If I owned the Tallahassee Democrat – the “Gerald Ensley proves my point” edition

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The first op-ed I attempted to have published in a newspaper was flatly rejected by the Tallahassee DemocratTwenty years later, the Democrat is still dismissing me.

As a freshman at Florida State University, I submitted an unwieldy, egocentric portrait of college life at FSU. The Democrat‘s editorial page editor at the time was Mary Ann Lindley. After I applied to be a “community columnist” at the Democrat, Lindley reached out to me to say that was probably not a good fit for me or the paper, but I should think about submitting something in the future.

So I took her up on her suggestion.

There probably wasn’t enough red ink in her pen for that not-even-sophomoric effort.

But I didn’t give up. And six months later, I submitted and had published my first op-ed about a controversy involving the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission. Then I had a second op-ed published and then a third. Throughout my college years and early career, the Democrat was generous enough to publish my work.

One op-ed — about the Seinfeldian nature of politics — caught the eye of Dr. J. Stanley Marshall of the James Madison Institute. A short time later, Dr. Marshall offered me a position as a “senior writer” at JMI, even though I was closer to being a senior in college than I was anything of a writer.

Two decades later, here I am. Yesterday, I cut paychecks to more than two dozen journalists, editors, and writers who contribute to SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and INFLUENCE Magazine. The week started with the Columbia Journalism Review describing me as a “Mini Media Mogul,” although if the author knew my pants size, I doubt she would have used the “mini” reference.

All of this because of people like Mary Ann Lindley and Stanley Marshall. And because of the Tallahassee Democrat.

Yet, according to the Democrat‘s most prominent columnist, the venerable Gerald Ensely, I am not much more than “a blogger who runs an aggregate website about state politics” who “claims to make a six-figure income off cutting and pasting stores from newspapers around the state, including this newspaper.”

Ensley’s column was in response to the a series of blog posts entitled, “If I Owned the Tallahassee Democrat.” Ensley describes the theme of these posts as “No goldfish! 20 stories on Willie Meggs! Politics only!”

Ensley, who by every account told to me, is an old-school, big-J journalist. Of course, he’s a columnist, so his writing is his opinion. But he’s no hack. And he’s not supposed to play fast and loose with facts.

This is why I am so surprised that he could be so wrong about me, our work, and the reasons for my criticism of the Democrat.

Ensley comes at me with the perspective that the word “blogger” is a pejorative. It’s not. Ezra Klein is a blogger. Erick Erickson is a blogger. Nate Silver is a blogger. Andrew Sullivan is a blogger. Many of the journalists and writers leading the debates this country are or were bloggers.

But to Ensley, bloggers are the kind of people still locked in their mothers’ basements. His condescension drips from the pages of the newspaper.

To describe SaintPetersBlog and/or Florida Politics as an “aggregate website about state politics” makes me wonder: Did Ensley even bother to read the content on the sites before defending his horse-and-buggy?

No. Obviously he did not. Had he, he would know that ninety percent of the content on our websites is original material. We hardly aggregate anything. Like the Democrat, we are subscribers to the Associated Press and publish its content, but that’s not what he’s suggesting.

If Ensley is referring to Sunburn, our morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics, well yes, we do aggregate material from media companies throughout Florida and beyond. Just like EVERYONE ELSE DOES. There’s no better example of this than POLITICO’s Mike Allen, whose Playbook is the inspiration for Sunburn.

By the way, Ensley claims that this aggregation includes material from the Democrat.

I hate to break it to you, Gerald, but while I readily agree we do aggregate material for Sunburn, the Democrat‘s work rarely, if ever, makes the cut for Sunburn — which is kind of the whole point of my criticism

Reviewing the last three months’ editions of Sunburn, I can only find one or two instances where we linked to a story in the Democrat. That’s how lacking is the capital newspaper’s coverage of the capital.

I’ll put it another way — and this is a drop the mic stat in the face of Ensley’s  criticism — the Tallahassee Democrat/Gannett Newspapers has published more of the op-eds produced by our Context Florida writers than we have aggregated stories written by Democrat reporters.

So, Mr. Ensley, who is making money off of who?

Ensley sounds as if he’s surprised I read the Democrat.

Writing as if I am Voldemort and my name should not be said, Ensley writes, “The blogger lives in St. Petersburg, yet he makes it a point to read the Tallahassee Democrat — and use our content to make money. Color us flattered.”

Again with the money, Gerald?

Our reporters cover the state capital. Of course we read the Democrat, at least the parts of it that are not a regurgitation of USA Today.

