By Mike Phillips
April 14, 2022

Mike Phillips to take over leadership of the Fernandina Observer.

Hello, Fernandina, Amelia Island and Nassau County. I fell in love with you in 2015 when I came down from Cincinnati to a plein air painting workshop. My late wife and I had been talking about a little place in Florida and I told her I might have found the right spot. We put off doing anything about it for awhile. Then came her diagnosis. Then came the pandemic. Then, after 45 years of marriage, came her death.

When we realized the end was coming —  as most any wife would do — she started giving me a bucket list: Sell our big, 110-year-old house. Start writing and painting again. You’re going to have to rebuild your life after I’m gone. Go down to that little town you liked so much and buy a little house.

So that’s why I’m here seven years after I found this place. Soon after I moved in, I met the two founders of the Fernandina Observer. They told me they were getting worn out and were thinking of shutting it down. Don’t do it, I said. This town needs a good source of news. If you have to move on, get someone else to run it. How about you? they said.

You see, I was a journalist for many years: an editor or publisher and then a media company exec overseeing newsrooms from coast to coast. I know how to run a news operation and have lots of ideas for continuing to build the Observer.

I hesitated because I just got here a few months ago and have a lot to learn about Fernandina and the rest of Nassau County. But I said yes. I can find people who will educate me. And the founders, Susan Steger and Suanne Thamm, know this community as well as anybody who lives here. They have agreed to be the first two members of a board of directors that we’ll be creating.

We’ll need such a board because we are converting the Observer’s incorporation from an LLC to a non-profit. This is an important trend spreading across the country that gives community news operations sturdier foundations in a time of dramatic media change. There are, at the moment, 360 U.S. members of the Institute of Nonprofit News, including 10 in Florida.

I will be bulking up the Observer’s finances and plan to stop relying on volunteers. We’ll pay writers and photographers freelance fees and ad sales people commissions. And we’ll need more of them so we can expand. There are some exceptionally talented people in this community, and they’ll be hearing from me. My job will be to build a team, be sure we have a clear idea about what new content readers will value, and be sure about advertising services that businesses in this strong local economy will look forward to using.

By the way, just so you know, I’m putting money into the Observer and will never take any out.  As cash flow improves, freelance fees and sales commissions will rise. I’ve always been convinced that any business that treats its people well and listens to its customers will prosper.

You might be curious to know a few personal things about me. I love music, mostly classical but other genres too. I’m a seriously addicted reader. I’m an Episcopalian and have joined St. Peter’s church. I shoot sporting clays and upland game. I’ve worked hard to become a good landscape painter. I put down the brushes when I was my wife’s caretaker but have started picking them up again. I don’t yet have the hang of shucking oysters, but it’s on my list to learn. I live with a 9-year-old Labrador named Lilly. I like people a lot, but Lilly likes them even more.

And you might be curious about my ideas for the Observer. I think it should branch out into covering schools and young people in general. Churches and businesses are important, too. It needs to pay more attention to the rest of the county, especially Yulee. And – because it’s a business even though it’s becoming a nonprofit – it should do a much better job of advertising for local businesses and for residents who want to use classified ads to sell something. That would be a good start, I think. I’m counting on your advice for more ideas.

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Nancy Dickson
Nancy Dickson
2 months ago

Welcome! We are excited to see our local paper grow and it sounds as if you will be taking it in new and interesting directions. The April Fool’s Day edition now slides into a context of true/not true! Look forward to meeting you – and Lilly – in the coming weeks.

Joan Cipriano
Joan Cipriano
2 months ago

Welcome to you and Lilly. Susan and Suanne have done a wonderful job, and I am sad to see them go, but you have made this transition sound like such a good opportunity for our community. I send you my best wishes for great success.

Mary Miller
Mary Miller
2 months ago

Welcome this should keep you very busy. Best of luck to you

Dickie Anderson
Dickie Anderson
2 months ago

Very exciting plans. The community is lucky to have someone with passion for so many things.

Carole White
Carole White
2 months ago

Welcome, Mike! You won’t be sorry you and Lilly left Cincy for Amelia and Nassau Country. We’re a friendly place with lots of wonderful opportunities, especially in music and theater. Looking forward to the Fernandina Observer’s new journey!

Catherine Oliver
2 months ago

Welcome Mike & Lilly:) Thank you for sharing your story with us. We look forward to meeting you!

