MY VERO: Memories of competing for news in Vero of ‘80s

Nothing better-prepared me to work in the fiercely competitive news markets of New York, Los Angeles and Denver than my first two years in Vero Beach.

That’s not to diminish the wonderful education I received at Washington & Lee University, where America’s first journalism curriculum was offered in 1869, nor overlook the hands-on knowledge I gained during my freelance and internship opportunities while in college.

But it was here, as I embarked on my full-time newspaper career at the then-Schumann-owned Press Journal in June of 1980 that I learned there was more to this business than reporting, writing and editing.

I was expected to compete, too – to not only get the story right, but also to get it first.

And it wasn’t easy.

It proved to be much tougher than I had anticipated, given that I was starting off at such a small newspaper in such a small, sleepy and seasonal seaside community known more for spring training and citrus than journalism.

It wasn’t until I had spent three hours listening to WTTB-AM’s 60th anniversary celebration Friday morning, however, that I recalled exactly how great a challenge it was to be a news reporter in Vero Beach in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Because there was competition.

Unlike today, when Vero Beach 32963 and veronews.com provide the only serious local news alternatives to a Stuart-based Press Journal that merely pretends to care about Indian River County, residents of this community once had plenty of options.

Good options, too.

When I drove into Vero Beach in 1980, the Press Journal was the hometown daily – but not the only daily that covered our hometown.

The Miami Herald had both an Indian River County bureau and section. Same goes for what is now Florida Today, which stationed three reporters in an office across from Pocahontas Park. And the Palm Beach Post had a one-man bureau that covered Indian River and St. Lucie counties.

Local residents could subscribe to all of those newspapers, and many folks had more than one delivered to their homes.

“A lot of people here took two papers,” said longtime Herald bureau chief Phil Long, who moved from Miami to Vero Beach in 1970 and was considered the dean of local reporters until he retired in 2008. “For a while, probably in the late 1970s, I think you could get the Orlando paper here, too.

“There were a lot of news outlets, considering the size of the town, but there has always been a market here for news.”

So much so, in fact, that two local radio stations had news teams that covered the most compelling stories of the day and were every bit as competitive as their print cousins.

Not only did WTTB-AM and WGYL-FM compete against each other, but they also competed against the newspapers.

“Radio was still a vibrant, local medium then, and we all worked really hard to get something the other guys didn’t get,” said Mark Weinberg, WTTB’s news director from 1978-81 and now the Public Information Officer for the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office. “And one of the things I loved about radio was that, when we had something, we were able to be the first to tell people.

“Whether it was a crime story that broke overnight, or a big case at the court house, or something important that happened at a commission or council meeting in the morning, we could get it on the air before the newspapers could get it in print.

“There were a heck of a lot of reporters running around town,” he added, “but there was a heck of a lot of news to cover.”

Certainly, there was enough to keep everyone busy – four newspapers, two radio stations and a television station.

Remember: WTVX (Channel 34) was a Fort Pierce-based CBS affiliate until the late 1980s and it, too, had a local news team that covered our area.

“TVX didn’t cover everything, but they’d show up for the big stories,” said Pete Noel, who headed WGYL’s news staff from 1973-95 and is now retired. “And when a big story broke, all of us were there, trying to beat everyone else.

“It was really unique, I think, to have something like that in a small town like Vero Beach. But it was good for the community, too, having all those media covering the news and telling people what was going on.”

So what happened?

Why did radio stations pull the plug on their news crews?

Just as the worldwide web has put a noticeable dent in daily newspaper revenues and drastically changed the way publishers do business, the immediacy of the internet – as well as real-time posting on social media sites – has rendered obsolete local news coverage by radio stations.

Many radio stations, particularly those found on the AM dial, still offer news formats, but they’ve replaced local reporting with commentary and analysis. They’ve also anchored their programming with national news-talk shows that have soared in popularity across the past 25 years.

Locally, WAXE-AM’s Rhett Palmer and WTTB’s Bob Soos have cultivated loyal audiences for their daily news-talk shows.

“Surveys show that, overwhelmingly, people choose their radio stations based on music,” said Jim Davis, general manager of Treasure and Space Coast Radio, which owns five stations, including WTTB and WGYL. “Only about 7 percent choose stations for other reasons, such as news.

“News always tested to be a ‘tune-out,’ especially among women and the younger demographic,” he added. “So whenever things got tough, financially, and stations had to choose where to make cuts, they cut their news operations. Sometimes, they cut positions. Sometimes, they cut how much those jobs paid.

“Over the years, it became an ongoing cutback until, at most places, news was wiped out entirely.”

Most stations now outsource their news needs, relying on national, state and regional networks. Some less-than-ethical stations pirate local news and simply read stories out of local newspapers, with or without giving proper attribution to the publication.

Davis said WTTB still occasionally “makes news” during Soos’ interviews with local officials and other community leaders who appear regularly on his morning “Local News Magazine.”

“Bob has 30 guests every week, all of them key players in our community, so I’d like to think we still have some local news presence,” Davis said. “Do I wish we had the resources to do more? Sure, I’d love to be able to do more reporting.

“I’d especially love to be able to do more with local traffic reports, because that’s an area where I think radio can have a real impact. But you do the best you can with the resources that are available to you.”

Back in 1980, when I arrived in Vero Beach as a wide-eyed, 21-year-old, just-out-of-college reporter eager to make it big in the only profession I ever seriously considered, folks here had plenty of local news sources available to them.

Four daily newspapers, two radio stations, one CBS TV affiliate – all of them covering our community.

Being a part of that nostalgic period here as a small-town newspaper rookie made me a better journalist, taught me how to compete and prepared me for my big-city years in New York, Los Angeles and Denver.

As good as it was for me, however, it was even better for our community, which seems to have always wanted as much local news as it could get.

Unfortunately, WTTB and WGYL no longer have local news operations. WTVX now belongs to West Palm Beach. And the Scripps suits have essentially reduced the once-dominant Press Journal to a practice-edition bureau of the Stuart News.

As WTTB’s 60th anniversary celebration reminded me Friday morning: Our options are limited.

Our good options, anyway.

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