My last column: Good journalism still about sticking your neck out

Bob Sharkey was a thin, short man who could take a very tall drink. He kept a bottle in the tiny newsroom of his weekly paper.

This was well before computers. On Tuesday night they "pasted up'' the news pages, which entailed taking the printed stories and pictures and sticking them on a white board that would be photographed, creating a negative from which the pages would be printed.

Bob admitted he often was short of sober by the end of the process.

But I never saw that Bob. By the time I came to work for him as an intern in 1978, he had traded the booze for running shoes. He put them on, ran 10 miles at a snail's pace, ate a big sweet roll, shot up some insulin and then chain-smoked the rest of the day.

All that smoke gave him a deep, gravelly voice that was out of place coming from such a small speaker.

He built up his little weekly newspapers outside of Gainesville, one in the town of High Springs, where he was located, and the other in neighboring Alachua.

Actually, he just swapped the banner on the white board because the news was the same.

Bob wasn't a journalist. His background was in advertising. I wound up with him because I couldn't get on with the student newspaper at the University of Florida. And I needed clips.

Bob rebuilt his life with his two little boys and wife Jill, whose proper English accent fit in rural North Florida like fine china at a Fat Boys' barbecue.

Bob became a town fixture, cracking jokes, always bemused by the antics of rural folks, eating at one restaurant one day and another the next so as not to offend, always angling to sell the next advertisement.

At that he was a genius.

Back then Alachua was run by a clique of good old boys. They controlled the City Council, the zoning board and most of the development in town.

I got wind they had been voting on their own projects. So I started digging into property records. I spent week after week, and then month after month in the Property Appraiser's Office, lugging the big plat books around and looking through mortgages and sales, corporations and corporate officers. That led to the minutes of council meetings and the tape recordings.

There was no one to guide me. What I lacked in know-how I made up for in time on task.

Anyway, I finally caught them.

I arranged an interview with the first commissioner, a woman who had the facade of Southern charm. She welcomed me to "our little town'' until I asked the first question. Then she stiffened, stood up and glared down at me.

"What are you, some kind of little hippie bug coming here to tear our little town apart!''

She stormed out. The mayor was next.

They pressured the outlets that sold the paper to blackball it. Even worse, they went after Bob's advertisers, including the local grocery store that kept him afloat with its weekly double-page ad.

Bob was a salesman. He didn't sign up for this, and I could see the doubt welling up.

A single error in this story would destroy him. I had no editor, nobody to check my work. If I screwed up, I was going to destroy everything my good friend had risen from the depths of the bottle to build.

I could barely sleep and lost 15 pounds.

The night before paste-up, Bob looked gaunt. I can't do this, he told me. Let's see if we can get the Gainesville Sun to print it.

What was I going to say? "Bob, I need this story to get a job. Who cares about our business and your family.''

I went in the bathroom and threw up.

We talked more. Then, without any prodding from me, Bob said, "Jesus, Mike, I own a newspaper. I have to do this. It's my [expletive] responsibility.''

It is the gutsiest call I've ever seen. Bob had no corporate safety net, no deep well of advertisers, no big-shot lawyers.

Bob bet everything he had built up on a principle. In that one moment he went from an ad salesman to the greatest journalist I would ever meet.

The land transactions were so complicated, and my writing so primitive, nobody in town understood a word of it. But they got the gist. So did the state ethics commission, which issued the appropriate wrist slaps.

The outlets that blackballed the paper eventually took it back. The advertisers stuck with Bob.

"If the mayor stepped in some [expletive], I suppose that's his problem," said the grocery manager.

The story landed me a job with the Melbourne Times, which led to Florida Today, which led here. I've worked on plenty of complicated, high-pressure stories and have received plenty of threats.

It all paled compared to the story I wrote for a weekly newspaper with a circulation of 4,000.

Bob eventually sold the business, bought an RV and hit the road with his wife.

Good, basic journalism and strong principles can pay strong dividends.

We saw that when reporter Dan Tracy spent months slogging through records, uncovering sweetheart deals at the Florida Blood Centers. Reporter Jim Stratton did likewise with Workforce Central Florida.

Henry Curtis, the best cops reporter I've ever seen, uncovered how the Orange County Sheriff's Office was lifting information from secret intelligence files to lobby against a gun bill in the Legislature.

Bloggers don't do this.

The talent bench at the Sentinel has been thinned but remains deep enough to keep an eye on things. For that the community is better off.



(Editor's note: This is Mike Thomas' final column. He is leaving the Orlando Sentinel after 28 years to take a job with Orange County Public Schools.)

Featured Stories

Advertisement

PLAN AHEAD

Top Trending Videos