In a week when Russian czar Vladimir Putin was shamelessly jailing a Wall Street Journal reporter and accusing him of being a spy, a mini-czar wannabe was staging her own crackdown on the free press here in Vero Beach.
The scale of the two actions was obviously very different, but the principle is the same.
Mainland readers no longer can pick up copies of Vero Beach 32963 or Vero News – or any other local publication – at the Indian River Chamber of Commerce’s downtown offices.
Apparently, it’s our fault.
We dared publish on the front page of our March 23 editions a news story about former Vero Beach socialite Valerie Esposito accepting a plea bargain that sent her to prison for having a five-month sexual relationship with a 16-year-old boy.
And we did so under a completely accurate headline – “Chamber’s 2019 ‘Volunteer of the Year’ headed for prison” – that was sure to draw readers’ attention.
That headline, though, also caught the attention of Chamber president Dori Stone.
Less than an hour after Mario Corbiciero, one of our advertising representatives, delivered a couple of bundles of newspapers to the Chamber as he had done every week for years, he received a phone call from one of Stone’s staffers.
Come take back the newspapers, he was told, or they would be thrown away.
When Corbiciero asked why, the staffer replied that it was “because of the headline on the article about the Chamber on the front page.” He promptly removed the newspapers, despite seeing other local publications still on display.
Last week, Corbiciero again attempted to make his usual Wednesday delivery – a task he has undertaken since joining the Vero Beach 32963/Vero News team in July 2015 – and he was turned away.
It didn’t matter that there were no front-page stories mentioning the Chamber in our March 30 editions. Or that our company has been a Chamber member for the past 15 years. Or that Corbiciero sits on the Chamber’s board of directors.
It didn’t matter that many of our advertisers are Chamber members who benefit from the additional readers their ads reach when mainland residents pick up our newspapers, which have become the most-read source of local news in the Vero Beach area.
It didn’t matter that the Chamber’s primary function is to promote the community and the businesses that operate here.
Not after that headline, anyway.
Shortly after seeing our Esposito story, in fact, Stone sent an email to the Chamber’s board members, alerting them to the headline and informing them that she hadn’t yet formed her response.
A week later, however, she ordered the removal of our newspapers and other local publications from the Chamber’s premises.
The timing of her actions was, at the very least, curious.
Stone, though, called it coincidental.
When contacted at her office last week, she flatly denied that the headline or story were factors in her decision to remove our newspapers.
Stone said the Chamber began putting newspaper racks outside after the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the building was closed to the public – an explanation she also provided to board members last week in an email alerting them to my phone call and questions.
During that time, she explained, the Chamber became a popular mainland location for residents to pick up Vero Beach 32963. Many of those readers made weekly trips downtown solely for that purpose.
Two weeks ago, however, Stone decided the Chamber should remove the racks and return to its “pre-COVID policy,” as she wrote in her email to the board. She said her staffers have been instructed to tell people seeking copies of Vero Beach 32963 where in town the newspapers are available.
“Staff and I have discussed this over the past several months, and it seemed like an appropriate time to do it,” Stone wrote, adding that the Chamber is not listed as a pickup site on our company’s veronews.com website.
Stone also told me the newspapers were creating a “litter issue” on windy days, when she needed to send staffers outdoors to pick up papers that were blowing around the property and have them reloaded into the racks.
She claimed in her email to the board that this was happening “several times a week.”
In addition, she wrote that her front-desk staff received “numerous complaints” from people asking about the availability of the newspapers.
“These complaints were – more often than not – rude, loud and abusive,” Stone continued, adding, “I’ve worked the desk, and it happens every day.”
She then estimated that her staff spends three to four hours per week fielding the complaints and dealing with issues related to having newspapers on the grounds.
Ultimately, Stone decided the Chamber would no longer make available to the public any newspapers or other local publications, implementing a bad policy that went into effect last week.
And she did so without the board’s blessing.
“I run the Chamber’s operations,” Stone replied when asked if she had consulted with board members before taking action.
Her decision, however, raises questions about her judgment.
Even if you accept Stone’s explanation for removing the newspapers, the decision still makes no sense, given the Chamber’s goodwill mission in our community.
The fact that the decision to provide newspaper racks outside the building was made in response to COVID is irrelevant. It was a good idea. Mainland residents who do not receive the paper in the mail knew where they could pick up their weekly copies of Vero Beach 32963, and they showed up in sizable numbers.
There was no good reason to take those away those racks.
As for people complaining: It’s the Chamber staff’s job to try to help people – including those who come in frustrated, griping and rudely demanding answers – and make them feel better about our community.
And if Chamber staffers occasionally need to spend a few minutes picking up wind-blown newspapers on a breezy day and putting them back in the racks?
They should embrace the chance to get outside and take in some of that fresh air and sunshine they’re supposed to be selling to newcomers and visitors to Vero Beach.
Besides, promoting our newspapers is good business.
Until two weeks ago, we were delivering to the Chamber several bundles of Vero Beach 32963 each Wednesday, and doubling back on Fridays to drop off several bundles more.
By Monday, usually, all of them had been taken.
Clearly, the demand is there – for our news content, society pages and, yes, advertisements placed by local businesses.
So if Chamber staffers need to devote three or four hours per week to tend to newspaper-related issues, it’s time well spent.
Stone should realize that.
She should realize the value of having newspapers on the Chamber’s premises and reconsider her decision, making it unnecessary for her staffers to send people to the other mainland locations where Vero Beach 32963 is available:
- The Indian River County Public Library (main branch).
- The county’s Intergenerational Center (Oslo Road).
- Main Street Vero Beach (downtown).
- C.J. Cannon’s restaurant (Vero Beach Regional Airport).
- Vero Beach Chamber of Commerce (downtown).
She also should realize her organization wasn’t alone – that Esposito, prior to her arrest in 2019, fooled many prominent folks here and regularly attended high-profile social and charitable events.
Instead, in her email to her board, Stone wrote that she finds it “laughable” that her decision to remove our newspapers, along with other local publications, is newsworthy.
We’ll see if the Chamber’s board members think this is funny.