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As 2020 threatens to be fateful for journalism, a South Florida newspaper folds

cluttered desk, black chair in front of a wall with "Observer" sign
cluttered desk, black chair in front of a wall with "Observer" sign
The Observer’s Deerfield Beach office

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org

The collapse of local news came to North Broward and South Palm Beach last week with the shuttering of the Observer, a weekly newspaper based in Deerfield Beach since 1962.

The Observer’s closure presages what threatens to be a fateful year for Florida journalism.

At the nearby Sun-Sentinel, South Florida’s largest circulation newspaper, employees anxiously await what will become of the paper and owner Tribune Publishing amid a slow-motion takeover bid by Alden Global Capital, the New York-based hedge fund with a reputation for ruthlessly “strip-mining” its newspaper holdings. Alden currently owns about 100 daily and weekly newspapers via Denver-based Media News Group, which does business as Digital First Media.

Further south, The Miami Herald faces an uncertain future as the market value of its owner, the Sacramento-based McClatchy Company, plunged amid renewed talk of bankruptcy. With McClatchy shares closing at 48 cents on Friday, the company whose other newspapers include the Kansas City Star and Charlotte Observer, is valued by investors at being worth less than $4 million.

Up I-95, the Palm Beach Post is now owned by Gannett Media Group – the new name of the combined Gannett and Gatehouse Media chains. Respected newspaper business analyst Ken Doctor reported in November that the combined company is looking to reap cost savings of as much as $500 million – which will translate into substantial job cuts across the chain, and presumably at the Post, too.

All three major South Florida newspapers have endured significant circulation erosion in recent years.

Observer’s last newspaper

The Observer, printed in Stuart, covered Deerfield Beach, Lighthouse Point, Hillsboro Beach, Pompano Beach and Boca Raton with a mix of news about community events, commission meetings, obituaries and neighborhood crime. Its final paper was published Dec. 26.

While printing between 15,000 and 18,000 copies a week, the Observer had been a mostly money-losing operation for years, according to Publisher Dana Eller.

headshot of Dana Eller
Observer Publisher Dana Eller

“We tried, but we just couldn’t get it where it needed to be,” he said. He noted that about 15 people, both full and part-time employees, had lost their jobs.

“We are going to miss the gratification that comes from being able to provide a voice in the community that a local paper provides. The website will remain up and running for the time being, and we may find an opportunity in the future to continue intermittent publications combined with a more robust website, but at this point, we do not know,” Eller wrote in the newspaper’s last edition.

Founded by Bill Beck, the Observer began as a 10-cent-a-copy broadsheet and ended as a giveaway delivered to some core residences, but was mostly distributed on racks at dozens of area businesses.

Eller’s father, local businessman and well-known Republican donor David Eller, acquired the paper in 1980.  Dana Eller recounted how his father came to buy what was then called the Deerfield Beach Observer:  

“The paper was supporting George Bush for president; my father was supporting Ronald Reagan. The paper told my father that if he didn’t like it, he could buy the paper and support someone else. He did.”

Legal troubles

Ironically, it was David Eller’s ties to Bush’s son, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, that later caused he and his company years of legal entanglements.

David Eller, who died in 2017, also owned industrial pump maker MWI, short for Moving Water Industries. Before Jeb Bush first ran for governor in 1994, and while his father was president, he marketed MWI pumps around the world.

In 1998, as Bush was running for governor, a former MWI employee filed a federal whistleblower complaint about a deal involving a $74.3 million Export-Import bank loan to Nigeria that financed the 1992 deal. The Bush connection drove unflattering press coverage that worsened in 2002 when the Justice Department intervened to accuse MWI of civil fraud and sought more than $200 million in damages. The case dragged on for years, before a federal judge ruled in 2014 that MWI wasn’t liable for any damages. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the matter three years later.

Given the diminished Sun-Sentinel’s coverage of local governments, the Observer’s passing spells less reporting about what city commissioners and government agencies are up to in North Broward. But that doesn’t mean all coverage has ended.

The New Pelican, a weekly based in Pompano Beach, has about a half-dozen reporters and editors to cover the same area as the Observer, plus Oakland Park, Wilton Manors and Lauderdale-By-The-Sea. It is the look-alike successor to the Pompano Pelican, founded in 1993 by Anne Hanby Siren, who now holds the title of publisher emeritus.

The New Pelican, started in March 2019, has a political pedigree. Its masthead identifies four publishers: Michael Sobel, John Geer, Tony Hill and Jay Ghanam. Geer is also listed as editor-in-chief.

Sobel is a personal injury attorney and former city commissioner who lost a run for mayor in 2018. Geer ran for and lost a race for a commission seat the same year. Geer and Hill are past political allies of Sobel.

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Latest comment

  • Thank for this SOBERING and frightening news about all these newspapers.

    Horrifying beyond my worst fears, especially re McClatchy / The Miami Herald.

    I am very sorry to hear about the Sun Sentinel situation!

    Sincerely,

    Jackson Rip Holmes

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