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UPDATED: Boca Raton News Shut Down

At a staff meeting today, Boca Raton News Publisher informed the newspaper's staff of 24 people that the 54-year-old newspaper was being shut down immediately. Sunday's newspaper will be its last.

The news was first reported by freelance writer and Boca Raton News columnist Jack Furnari on a Sun-Sentinel blog after rumors that it was going to be put on the selling block were reported on Barry Epstein's show and here.    

The newsroom is being shut down, the offices closed, and the newspaper terminated. The Sun-Sentinel is reporting that some of the Boca News will survive online, with employees working from home. This contradicts Furnari's report, also in the Sun-Sentinel, that all 24 employees had been told they were no longer employed. It seems highly unlikely a website as small as BocaNews.com will sustain many staffers and, from what I can tell, it's revenues, if it has any, come solely from Google ads. Sad indeed. There will surely be more to developments to come. (Furnari, by the way, stands by his post, says the website has almost no revenue, and that the article amounted to "corporate double speak"). 

Remarkably, the Boca News' website has no story about Friday's events or the newspaper's fate. It's lead story Saturday morning ('Boca Tax Rate Unchanged') had been up since early Thursday afternoon.     

The death of the small but historic newspaper, however inevitable it may have seemed, comes as a shock. Swill, backed by a California community news group and some heavy-hitting underwriters from New York, bought the Boca Raton News in 2005 from Neal Heller. In hindsight, the purchase couldn't have come at a worse time. The newspaper became part of the South Florida Media Group, which Swill calls a "hyper-local advertising company."

In addition to the extreme economic problems facing the industry, the Boca News never took hold with an audience under Swill's reign. It fell back into the lapdog "community news" role and never made any splash. It was baldly about delivering advertisements, with news a seeming afterthought. Swill signaled his move away from newspapers recently when SFMG purchased Welcome Wagon, a company that specializes in ads placed in goodie baskets.  

The newspaper wasn't much lately, but it has a heck of a wild past. It was started by two Miami Herald guys, served as a national petrie dish for Knight-Ridder, and was run into the ground in the late 1990s by new owners (the big-spending, high-living Martin brothers). To get a sense of it, I've included a long excerpt after the jump about the newspaper's history from this 2001 feature story. The story very heavily quotes Mike Sallah, a former News reporter who now runs investigations for the Miami Herald.

Well it was a story. Now it seems more like an obit. 

The Boca Raton News was founded in December 1955 by a group of investors led by banker Tom Fleming. The editorial side consisted of husband-and-wife team Robert and Lora Britt.

In 1963 two executives from The Miami Herald purchased the paper and began building the staff. Their first hire was Sandy Wesley, a writer who spent decades at the News but was fired last March. The editorial staff totaled three for about a year, recalls Wesley. "The publisher covered sports and ran the press at times, the editor covered city meetings and police. I put out the women's section and wrote features."

Within a year the News added photo and sports editors and increased its publishing schedule to twice a week. By 1970 the paper was distributed every day except Monday. Around that time the News's owners sold the paper to Knight Newspapers, which at that time also owned The Miami Herald. (Knight merged with Ridder Publications Inc. in 1974.)

Wesley left the News in 1971 for a job writing features at the Palm Beach Post. She returned in 1981, when Knight Ridder began pumping capital into the paper. The media giant, then headquartered in Miami, beefed up the staff and switched from afternoon to morning delivery. Knight Ridder improved the situation, recalls former News reporter Mike Sallah, but was careful not to make the paper too good. "Knight Ridder did [the News] a terrible disservice," says Sallah, now a national-affairs writer for the Block News Alliance, a shared service of the Toledo Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "They built it into a really good daily, but they also stunted its growth. It was in a real position to grow in the '70s and '80s, but they didn't want it to get too big because they wanted the Herald to be big up there."

Nonetheless the News published stories that would have been inconceivable at most small dailies. Sallah says reporters occasionally worked on projects for three months or more -- a rarity today, even at the nation's largest newspapers. When crack cocaine appeared in Palm Beach County in the mid 1980s, Newsreporters went beyond quoting cops and reporting arrests. They hung out for hours at a time in front of a place on SW Ninth Avenue in Delray Beach known as "The Hole," a string of small cottages with iron bars on the windows that served as a drive-thru drug mart. On December 28, 1986, Sallah and fellow reporter Gina Smith filed a story that began on the front page with a photo of an apparent drug deal at The Hole and jumped inside to a two-page spread dominated by a map pinpointing every known crack house in Delray Beach, complete with the address, the owner's name, and a photo of each place.