Diane LoCastro
Diane LoCastro
2 months ago

This is wonderful! My husband and I are in the process of moving here as well. We too will be new members of St. Peter’s. I look forward to seeing how you grow the Observer.

Liz Dunn
2 months ago

Welcome! It’s good to know that another local media outlet will continue to see another day…things are tough out there, but we’re tougher! I’m the Marketing & Communications Director for Nassau County Council on Aging, and a “regular” contributor. We have a great story to tell and are looking forward to your ideas. Let me know how we can help!
PS Susan and Suanne, thank you for your magnificent contributions to our county…you will be missed!

Donna Paz Kaufman
Donna Paz Kaufman
2 months ago

What a touching story and one of commitment to your new community. Welcome, Mike. Let us treat you to breakfast or lunch at Story & Song Bookstore Bistro and we’d love to have you join us for our concerts too. Like all of us, you’ll find there’s plenty to do and lots of great people here.

Richard Timm
Richard Timm
2 months ago

Welcome. There is a lot to love here. There are also plenty of issues stemming from having the wrong governmental structure. Thus overdeveloment is rampant and there is little focus on conservation. I wish you well. You will run into me mainly through the Amelia Island Whale Ambassadors. The waters off Amelia Island are the heart of the calving grounds for the highly endangered North Atlantic Right Whale.

Cara Curtin
2 months ago

Welcome aboard! And welcome to Paradise! I look forward to working with you. Cara Curtin

Michelle Sullivan
Michelle Sullivan
2 months ago

Fantastic story – thank you so much!!

Malcolm Noden
Malcolm Noden
2 months ago
  1. Michael-Welcome aboard and a very warm welcome to our community. Akin to many others of the readers of the Observer, I am also an escaped northerner from the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, where I taught at Cornell University for some 35 years. My wife, who was also an artist, and I came here at the turn of the current century, and the past two decades have contained one adventure after another. My beloved passed away four years ago, and it was then I more fully understood that this community was to be my permanent place in the sun. If not already, you will soon become aware that this is a very strong religious community, and that your Episcopalian congregation has strong ties to many other denominations whose churches are close by, and that includes we, the “Frozen Chosen” Presbyterians. I am looking forward to meeting you, and helping with the future of the Observer by writing the occasional article as I have done in the past. Welcome Home! Malcolm (Mac) Noden.
Joseph Alan Wertz
Joseph Alan Wertz
2 months ago

Chips Ahoy and welcome Mike and Lilly! Thank you all for doing a great service. I enjoy reading the Fernandina Observer.

Marc Goldstone
Marc Goldstone
2 months ago

Welcome to the Island, Mike. I am glad to see your commitment to local news gathering and reporting. If I can help in any way, please don’t hesitate to contact me!

Margo Story
Margo Story
2 months ago

Oh my, I like what I just read…..welcome Mike & Lily (of course)!! Looking forward to what you’ve got going. Best of luck!!

cornell rudov
cornell rudov
2 months ago

Welcome home Mike Phillips.

John Goshco
John Goshco
2 months ago

Welcome to the community.
Best wishes for your success with the “new” Observer.

Mrs. D. Hunter
Mrs. D. Hunter
2 months ago

“I’m counting on your advice for more ideas.” Do you really mean it? If so, the only missing piece I see in your solid list of goals is an improved website. Perhaps I’m the only reader who gets annoyed to the point of clicking offline at mid-article is the descending header that keeps the top 1/3 of the page perpetually shaded. Otherwise, sir, you’re obviously a superior writer, I enjoyed reading your introduction, thank you for the handshake!

Michael Hawthorne
Michael Hawthorne
2 months ago

Welcome Mike!

Glad you acted upon your late Wife’s suggestions! Welcome to you and Lily to Fernandina Beach! I really enjoy news that is objective and investigative! I like your ideas to expand the reach and impact to the community!

I am a musician so certainly share your appreciation for it! Mike like any town/ city there will be political / business and social influencers just like every town/ city. Stay true to reality and encouragement as many feel disconnected in today’s world of Choose your truth news!

What brought most all citizens here was the charm and sense of a close community! Many want to feel again the same excitement as when we arrived! Having a highly credible community news source is in great need across the country to expose when there is corruption as well as celebrate the happy news that lifts spirits up .

