If you are a longtime reader of Key West The Newspaper, you may know that I retired last November after running the paper for 18 years. But I may have one more adventure in me, so I have applied to join the Peace Corps. While that application is pending, I told new publishers Naja and Arnaud Girard that I would be happy to make some editorial contributions to their new online venture. The start point to my piece this week is a blockbuster story (my opinion) that broke in the Key West Citizen last Friday. I bet you didn’t know that the Blue Paper almost took over the publication of Solares Hill newspaper back in 1998.
In a fit of budget-cutting last week, the Key West Citizen finally put the ax to Solares Hill newspaper, one of the longtime icons of Key West journalism. As part of the blood-letting, Editor Mark Howell and Associate Editor Nadja Hansen both lost their jobs. Before the Citizen bought the belly-up publication for a song back in 1998, it had been published off and on since 1971, usually every-other-week with vacation time off during the summer. It only became a weekly in 1994 after Key West The Newspaper (KWTN) hit the streets as a 52-weeks-a-year publication.
Bill Huckel, the original founder, editor and publisher, put out a kick-ass newspaper. In fact, back in 1993, as I was out selling ads for the first issue of Key West the Newspaper as a publication specializing in investigative reporting, a number of potential advertisers told me, “You’re going to do what Bill Huckel did.” Unfortunately, Huckel slipped into drug addiction and, gradually, lost his marriage, his home and, finally, his newspaper. He sold what was left of Solares Hill to wealthy businessman Richard French, who hired David Ethridge as his editor. Ethridge became an icon in Key West journalism in his own right– breaking his share of scandal stories. David and I were less than friendly competitors for a number of years. It was David who labeled me as “the rogue publisher.” I think he meant it as a slur, but I took it as a compliment.
Early on, I tried to hire Bill Huckel as one of our investigative reporters. Photographer Richard Watherwax, who used to work for Huckel, helped me track him down. He was washing dishes at the old Deli Restaurant. By that time, he was a beaten man. He no longer had the heart to try to expose and write about corruption in Key West. And, anyway, he said, he had signed a no-compete contract with Solares Hill. So I put that idea on the back burner. But a year or so later, Watherwax called me and told me that Bill wanted to talk again. We met and Bill said his no-compete contract had expired and that he wanted to start writing again– but that he wanted to do something religious-oriented. Oh, Lord (no pun intended), I thought. I wasn’t sure that the stuff he might want to do would fit into the content of the Blue Paper. But I really wanted Bill Huckel’s name on our masthead. As it turned out, most of the stories he turned in were very sweet pieces about church-goers who helped others. But every once in a while, he got me and my paper in trouble– like when he and a teacher out at the college published dueling commentaries for several weeks about whether or not Jesus was gay. Huckel died in February 2011 from complications associated with cancer. He was 74.
Back in 1998, Solares Hill was in financial trouble again. Owner Richard French, who spent most of his time at his home in France, had cut a deal with Ethridge to take over management of the paper and send him payments every month. But, reportedly, when Ethridge got eight months behind on his payments, French tried repeatedly to call him– but, French told me, Ethridge refused to take his calls. There was no email back then. So French decided to get on an airplane and fly back to Key West to take the paper back and fire Etheridge. To set things up, French called on good friend, Key Wester and business partner John Murphy. It just so happened that Murphy and I were also good friends. He had been a longtime supporter of the Blue Paper.
So John called and told me what was going on and asked if it would be possible for me and my staff to put out two newspapers at once. I thought about it for a day and called John back and told him that we would have to work out the logistics and the money– but, as far as conflict was concerned, Solares Hill was the town’s artsy-crafty publication and KWTN was the investigative publication. Although the idea was somewhat bizarre, it might be doable. So Murphy and French included me in the planning of what would become the Solares Hill Take-Back. Initially, French and Murphy had decided to stage the surprise “raid” on a Wednesday, which was the day that French would be arriving in town. I counseled that a Wednesday take-back would be a bad idea because that was deadline day for the paper. At that time, Solares Hill went to press on Wednesday night and hit the street on Thursday morning.
“Unless you want to lose a week of ad revenue, let them get the paper out and stage the take-back on Friday,” I suggested. And that’s what they did. I am told that when Ethridge came into the office on Friday morning, French and Murphy were already there with a locksmith, changing the locks. Murphy told me that Ethridge’s first comment was simply, “Oh, shit!”
I had also asked French and Murphy to be sure and get the “flats.” Back then, newspapers were produced by pasting up the pages on page-size cardboard called flats and, then, the printer would photograph the flats with a big camera. And the film from the camera was used to make the printing plates. Without Solares Hill’s flats, it would have made it more difficult for us to produce the paper the following week.
Once I had the flats, I called Mark Howell, who was Ethridge’s assistant editor, and told him what was going on. I don’t think he really believed me– until we met over the weekend– and he saw that I had the flats in hand. By that time, I knew that French was meeting with the management of the Key West Citizen and that a sale might be pending. But my job was to make sure that, one way or the other, an issue of Solares Hill would get out the following Thursday. Had the deal with the Citizen not panned out, the plan was that I would publish Solaris Hill (along with the Blue Paper) at least temporarily. But the deal did pan out and the Key West Citizen reinstated David Ethridge as editor and Mark Howell as assistant editor. But Solares Hill never again stood alone as an independent newspaper and– especially at the end, the editors seemed to have just given up on any kind of investigative reporting. For example, do you remember when Howell wrote that fawning story on then-Police Chief Bill Mauldin– just days before Mauldin resigned amid allegations that he sexually harassed one of his female employees?
Citizen management’s stated rationale for jettisoning Solaris Hill last week was lack of advertiser support. Probably true. But what was also true was that Solares Hill had never been the same after being purchased by the Citizen, not only in terms of editorial content, but also in terms of “street presence.” It was no longer distributed to restaurants, convenience stores, offices, hotels where people would see it. Instead, it was stuffed into the middle of the Sunday Citizen, along with the department store, grocery store and other commercial flyers. But ad rates remained sky-high. Go figure.
In any event, the Citizen and Solares Hill lived together happily ever after– at least until last week, when the management of the Citizen threw Solaris Hill out into the back parking lot, staff and all.