Dear Readers: Prepare for Change

By Mike Phillips

Observer Editor and Publisher

In the coming weeks, you will start seeing a very different Fernandina Observer. We didn’t want to startle you one day, so here is a preview:

The new format was custom-built for us by Creative Circle. This small team — about the same size as the Observer team — was well known for many years as a first-class graphic design house for newspapers across the country. It focuses these days on software and design for small, independent online newspapers serving their immediate communities. As print newspapers across the country continue to fail, small digital news organizations rise to replace them.

The Observer — founded 10 years ago by two women deeply embedded in the Fernandina Beach community — started out as a way to let people know what was going on at City Hall. Susan Steger and Suanne Thamm maintained that focus and did so with professional journalistic flair even though their backgrounds were banker and librarian. It was an all-volunteer operation with minimal costs and minimal revenue.

When I came to town last year, I was still unpacking boxes when they learned about my long history in both print and digital media. I had been a newsroom manager by 25, a senior editor by 30, a publisher in my 40s and a corporate executive in my 50s. Then I retired, went to the local art academy in Cincinnati and started learning how to draw, then paint in oils and later in watercolors. Then wife of 45 years died in 2022, and I needed to rebuild my life after several tough years of fighting her brain lymphomas.

Fernandina beckoned.

I came here to paint the Low Country, but right away, I met Susan and Suanne. They said painting is nice, but you were destined to take over the Observer. Something told me they were right.

What’s happened in the ensuing months has been building a team of eight talented people and paying them. And we’ve been spreading out coverage from city hall to what I call “the rest of life.” We’re still working on that, but an ancient software called WordPress has been slowing us down.

Here’s what we can start doing with the new software:

Photography — This is one of the most beautiful places in America, and living here are a lot of highly talented photographers and landscape painters whose work celebrates that beauty. But we are limited to 2-megabyte images and have little control over image size. A dime-store camera in the hands of a teen-age beginner can do better than that. With our new software, the sky’s the limit, and we can properly celebrate this beautiful place.

Letting people speak — Right now we are limited to a reader comment system that I call “hip shots.” There are notable exceptions, but a lot of the hip shots are ill-informed, stray right off topic when people start turning comments into arguments and don’t add up to a good representation of community ideas and attitudes. With the new software we can build a robust, thoughtful and much more interesting opinion section.

Putting the news of community organizations in one place — Starting with a comprehensive events and meetings calendar but also making room for more detailed stories about major efforts within those organizations. There’s a fair amount of government to be reported here. But frankly, the beating heart of this place is not government. It’s the remarkable and highly competent community organizations that are the get ‘er done people making things happen.

Along with better-presented text and images, start moving into digital video — It’s always exciting to see a good photo of a flying falcon. It’s much more exciting to see one swoop down and pick up a mouse or small shorebird. The applications are legion. We’ll build them one at a time.

And finally, our business people — especially small family businesses — lack good, affordable ways of telling their stories. Now that we are getting some proper tools to offer alternatives, one of my most pressing personal goals is to recruit the right person to help us build a multi-media advertising program that works for all businesses: storefronts, trades, restaurants, lodging, professionals and the occasional big outfit.

Please don’t expect all this to happen overnight. For one thing, recruiting talent in this town isn’t easy. There are a lot of highly talented people in the community, but bless their hearts, many of them would rather fish, golf and travel than work.

Here are some talent areas where the Observer is looking:

– Marketing and advertising sales.

– Photography and photo editing.

– Video production and editing.

– Specialty reporting and human interest writing.

We particularly would like to find local college students who are gaining skills in these areas, need some practical experience and, of course, need some tuition money.

So, we are getting equipped for a journey to take the Observer up several more notches in value to the community. It won’t be a short journey, and it will be best if you keep telling us how we’re doing.

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Barb Gingher
Active Member
Barb Gingher(@drbarbg)
1 month ago

Thanks for letting us know! Best of luck!

1 month ago

I have heard it said and believe it to be true that change is good. And in my case, even spare change.

Peggy Bulger
Trusted Member
Peggy Bulger(@peggy-bulger1949gmail-com)
1 month ago

Mike, this is really exciting and thank you for your efforts to build a robust online newspaper!! I know, that “newspaper” dates me, but I love them and I have been so pleased with the Observer . . . Susan, Suanne and now Mike — you rock!

Noble Member
1 month ago

Best wishes for a big success!

Trusted Member
1 month ago

Thank you for sharing the vision of our newspapers future. It sounds really exciting. We’re behind you all the way!

Active Member
1 month ago

Mike, Susan and Suanne, Many thanks for the time and effort you put into the Observer. Your contributions to the community are invaluable. Good luck with this new endeavor, I am confident you will find a crew of amazing young people that will make the Observer better than ever!

Mark Tomes
Trusted Member
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
1 month ago

Thanks for the update. I hope you can keep the ads as unobtrusive as possible.

Ben Martin
Noble Member
Ben Martin(@ben-martin)
1 month ago

“With the new software we can build a robust, thoughtful and much more interesting opinion section.”

That sounds kind of scary. How do you make an opinion section more robust and thoughtful?

If you want to drive traffic to your site, keep the opinion section devoid of censorship. An open platform where people are free to disagree is needed in communities everywhere. To a degree, at times, the FO has provided that. And it is very much appreciated.

The idea that WordPress is ancient software is puzzling.

Active Member
1 month ago

My wife and I rely on the Fernandian Observer for community news since moving here in 2012. Best wishes for success.

Ben Martin
Noble Member
Ben Martin(@ben-martin)
26 days ago

Political Art – On Censorship