We drop in on the offices of a Floridian newspaper that takes its lead from the community it reports on.
On Anna Maria Island in southwest Florida, ice-cream parlour Two Scoops is so named because even when you order just one scoop, you’re given two. It’s a place where the police consider it a part of their job to make crying children happy; offering them a ride on their modified golf carts is a popular trick. Along its sparkling beaches people go out of their way to say hello. It’s the kind of all-American vision that many might have thought extinct, yet it sits just a stone’s throw from the bustling port city of Tampa Bay.
Known as AMI, this 11km sandbar in the Gulf of Mexico has a population of 8,500 and was once an undiscovered gem with miles of perfect white-sand beaches and a laidback, honky-tonk attitude in Florida’s Manatee County. Today it’s a more polished and self-conscious place frequented primarily by throngs of midwesterners who, as seen by the range of state number plates around town, regularly undertake the days-long drive from places such as Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois. But Anna Maria retains its friendly village feel and many return year after year.
Yet if it weren’t for weekly newspaper The Islander, not many would know that this languid subtropical paradise is more complex than it may seem.
AMI is divided into three cities, each with a different mayor, government and police department. Anna Maria is the upscale village at the northern end of the island, with twee boutiques and prized properties. Below, Holmes Beach acts as a downtown, with its cluster of commercial centres. And on the southern tip of the island is Bradenton Beach, the city where people go to party, rent a trailer for the summer or join the revolving cast of sailors anchoring (semi-legally) off its marina.
“Anna Maria Island keeps us busy, that’s for sure,” says Bonner Joy, The Islander’s owner, publisher and editor. You wouldn’t think it but sometimes Joy has to bump stories to the next issue because she has too much content on her hands; she usually runs 90 pieces each week.
Joy rarely takes holiday. Most days she’s at her office, sandwiched between the Paradise Café and a Bob Marley-inspired gift shop in a Holmes Beach strip mall, by 07.00. She employs four full-time reporters, a cartoonist, a copy editor, a classified-ad salesperson, an advertising director, six columnists, an on-call photographer, an accountant and a book-keeper. The paper’s 15,000 copies are picked up at the print shop about an hour’s drive from ami early on Tuesdays and distributed to newspaper racks all over the island by just three people.
Originally from Virginia, Joy first picked up a copy of The Islander, which had been around in various incarnations since 1947, when she came to ami in the mid 1970s. “The Islander has been hugely important to me. It helped me get settled; I found furniture and a place to live through the classifieds.” Joy even worked for the paper selling advertising before opening an ad agency. In the interim the paper stopped operating for a number of years but in 1992 Joy revived it, taking on the omnipontent role she has now.
“I went to a launch party for a new weekly newspaper for the area. I was shocked: they wanted to run stories of naked nuns on the beach. They weren’t interested in the daily routines of Anna Maria. I thought, ‘We have to do better than that’. I had two computers, a desk, an office, a book-keeper and an account rep and I said, ‘We could launch a newspaper and do it as well as the old Islander.’ So we did.”
The new Islander appeared with 12 pages; the next week it had 16, then 24 and soon went up to its current 32. Ad sales cover all production costs and salaries while classifieds (for everything from drivers to tropical landscaping services) are still important to readers and advertisers. “Anyone in the newspaper business will tell you that you can gauge the value of a paper by its classifieds,” says Joy. “Ours are strictly local. I’ve had people start businesses by running an ad in the services or home-improvements category.”
Some classifieds have run in every issue for the past 23 years; back then the Monday-morning queue to list them snaked out the door. Now classifieds are submitted online and the full paper goes up on its website every week – but there’s still a devotion to the paper product. Once a week Joy posts copies to spots around the US, to the “300 midwestern farmers who refuse to go online to read it” once they’ve gone home after their Anna Maria Island holidays.
The Islander, which has survived one attempted buy-out and outlived three rival start-up papers, stays in business thanks to its hyper-local agenda. “If it doesn’t happen on Anna Maria Island, it doesn’t go in the paper,” says Joy.
The paper draws a community that wants to remain divided – talk of merging into a single town surfaces once in a while but such proposals never get far – and it meticulously covers the one issue that unites everyone: keeping Anna Maria Island authentic. It’s long been a rule that no building can be higher than three storeys. There are no fast-food restaurants and next to no big chains either. The Islander keeps the community informed of any plans for new developments and gives readers a chance to protest. It has become a crucial role for the paper.
Kathy Prucnell, a former Chicago real-estate attorney who now covers property and the Cops & Courts beat for The Islander, has done important investigative work here. She once wrote about the Manatee County Fruit Company buying up large tracts of mangroves in the waters off Anna Maria Island as a way to sidestep development regulations. It’s coverage like this that residents really rely upon.
Some pieces even have national relevance. Right now Prucnell is covering a story on possible Miami mafia involvement in stealing boats and boating equipment from Anna Maria Island. The biggest story The Islander has covered so far is the 2008 murder of Sabine Musil-Buehler, a German woman who ran a motel on AMI. The paper’s reports even got the attention of nbc’s national programme Dateline, which aired an episode on the murder investigation at the beginning of 2016.
The paper is not without competition. There’s The Sun, for example, another local offering, and regional dailies such as The Bradenton Herald, owned by news conglomerate McClatchy Company. But The Islander’s independence is a major selling point. There’s also its qualified staff – all reporters have journalism degrees – and Joy’s keen eye for a good story.
It helps that The Islander’s door is always open; it operates out of a shopfront where on any given day several readers will pop by to deliver some news, buy ad space or simply chat. Joy claims she is a controversial figure because she doesn’t shy away from telling the truth but for the most part she’s a well-liked community figure whose charisma shapes and, in many ways, defines the paper.
From launching a dog-rescue service to collecting clothes for earthquake victims and secondhand pianos for churches, Joy wields a benevolent power through The Islander in a community that seems her perfect match: dynamically eccentric and always forging ahead.
The Islander: Headline news
Circulation: 15,000 weekly.
Advertising price: $11.20 (€9.80) per column inch.
Classifieds cost: $12 (€10.50) per week.
Long-running classified ads: “I don’t cut corners, I clean corners. Professional, friendly cleaning service since 1999.”
“Wildlife removal and relocation: problem-solving for all animals, big and small.”
“U Fly I drive your car anywhere in the US. Airport runs, anywhere.”
Typical headlines: “Anna Maria Garden Club holds Penny Flower Show”
“Holmes Beach commissioner discusses noise, mosquitoes”
“Murder mystery begins, ends on AMI”
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