I’m the publisher of four of our (Sarasota, Fla.-based Observer Media Group) weekly community newspapers, and two of our quarterly magazines.<>And, we should note, you are the chief digital officer for Observer Media Group. Tell us about how the group grew.
Well, we started with a tiny little newspaper on a barrier island, the Longboat Observer (on Longboat Key in Florida). The building that housed the newspaper used to be an old ballroom dance floor. There was a mirror on the ceiling. We put the server in the shower. We have grown exponentially since.
We publish 13 newspapers throughout the entire I-4 corridor, from the Gold Coast to Jacksonville and from the Tampa Bay DMA to Naples.So how did you get into the newspaper family business?
It’s kind of a funny story. I am a fourth-generation newspaper girl. I started out as a professional dancer (with the Sarasota Ballet Corp). My sister is still a principal ballerina with the Ballet. When I went (to dance professionally in Sarasota) that left my younger brother alone with my parents. And at the dinner table when he was asked, what do you want to talk about, he’d say, “Anything but ballet and newspapers.” We all grew up talking newspaper our entire life.
I expected to keep being a professional dancer. I did not expect to fall in love with this business. But the ink runs in your veins.At your family’s newspapers, you went from being a reporter, then a fill-in photographer for a society gala that turned into a job as editor of Observer Media Group’s society section, Black Tie.
One of our four niche pieces of coverage is called Black Tie. There’s a very heavy high society scene in Sarasota and Orlando. Right now, we’re working on developing an app that will be a social calendar of our area, with push notification of events, a social directory of socialites and who they are—and why they’re considered socialites.These kinds of developments, I’d guess, come from your position as chief digital officer?
I was the digital queen. Now, as publisher, I’m not convinced that digital is going to save anything. There will be a shift online with the majority of traffic (being) mobile. On the revenue side, digital is not going to save us.But certainly Observer Media Group is not backing away from digital.
Years ago, we invested in a custom editorial workflow system and all our websites are in that workflow. If you invest in something, it’s great and you learn a lot. Now we’re working on a rebuild of our sites. We only put what’s new and relevant on our sites, which only have four ad slots on our pages. We keep them clean, have a lot of white space so it doesn’t look so busy. They’re a lot like the Boston Globe (site)—it’s kind of like reading a newspaper.What role has Inland played in your career?
The family owners conference in St. Petersburg (in 2011) was the first Inland conference my dad took me to. I had served eight years on the editorial side, and I was now in sales. Plus I thought I should be doing something about digital.
That conference blew me away because I met the Rusts and the Shaws and other families. Meeting all of them has definitely influenced my career. The mentorship and shared experiences were so enlightening for me, and influenced my career all for the better. I was fourth generation—but there were people who were like the 12th generation. I am exaggerating, of course. But I particularly remember the Shaws talked of how women set up a (family corporate) structure.So where do you see the newspaper industry going?
In our industry today you wonder where it’s going, of course. With our niche of hyperlocal, free newspapers, we always will have a place. And we are probably isolated even more from that disruption from that because we’re in Florida. Our demographics are different from other states. We see another six million baby boomers moving to Florida, and the demographics of baby boomers and affluent baby boomers are even higher, so we’re kind of isolated from the rest of the industry.
(Having said that), I don’t think newspapers will go away entirely. As to the future of the free weekly community weekly: What can we do to make sure that we are still relevant and people want to pick us up every day and read us. Too many newspapers are stopping beats of school boards, planning and zoning meetings that we continue to cover—and that people are interested in.This Q&A was conducted by The Inlander Editor Mark Fitzgerald.