That was the point of my criticism. That when I read the Democrat, based a stone’s throw from Adams Street, and I, like many, feel like I’ve eaten a rice cake. I know I’ve done something, but there’s nothing much to show for it.

I understand that newspapers are smorgasbords and that, as Ensley writes, readers care about “murders and fires. They want to know about roads. They want to know about schools. They want to know about the weather, the movies and new development. They want to know about issues at the universities, the history of the town and the achievements of local artists, volunteers and business owners.”

To repeat, the criticism I am leveling is that the struggling Democrat, headquartered in the capital of the nation’s third largest state, is not leveraging its inherent strengths to cover a news beat that would produce the kind of advertising revenue that might prevent it from sliding into financial oblivion.

The Democrat is hemorrhaging market share. POLITICO recognizes this and has hired six reporters to ‘take the remote control right out of the Democrat’s hands.’

FloridaPolitics.com covers lobbying and we launched INFLUENCE Magazine because the Democrat isn’t reporting about the most lucrative industry in its town. Why would the city’s largest lobbying and public relations shops advertise on a site based in St. Petersburg if this was not true?

Yes, I employed a little hyperbole when I wrote that if I owned the Democrat, “I’d fire everyone who wasn’t writing about government, politics or FSU sports.” (Ensely even got that wrong, as I wrote that I would also keep the reporters who wrote about food and dining.) But the point remains, the Democrat, which has laid off a company of talented journalists is losing, not because journalism is dying or the damn internet or the kids on the lawn, but because it’s making the wrong business decisions about what to cover.

Imagine the Las Vegas Review-Journal not having some of the best coverage of the gaming industry.

Imagine the Miami Herald not owning the Cuba beat.

Imagine the St. Louis Post-Dispatch not knowing what’s going on at Anheuser-Busch or the Detroit Free Press missing out on the latest developments at GM.

That’s the sin of omission the Tallahassee Democrat is committing with its subpar coverage of capital politics.

Ensley excuses the Democrat for this by writing, “there is an Associated Press and correspondents from other newspapers in Tallahassee, whose jobs are to report politics and state government. Surely, he knows if he owned the Democrat, he’d have to double our staff and triple our prices to cover all the political and government stories he thinks we’re missing — and there would be little need for bloggers like him.”

Yes I do know about the AP and the other newspapers. But, no, I wouldn’t have to double the staff or triple the prices to cover the stories the Democrat is missing.

Which brings me to my final point. Ensley’s column not only insults me, it insults his fellow journalists who write for Extensive Enterprises Media.

Take Jim Rosica, who alone wrote 12 stories on Friday for FloridaPolitics.com. Rosica, by himself, offered more yesterday about the state capital than the entire staff at the Democrat, which, according to Ensley, we’re making money off of by aggregating from it.

With what he wrote, Ensley insulted Gary Shelton, the award-winning sports writer who bangs out three or four stories a day for SaintPetersBlog.

With what he wrote, Ensley insulted Mitch Perry, perhaps the best political reporter in Tampa Bay. Perry writes five or six solid stories a day about a wide range of subjects. From presidential appearances to the fight to increase the minimum wage and from the latest bills filed in the Legislature to the rancor of Tampa’s City Hall, Perry is both a showhorse and workhorse.

With what he wrote, Ensley insulted A.G. Gankarski, probably the hardest working journo in Jacksonville. Here’s the deal on A.G.: At a recent meeting of Jax’s top staffers, one said to another about an issue coming up, “No one will really care or notice this. Well, except for A.G.”

With what he wrote, Ensley insulted Christine Sexton and Bruce Ritchie, the top-notch reporters who recently worked for us before being hired by POLITICO.

With what he wrote, Ensley insulted veteran editors like Tom O’Hara and Jac VerSteeg and Rich Bard and Bill Prescott. He insulted our crackerjack, up-and-coming reporters like Janelle Irwin and Ryan Ray and Andrew Wilson. He insulted our ContextFlorida contributors, which include Tallahassee’s Diane Roberts and Florence Snyder.

Wit what he wrote, Ensley insults himself. He isn’t writing like a columnist. He’s acting like a caricature. A caricature of too many in the journalism industry so afraid of the future they attempt to diminish or dismiss it, rather than embrace the reality of what’s coming.

It is because I appreciate what the Democrat once was, including a newspaper that gave me my first shot, that I spoke my truth to power.

Clearly Ensley was not listening. And with tired thinking and a condescending tone, he’s only proven me more right.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.