Interviewee: S. L. Frisbie IV
Interviewer: Julian Pleasants
Date: October 23, 2001
P: This is October 23, 2001. I am with Mr. S.L. Frisbie IV; we are in the offices of
The Polk County Democrat in Bartow, Florida. Talk a little bit about the history of
this newspaper. I know it goes all the way back to Mr. Sayer L. Frisbie, he got
interested in the newspaper business in Iowa. Talk about the history from the
time the family came to Florida.
F: This newspaper was established on August 28, 1931 as a weekly newspaper,
once-a-week newspaper, by my great-grandfather, Sayer Loyal Frisbie and his
son, Sayer Lloyd Frisbie. They had been in the newspaper business off and on
together for quite a number of years beginning, as you say, with Great-
Granddad's employment at, I believe, the age of eighteen in Iowa. They would
work together, and then one would move to another town, then the other one
would catch up to him. That continued on to Tampa, and Great-Granddad
moved to Bartow to start a printing company, and my granddad, Sayer Lloyd
Frisbie, was working in Tampa, originally at the Tampa Tribune, then [he] went
with a boomtown daily that started up. When that paper closed, he went back to
the Tribune. In 1931, he got the itch to start another newspaper, to own his own
newspaper again with my great-granddad, so he moved to Bartow, published
originally, I believe, on Fridays, printing in the printing plant of Bartow Printing
Company. They started up against an established five-day daily in the depth of
the Great Depression, which I have said many times is probably one of the more
dubious business decisions in Florida newspaper publishing history. They
continued as a weekly, then, in 1946, bought the competition which was The Polk
P: Let me go back to 1931, why did they make that dubious business decision?
F: I have just got to guess that Granddad had an itch that had to be scratched. He
was a yellow-dog Democrat. In fact, Great-Granddad's entry into the newspaper
business was [when] he was hired by a bunch of Democrats to support the
Democratic candidacy of the presidential candidate, I forget which one, in a
heavily Republican county. [It's] my recollection the candidate lost and the
newspaper folded after the election. I have never asked Granddad why he got
the itch to start his own newspaper over here. He had, obviously, the production
facilities through Bartow Printing Company. Why in the world he left the Tampa
Morning Tribune, as it was then called, to come and become a struggling weekly
newspaper publisher is a question I do not know the answer to.
P: There were two problems, one, there was already an established newspaper. It
would not seem that there would be enough room for two papers.
F: You would not think so.
P: And then it was during the Depression. How did they manage to survive?
F: I have been told, now, whether this was the printing company or the newspaper,
they would do what was called kiting checks. They would write a check from one
company to another company, put it in the mail to Tampa. What today would be
called float-the checks would clear because the money they were sending back
and forth and the delay that it would take for the checks to clear the bank. I do
know that on the bank holiday, when of course all the banks closed, that some
customer had paid his advertising bill, I believe the story is, with three dollars
worth of dimes or three rolls of dimes. I think it was three dollars worth of dimes.
Granddad assembled the staff and divided out the dimes equally among the
number of people who were there-maybe half a dozen people, I do not know that
for a fact.
P: Was there much advertising during that time?
F: I have seen in some of our earlier papers, there was a remarkable amount of
advertising. Some of it was placed, I think, by granddad's friends, probably more
out of friendship than anything else. He was good friends with the Coca-Cola
bottling magnate here. I saw an awful lot of Coca-Cola advertising in it. I seem
to recall seeing some Tampa advertising-I am not sure I am correct about that. I
think maybe some of his accounts [in] Tampa, to encourage him or support him,
advertised in it. Yes, there was a remarkable amount of advertising. How that
translated into revenue, whether it was deeply discounted, or free, or something,
I have no idea. It seemed like there was a good little bit of advertising.
P: It started out as a free circulation, sort of a tabloid-type newspaper?
F: That is correct, it was free circulation and Dad has told me a number of times that
the format tended to change from time-to-time, based on the size of newsprint
they were able to get their hands on. Particularly during the war years, but also
in the early years when it was being done at a job-shop, the format tended to
change according to the availability of stock. It was printed on a sheet-fed press
originally, obviously letter-press. Until we bought out The Record, it was printed
on sheet-fed, probably four-up or eight-up.
