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Saturday October 25th 2014

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IN Celebrates 13 Years In Print

13 We Got Right
by Rick Outzen

The Independent News published its first issue on July 1, 1999. The basic premise was to be a newspaper that cared about its community and one that would report the stories others avoided and be an advocate for positive change in the community. The paper has fearlessly taken stands and stretched its meager resources to be a paper the community could rely upon.

The paper has been far from perfect, but here are 13 things that we believe that we have done right:

1. Moving the Main Street Sewage Treatment Plant

In November 2001, the IN began reporting on the problems with the aging downtown treatment plant and the need to relocate the facility that was built in 1937. Though the odors from the plant often made downtown Pensacola smell like a Pea Ridge outhouse, the Emerald Coast Utility Authority staff and board were adamant about letting the plant daily dump nearly 20 million gallons for treated sewage into Pensacola Bay.

When Hurricane Ivan hit the Main Street plant, the IN reported that untreated sludge spilled into local waterways and filled homes from Aragon to Blue Angels Lake. The storm aged the plant five to 10 years and brought national attention to risks of having such a facility on the bay.

FEMA, county and city governments pitched in and helped ECUA build its $316-million Central Water Reclamation Facility which opened in December 2010 in Cantonment, Fla. The old Main Street Sewage Treatment Plant has been demolished and will be available soon for redevelopment.

2. W.D. Childers

No one messed with W.D. Childers. The “Banty Rooster” ruled the Florida Senate for over two decades. When term limits sent him home to Escambia County, Childers won a seat on the Escambia County Commission and quickly become its chairman.

While the daily newspaper lauded Childers for his leadership, the IN questioned in September 2001 why so many county department heads were quitting. As last-minute additions to the board’s agendas began to lead to millions being spent on land grabs, the IN smelled something was wrong. In January 2002, the paper questioned $6.2 million being spent on a closed soccer complex and a defunct car dealership.

Within months, four county commissioners were indicted and removed from office. Childers was found guilty of violating the Florida Sunshine Law and of bribing Commissioner Willie Junior to help push the land deals. Childers served three years in prison and was released in 2009.

3. April Fool’s Issues

A satire is difficult to write, but the IN has nearly perfected it with its annual April Fool’s issues. Since 2002, the paper has had fun with articles that have poked fun at local politicians and ourselves.

The paper had Fred Levin, whose philanthropy had gotten the University of Florida naming its law school in his honor, buying the University of West Florida. The gadget-loving former Sheriff Ronnie McNesby was reported to have bought a submarine for his agency through e-Bay. MTV was scouting out Pensacola Beach for its upcoming season of “Jersey Shore” and Osama Bin Laden had been found hiding under the old Bayfront Auditorium.

By far the best year was 2008, the paper reported that UWF was launching its football program and was selling tickets for its home opener against Notre Dame. What was a joke four years ago is now closer to reality. UWF President Judy Bense has a task force working on both a team and a stadium.

4. Strong Mayor

The IN realized that Pensacola was falling behind the region long before the politicians and chamber leadership was willing to admit it. The paper saw bright progressive ideas stopped by entrenched bureaucracies. Electing new council members had little impact either.

The city was operating under a charter written in 1930 and was being run by a city manager that wasn’t answerable to the voters and was nearly impossible for the 10-member city council to remove.

In June 2004, the paper began arguing for a strong mayor with an in-depth interview of Joe Riley, the mayor of Charleston, S.C.  Riley, who was serving his eighth term as mayor at the time, argued that the strong mayor form of government gave maximum accountability to the voters. The paper agreed.

Three years later, the Pensacola City Council agreed to appoint a charter review commission. Under attorney Crystal Spencer’s leadership, that group recommended a strong mayor form of government. The paper fought for the new charter, which the voters approved by referendum in 2009. The following year, Ashton Hayward was elected to the position.

5. Maritime Park

The city’s first proposal for the Trillium property across from city hall was a new bayfront auditorium that would have competed with the Civic Center and festival park. The paper fought vigorously against the plan and helped to defeat the 2003 referendum for the project.

In May 2004, the IN proposed its “ballsy plan” for downtown Pensacola that called for a ballpark, maritime museum and conference center. The staff’s research had found that minor league baseball, particularly teams with downtown stadiums, were thriving across the country.

After Hurricane Ivan, Quint Studer, the late Vice Adm. Jack Fetterman and then-UWF President John Cavanaugh agreed, at the request of city leaders, to create a community maritime park that would have the features of our plan. The naysayers went ballistic, even though public sentiment favored the concept. The IN backed the 2006 referendum that approved the park and fought a couple petition drives to stop its construction.

The park opened this past April and is leading the Southern League in attendance. The games are regularly sold out.

6. Best of the Coast

In 2000, local media shied away from picking favorites. The last readership survey to pick the “best” anything had been done in 1996 by the daily newspaper and had been plagued with ballot stuffing.

The IN created “Best of the Coast” and over the past 12 years the award has become a highly sought after honor. The inaugural BOC issue was 48 pages. Today it is 68 pages with nearly 150 categories.

7.  Downtown Entertainment District

Another suggestion of the 2004 Ballsy Plan was the creation of a downtown entertainment district. The lead was “Imagine Bourbon Street without the nudie bars.” The paper felt that Seville Quarter could be a cornerstone if the daily newspaper would give up its massive parking lot so that music fans and clubbers could walk club to club like they do on Beale Street in Memphis, Tenn. and in Ybor City in Tampa, Fla. to enjoy a wide range of music.

Eight years later, downtown Pensacola has its entertainment district with Vinyl Music Hall, Hopjacks, New York Nicks, Play, Helen Back, Cabaret, Sluggo’s, Intermission, Ragtyme Grill and Seville Quarter. World of Beer will be joining the line up soon and the daily newspaper now has its parking lot up for sale so we can expect more additions in the future.

