Observer’s managing editor since the weekly, and now twice-weekly, publication launched just over two years ago. He was in a Walmart parking lot in suburban Kansas City when he got a call from Matt Walsh, John’s brother and the owner of the Sarasota-based Observer Group, which owns the Palm Coast Observer and four other community weeklies. McMillan had just finished his Masters of Fine Arts at Northern Michigan University. He needed work. He’d worked for two years at the East County Observer previously—part of the same group. The rest is set in innumerable column inches.
For the Observer, McMillan’s award, from a national organization with some 2,000 member publications, is timely vindication in the midst of an old-fashioned newspaper war between the bi-weekly and the News-Journal. The Observer just went to a two-day-per-week publication schedule to more aggressively compete with the News-Journal, which, in turn, just re-opened its Palm Coast bureau after a three-year absence, and will soon be changing its Flagler County editions’ name to give the paper a more local feel.
“It really comes down to the fact that out of all the journalists that were entered into this contest from across North America,” said Al Cupo, vice president of the Local Media Association “it’s understood that Brian, being chosen as the best journalist of the year, certainly is providing outstanding coverage in that their market to their readers.” The association drafted nine judges from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism to judge the contest, which includes newspaper and editor of the year awards for dailies and weeklies in several circulation categories, with two an overall journalist of the year awards (for weekly and daily papers) “In recognition of a journalist whose work advances public understanding of life within the communities served by the newspapers.”
“Special consideration will be given to skill in handling a variety of subjects, organizational clarity, reportorial enterprise, thoroughness and writing style,” the award’s guidelines states.
“I think he’s a great guy it’s one of those things where good guys do finish first,” David Ayers, general manager of WNZF in Palm Coast, said. “I think he’s perfect for a community newspaper because he cares about the community and he puts a lot of thought into what he does.” McMillan is featured on Ayers’s weekly Free for All Fridays show a little after 9 a.m., when McMillan briefs listeners on that week’s choice Observer stories. John Walsh surprised McMillan during this morning’s show with the announcement about the award, live on the air.
“Any time that you’re recognized on a national level it’s an honor. I feel like it’s a really positive thing for the newspaper to be recognized in this way also,” McMillan said this afternoon. “Overall I think a lot of it comes down to the taste of the people that are judging so I was pretty lucky to have them on my side that day.”
McMillan is a native of Connecticut, where he went to high school, graduating in a class of 55. “It was so small that I actually was a star baseball player,” he said. He went to Brigham Young University to study English from 1998 to 2004 (there was a two-year mission to Kentucky with the Church of Latter Day Saints in the middle of that stint: he’s a devout Mormon).
He’d always been passionate about sports, piling up subscriptions to Baseball Weekly from a young age. Through a distant connection he managed to cover BUY men’s basketball games for the Associated Press—“little gamers that would be online, but because they were ranked at the time, San Francisco Chronicle picked up the story one time. It didn’t have a byline. It wasn’t really that impressive of a job, honestly, but Associated Press is always a good thing to carry around with me.”
When he married Haley, now the mother of their two young children, she thought he was going to be a rich lawyer. He went as far as taking a seminar on getting into law school, on the LSAT and other markers of the paper chase. “I had the impression that it was a cutthroat educational experience,” McMillan remembered. “I just wasn’t ready to do that.” Sitting with Haley in their apartment, he talked about how much he missed sports. “It was part of my identity growing up. That’s really what led me into journalism. I’m alienated by all this law stuff. I need to do something that’s me, that I love, that I’m going to be excited about. What am I going to do? Baseball, that’s what I love the most.”
He continued: “What I love the most about sports are the human stories within sports. For example there was an autistic kid who played little league. He hit a homerun in a game. I did a big cover page story about him, took portrait shots, talked to his parents. It was really inspiring tom e. One day I’m walking by on the little league field, going to the next game, and I hear a coach from the dugout, chain-link dugout, not like a real dugout, he’s got all these kids on the bench, and he says, ‘I don’t know if you saw the story in the Observer this week, but this autistic boy hit a homerun.’ That made a big impression on me—what kind of things that can make a difference.”
His homerun had to wait a few innings. He applied to 40 publications. A peripheral arm of the Los Angeles Times interviewed him, but that went nowhere. “East County Observer was the only other place that called me—called me back, actually,” he said. That was his introduction to the Walsh empire. “I was immediately impressed with everyone at the Observer because it’s a meritocracy,” he said. “You do well, you get raises and get promotions, and they compliment you and they appreciate you.” He was hired as a news writer, not to do sports. But the sports editor quit four months after he got there. He’d told Walsh ahead of time that his real ambition was sports, not news. He got the sports section.
But there was another passion subverting his keyboard. “I’ve wanted to write the great American novel since I was probably high school, toting around Ulysses, trying to pick through it. It might have been just for show at the time.” That’s when the MFA period came in. Like all would-be novelists toting children on top of ambition, there were bills to pay. And so came the road-to-Damascus moment in that Walmart parking lot.