"We did a lot of ambitious stuff like that," says Sallah, "major stuff, major take-out pieces. We won every award [in the small-newspaper] category in Florida, which just shows how well the paper did."

Sallah wrote a piece in April 1987 that he still recalls as one of the highlights of his career. It was the story of Bob Drummond, a rich Boca developer who in the early '60s had it all -- a fat inheritance, boats, racehorses, a huge estate, even a private helicopter. But in April 1962, two of Drummond's four children were poisoned by an 11-year-old neighbor boy who poured weed killer into a milk bottle and put the bottle in Drummond's refrigerator. Drummond's three-year-old son, Randy, and his nine-year-old daughter, Debbie, drank the milk and went into convulsions.

Drummond and his wife, Gloria, loaded the children into their car and drove them about ten miles north to Bethesda Memorial Hospital in Boynton Beach; no hospital existed in Boca at the time. The children survived the trip, but both soon died of arsenic poisoning.

Convinced their kids would have survived had a hospital been located nearby, the Drummonds began a five-year fundraising campaign to get one built. The Boca Raton Community Hospital opened in June 1967.

Sallah heard about the story and realized no one had ever followed up. With the 25th anniversary of the children's deaths approaching, he tracked down the police and doctors who worked the case; the Drummonds' other two children, Bob Jr. and Robin; and Gloria Drummond. He even located the poisoner, Raymer Cassady, who was then 36 years old, living in Deerfield Beach, and working as a garage-door salesman. (Cassady, who didn't comment for Sallah's story, was charged with "delinquency leading to a death" and court-ordered to attend a Boston school for disturbed children. He completed his sentence at age 16.)

Sallah found Bob Drummond living in his car only a few blocks from the six-bedroom Boca home he had once owned. Drummond never recovered from the death of his children and by 1987 spent his time hanging around in bars and crashing with friends.

"That story totally blew the lid off the town," recalls Sallah. "You are talking about a big tragedy with prominent people. I remember Mrs. Drummond having to go to the hospital after she read it, she was so freaked out."

Such stories enabled News alumni to get jobs at papers like The Miami Herald, the St. Petersburg Times, and the Detroit Free Press. Sallah left in 1989, just in time, he says, to miss the News's ruination. "That godforsaken project -- thank God I was gone."

By the late 1980s, Knight Ridder had its corporate finger in the wind, trying to determine what readers wanted from a newspaper. The company had been criticized by Wall Street for putting too much emphasis on quality journalism and not enough on the bottom line. Daily newspaper readership across the United States had been in steady decline since the mid-'60s, and editors were scrambling to find ways to make their product relevant. They started calling readers "customers" and talked about filling the paper with brief, bite-size, superlocal stories. Public-service journalism came into vogue and so, unfortunately, did focus groups.

Jim Batten, Knight Ridder's CEO at the time, embraced focus groups with the ardor of an alcoholic in AA. Suddenly Knight Ridder was less interested in the historic role of the press as the fourth estate and more interested in plumbing the reader's psyche. Long stories, government coverage, and international news were deemed irritating to readers, and the last thing execs wanted was to lose readers.

In 1989 the News became a lab rat for experiments Knight Ridder thought might lure readers back. KR brass called it the "25/43 Project," so-named for the age demographic they were desperately trying to impress.

Thirty focus groups later, the new News debuted October 11, 1990, looking like a dumbed-down version of USA Today. It was bright, colorful, and easily digested. It featured a strict policy of not continuing stories from the front page. Headlines were big. Editorials stated problems, just as they had before 25/43, but now they also proposed solutions. The business page came with a glossary of financial terms. National and international stories were keyed to maps that helped pinpoint the locations of such datelines as Indianapolis and Moscow. The sports section focused on recreational and participatory events. Weather was described on a full page printed in color -- common now but groundbreaking back then.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman

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