By Mike Phillips
April 14, 2022
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.