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COVER STORY | Vol. 11, No. 3, January 22, 2009
(The Rise And Fall Of The McNesby Empire)

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THE RISE AND FALL OF THE MCNESBY EMPIRE

by Rick Outzen

THE FIRST DECADE OF PENSACOLA'S ALT-WEEKLY

The Pensacola Independent published its first edition on July 1, 1999. At the time, we had a staff of 17 and another dozen regular freelancers. Today, our name has changed to the Independent News, or simply the IN, and we have a team of five full-time employees and four freelance writers.

The journey from the Pensacola Independent to the IN has been long, arduous and full of missteps and peril. We have survived weekly newspaper wars, mergers, the 9/11 tragedy, two hurricanes, a flood and a recession.

As I look back over the old issues, I'm still not sure how we did it. The odds against our survival were tremendous. Yet we've not only survived, we've thrived, and Pensacola is better for it.

WEEKLY NEWSPAPER WARS

The first 18 months were filled with battles with former Congressman Joe Scarborough over which paper should be the community's alternative newsweekly. Joe launched the "Florida Sun" five months after we started our paper.

The two papers couldn't have been more different. The Independent had in-depth cover stories and focused on the arts and entertainment. The Sun was more irreverent and had more of a political bent. Joe had the political connections. We had the advertisers. However, neither of us quite had the right voice.

In January 2001, we merged the paper under the masthead "Independent Florida Sun." Duwayne Escobedo was brought in as the principal writer. Joe was executive editor and publisher for about five months until he resigned from Congress and joined the Levin law firm. I came back as publisher and for the next two years Joe and I battled over the editorial content.

The creative tension did create some great articles. We were the first to question the leadership style of Escambia County Commissioner W.D. Childers. Our articles on the possible contamination of Pensacola's groundwater led to the firing of the executive director of the Emerald Coast Utility Authority. We were starting to get our voice, but egos, mine as much as Joe's, kept us from being consistently good.

By 2003, Joe had moved on to a national stage with MSNBC's "Scarborough Country." We dropped "Florida Sun" from the name and simply became the "Independent News" in February 2004. Duwayne become the editor and we really started to shake things up.

IN ATTITUDE

The IN began to become known for its publicity stunts and pranks as well as its editorial. We had our entire staff pre-file for the Pensacola City Council race to show the need for change. We hammered out our first "ballsy" plan to remake downtown and faxed an invoice to former City Manager Tom Bonfield in hopes of getting paid for our effort.

When we moved to the Thiesen Building, where our back windows overlooked the Pensacola News Journal, we ran employment ads seeking prospects who could hit the Gannett bomb shelter with water balloons from the parking garage. We even drew a chalk outline of a splattered victim on Romana Street.

Our biggest stunt was our "Pink Flamingo" tribute. The Pensacola News Journal had started its highly popular Pelican campaign. Pelican statues lined Palafox and other streets downtown. We responded with our tacky, but decorated, plastic pink flamingos that we placed in medians all over town.

The new IN attitude was working. Advertisers and readers were responding. Then Hurricane Ivan struck. Our offices were wiped out, and we moved to an old yoga studio on the West Side, the only place we could find with power and Internet service.

"NO SACRED COWS"

The temptation was to close down the paper, or at least suspend operations for a few months. Instead, we did some of our best reporting. In our issues after the storm, we tackled the problems homeowners were having with their insurance carriers, the dumping of millions of gallons of raw sewage in homes and neighborhoods by the Main Street Sewage Treatment Plant and the stress on the court system.

We teamed with Mollye Barrows and WEAR to question the safety and education of the all-girls boarding school, Victory Christian Academy, under its founder Michael Palmer. Rebecca Ramirez alleged Palmer raped her when she was a 16-year-old student in 1992, and other students came forward to describe more abuses.

In 2005, we earned our reputation for having no "sacred cows." We exposed Pensacola Police Department and Escambia County Sheriff's Office misuse of Taser guns. We investigated the death of Robert Boggon in the Escambia County Jail and the quality of healthcare in our local jails.

THOUGHT LEADER

By 2006, we began to better define the voice of the paper. We were more consistent in how we blended our "no holds barred" opinions, investigative reporting, in-depth music and entertainment coverage and our sense of humor.

We worked with the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce to help form the Pensacola Young Professionals. The paper become an outspoken supporter of the Community Maritime Park and regularly challenged the misstatements made by Save Our City.

The IN evolved from being an angry voice for change to the role of thought leader, challenging the status quo and seeking ways to improve our community. We wrote about poverty, healthcare for the uninsured and our failing inner-city schools.

We still exposed problems, like the lack of certified firefighters in Escambia County, the financial woes of some of the local charter schools and the rise of human trafficking along the Gulf Coast. We published the salaries of Pensacola and Escambia County government workers. The IN also investigated the increase in gang activity in the area.

However, the paper hadn't lost its sense of humor. Duwayne and I faxed our resumes over to the daily newspaper when they were looking for a new executive editor. To frustrate Save Our City members, who were boasting that they had a better plan for the waterfront park, IN printed signs that declared we had a "Better Save Our City."

We figured out the elections rules in Arizona and got my name placed on the ballot for the Republican presidential primary. I got 53 votes and eventually placed 21st out of 24 GOP candidates.

We stepped up our editorial to a new level in 2008 with ground-breaking articles every month. We reported on efforts to consolidate local governments, abuses by Escambia County code enforcement officers, use of local option sales taxes to buy vehicles, the rising cost of city pensions and the meltdown of our financial institutions.

We did several regional and national stories. The IN covered the economic successes in Mobile and the possible civil rights violations of Indian guest workers on the Mississippi coast. The paper also traveled to my alma mater, Ole Miss, for the first presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama.

This year we've already tackled the need to use more local engineers and contractors, the plight of the mentally ill in our court system, domestic violence, gangs and economic development. And we have no plans to slow down.

STILL DANCING

As I go through all the old issues to help write this article, I get a little melancholy remembering the lessons learned and all the people who have been part of all the different versions of this paper. A piece of each of them is still in these pages.

I often joke that publishing a newspaper is like dancing with a 600-pound gorilla. You don't get to pick the music or ever lead. I can't say that I've enjoyed every minute, but I'm very proud of what we have accomplished in our first decade.

The next 10 years should be a piece of cake.


rick@inweekly.net