8.  Pensacola Young Professional/Rising Stars

When the City of Pensacola was debating the maritime park, leaders continually talked about the need to keep young adults in the area, but no one was talking directly to them. The Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce built its programs around tourism, military and economic development, but had little outreach to the young professionals.

The IN and the chamber agreed in the fall of 2005 to join forces and facilitate the development of a young professional organization. Neither would try to run, manage or control the group but would offer support and help validate their initial efforts. The Pensacola Young Professionals (PYP) were officially formed in March 2006 and helped with the passage of the Community Maritime Park referendum.

The IN also saw the need to give recognition to those young adults that were showing promise in their careers. The Rising Stars program was launched in 2007 to do just that for promising young professionals under the age of 35. To date, over 200 people have been so honored.

9. Civil Rights

The IN has always taken on the difficult issues that some would prefer the paper didn’t. Deaths in the jail, taser abuse, human trafficking, domestic violence and racial discrimination have been cover stories that have been the paper’s reputation as being fearless and willing to follow tips wherever they may lead the reporters.

In the early days, the paper lost almost as many advertisers each week as it added. Elected officials didn’t like to be criticized and didn’t care for our watchdog approach to journalism. Unlike what may have happened in the past with other media, there was no one they could call to stop an investigation.

The paper’s investigations into the taser abuses in 2004 and the jail deaths in 2005 and 2006 led to a federal Department of Justice investigation. The 2007 story of local teen, Shauna Newell, being abducted, raped and nearly sold into sex slavery was picked up by the national media.

In 2008, the paper came to the defense of Erin Markes, a young Pace, Fla. mother whose son suffered from a rare brain condition and who had been accused by Nancy Grace on her national television program of being the worse mother in America. The IN showed how Markes was a hero not the villain in the story and the state attorney’s office dropped the case.

This year, the paper has pledged to expose the huge racial disparities in the community and how they are impacting the quality of life of the entire community. The articles have earned the paper one broken window so far.

10.  Music Festival Coverage

Alt-weeklies are built on music coverage. The IN has hosted concerts, music festivals and even had its own music awards for a couple years. Sam Baltrusis helped us build the brand from 2003 to 2005 before heading off to Boston. Joani Delezen and her team of faithful, music-loving freelancers have taken the paper’s coverage to new levels.

The Hawkshaw Music Festival was the paper’s foray into concert promotion in an effort to fill the void left by Springfest and to find a way to honor our troops headed to war in Iraq. With the help of Jeff DeWeese, Michelle Sarra, Steve Sharp, Jason Clark, Nora Jones and the Outzen women, the IN brought a line-up to Pensacola that included the Zac Brown Band that won a Grammy two years later.

The paper learned quickly that concert promotion wasn’t its forte, but writing was. The paper’s coverage of DeLuna Fest and Hangout Fest has been remarkable, earning kudos from promoters, artists and readers. Starting weeks ahead of the events, the writers work tirelessly to garner interviews that others might miss.

11.  Coverage of the Billings Murder Case

The IN doesn’t normally cover crime. In summer of 2009, the paper had lost its two ancient Macs and its air conditioning. For four weeks, the issues were produced using two hand-me-down computers from empty cubicles at O’Sullivan Creel. The paper celebrated its 10th anniversary looking for something other than Commissioner Gene Valentino and the Pensacola chamber to write about.

On July 9, seven men broke into the Beulah home of Byrd and Melanie Billings, stealing a safe and killing the couple. In the home were nine children suffering from physical and mental handicaps. The national media descended on Pensacola and kept the spotlight on the investigation for over two weeks.

The IN was the first to report that witnesses were telling investigators that the murders were a contract hit and possibly connected to Mexican drug cartels. It would be a month before the state attorney’s office released documents that supported the IN articles.

The paper’s coverage of the crime was featured in the New York Times, on Dateline NBC and on documentary produced by CBS/TLC. Eventually all seven men were convicted. Patrick Gonzalez Jr. was given the death penalty.

12. BP Oil Disaster Coverage

The IN set itself apart from other media with its coverage of the April 2009 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 men, spilled over millions of gallons into the Gulf of Mexico and wrecked the economies of communities along the central Gulf Coast.

The IN was the first paper to be kicked out of a meeting by BP officials. It was the only newspaper to refuse any BP ads. The paper garnered international attention for its stories on the BP marketing machine and how it overstated the company’s few successes and downplayed the risks.

The goal was to make sure that Pensacola was not lost in the coverage and that the area had the attention of not only the oil giant, but also the federal and state governments.

13.  The Blog

When Rick’s Blog (ricksblog.biz) began in 2005, the web journal only had a few thousand visitors a month. The daily newspaper’s reporters and columnists also had blogs, but they only posted once or twice a month.

It wasn’t until IN met Max Brantley of the Arkansas Times that the blog became a must-read for Pensacola. Brantley’s blog was so effective in exposing misconduct in Gov. Mike Huckabee’s administration that Brantley’s paper got blacklisted by the future GOP presidential candidate. The Arkansas Times editor’s instructions were to post everything.

As of June 26, there have been over 9,700 posts and almost 41,000 approved comments. The blog has had nearly 2 million visitors and 9.7 million page-views over the past 12 months. It has twice been nominated as the best local blog in Florida and was consistently ranked among the most influential political blogs in the state by BlogNetNews.com. It has been quoted on CBSNews.com, The Daily Beast and the New York Times and in meetings of the Escambia County Commission and the Pensacola City Council. Tallahassee politicos regularly have tuned in to get the pulse of Northwest Florida.

If you “google” just about any Pensacola or Escambia County issue, ricksblog.biz comes up.