Welcome to a Wonderful place and hope we can keep that way!

Mike H

Peggy Bulger
Peggy Bulger
2 months ago

Welcome Mike!! I am excited by your ideas and your willingness to tackle the daunting job of local journalism in a time of rapid transition in media and public information. I consider Susan and Suanne to be two of the most dedicated and talented residents of Fernandina Beach, and personal friends. I was really sad and worried about the announcement on April 1, but now I am feeling such hope for the Observer — which is an invaluable asset to our community. I think that you’ll find Amelia Island to be a wonderful home — complex and never a dull moment . . . but with neighbors who are the best.

Peter Mallory
Peter Mallory
2 months ago

Mike : Welcome to Fernandina Beach, AI and Nassau County. Looks like great things in store for the Observer. Peter Mallory

Tanis Crocitto
Tanis Crocitto
2 months ago

I just joined the Yulee community in January after a short NY stint resulting from my husband’s death in 2016. I wish you the best. I truly love the newspaper. Read it every morning. I, too, love Fernandina/Amelia Island and plan on spending ,y last chapter here.

Dennis Jay
Dennis Jay
2 months ago

Your experience, worldview and demeanor sound like it could bring a robust news product very much needed here in Fernandina and beyond. Best of luck to you. I look forward to seeing the results of your efforts.

Robert Warner
Robert Warner
2 months ago

Welcome to this eclectic community. Lots of talent and professional backgrounds in many folks that live here, an excellent museum with lots of activities and resources, a Port facility that often flounders, a state line that runs down the middle of the St. Mary’s river, our Navy’s Strategic Nuclear Submarine Base at King’s Bay (visible to the North, across the St. Mary’s), Ft. Clinch – guardian of the entrance channel, constant battles to protect our local natural environment, excellent educational resources, good food, always great music, and the oldest Bar in Florida. I call it the Key West of the North.

Suzanne Batchelor
Suzanne Batchelor
2 months ago

Welcome and I look forward to meeting you. I am an artist and you said you’ve picked up your brushes – so if you want to network in the art arena, I’m all ears!

Perry Anthony
2 months ago

I have two great suggestions for you. You need to have a section like the News Leader, that’s called “Voice of the People”, so locals can voice their gripes with local government. Susan Steger and Suann Thamm did an outstanding job, but I will say, Suann Thamm allowed her own personal political beliefs to cloud the publication, by erasing other people’s political beliefs, that we’re not in-line with her own. I’m sorry Suann, that is WRONG!!! As you’ve done it to me more times than I can count. Let’s see if she ERASES this and PROVES me RIGHT.

Mrs. D. Hunter
Mrs. D. Hunter
2 months ago
Reply to  Perry Anthony

The News Leader’s “Voice of the People” column stands alone because there’s no endless, contentious comment thread generated from a hardcopy newspaper column, so leave that feature to NL’s coverage. This publication, on the other hand, does NOT need endless contentious commentary threads in a column like you suggest. If I/anyone wanted that kind of contentious political back/forth, I’d go to the Dave Scott Blog, and you should too. Again for the zillionth time: this publication announces its editorial intent immediately at the header: “A Journal of News and Opinion.” O P I N I O N. Not fact, not journalism, not anything other than “News and Opinion.”

Perry Anthony
2 months ago
Reply to  Mrs. D. Hunter

I’m sorry, but I totally disagree with you, as it alerts the local residents as to what’s going on in their neighborhood that they may not be aware of. There is no need for endless threads there!

DAVID LOTT
DAVID LOTT
2 months ago

Welcome Mike and condolences on the passing of your wife. As a former FB resident I use the FO to keep abreast of the community issues and in that regard, I hope you will keep the focus on FB/Amelia Island and not stray too far off island. Yes, all the development off island is going to impact the City and Island and those aspects need to be covered but not at the expense of a spotlight on the more local issues.
The City has more than its fair share of complex issues, but it also is blessed with a very giving community from its houses of faith (be sure to join one of St. Peter’s breakfast teams) to it wide variety of service and community organizations.
Best wishes.

RAFFAELAMARIE R. FENN
RAFFAELAMARIE R. FENN
1 month ago

Welcome! Susan and Suzanne have done a fabulous job. I’m very sorry to see them go. but you’ve earned the rest. I’m always excited about new perspectives.Look forward to seeing you around

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