P: An interesting point in the development of the paper was 1942. For the first time,
you got the right to print the Polk County delinquent-tax list. Why was that so
F: The delinquent-tax list, at that time and for many, many years after that, was a
bonanza in Polk County. The price was fixed by agreement between all the
publishers in the county and the county tax collector. It was rotated among the
[newspapers]. It was unheard of to bid on legal advertising at that time and the
fixed rate was quite substantial. It was done on a per-line or per-item basis on a
delinquent-tax list. The last time that we got the tax list, and this was fairly
recently, in the last five or ten years, it was probably in five figures, probably
something over $10,000, substantially over $10,000. Comparable time back
then, of course the numbers would have been smaller, but it was a bonanza. It
was worth its weight in gold to get the delinquent-tax list.
P: How did the paper happen to get it?
F: It was rotated among the papers in the county by agreement with the papers. I
believe there were eleven newspapers the first time I was aware of the rotation
agreement. Each one of them got it once every eleven years, or if you owned
two papers, you got it twice every eleven years.
P: There were eleven newspapers in Polk County?
F: That is my recollection, [I am] talking about paid-circulation newspapers now. I
can count them up for you. The dailies were the Lakeland Ledger, Winter Haven
News Chief, and Lake Wales Daily Highlander, the weeklies were Lake Wales,
Frostproof, Fort Meade, Bartow, Auburndale, Mulberry, Winter Haven Herald,
Haines City I believe was the other one.
P: There were a lot of newspapers.
F: Right, eleven paid-circulation newspapers. Polk County has the dubious
distinction, dubious to those of us in the business, of being one of the most
competitive newspaper markets in the country. Not all of those papers are still
published, incidentally, but two of the three dailies are still around. One of the
dailies, the Daily Highlander in Lake Wales, has folded, and several of the
weeklies have folded. I do not believe there are any more new paid-circulation
papers in the county. There are a number of niche publications and free
publications, shoppers of course.
P: Over a period of time, Loyal Frisbie comes to work in the newspaper and he
began writing a column. I saw in today's paper, I guess he is still writing that
column which is called "Off My Chest."
F: That is correct.
P: Tell me what he usually talks about. In this case, he was complaining about the
Hillsborough County judges.
F: Right. His very first one, fresh out of college was entitled something like "Picture
of a Young Man Talking to Himself." He writes generally about whatever
interests him at the moment. Growing up as the son of an editor, I sometimes
found our family squabbles made it into the paper. His travels-he and Mother
traveled extensively. He finally made to all fifty states and all seven continents
and more countries than he can keep track of. He wrote extensively about his
travels, as did Mother. Sometimes it is [about] local issues. I think the title "Off
My Chest," says it well. [He writes about] politics, international situations, local
situations, talks about his dog Queenie, who has been called the most famous
dog in Bartow. It talks about his children, he considers my wife to be his
daughter. There is that degree of closeness, so he refers to the two of us as his
children. And [he writes about] his grandchildren.
P: So this is more commentary than editorial.
F: Yes, it is very much a personal column. At one time, his column probably
represented the editorial policy of the paper, back before we had regular
editorials. We now have conventional editorials which express the editorial
position of the newspaper. He and I each write personal columns which tend to
be purely personal observations. During World War II, he was drafted in World
War II and served as an infantryman. His column was called "Private Opinion."
He graduated as valedictorian of his college class and yet worked his way up to
PFC [private first-class] in World War II. His columns during World War II were
written in the form of letters home, otherwise they would have had to go through
extensive censorship, whereas if they were letters home, then they went through
only the ordinary censorship of mail sent home by the troops. Obviously he was
circumspect in what he wrote about in terms of anything that would have been
helpful to the enemy. Again, [they were] personal observations. I remember
particularly, he had his feet frozen at the Battle of the Bulge and spent a lot of
time in hospitals. The exposure for the first time to integrated facilities in the
Army, the hospitals of course were integrated by a matter of practicality and
exigencies of the service, as they say, even before the total armed forces were
integrated. They were personal observations about the battlefield.
P: What other comments did he make about the Battle of the Bulge? It was not only
very difficult fighting, but as you have indicated, freezing cold and this was, I
guess, one of the more difficult circumstances for any kind of infantryman. Was
he an infantryman?
F: He was an infantryman and one of these days I have got to sit down and read
about two years of columns from World War II. I have read only very few of them
that he pointed out to me, that were particularly important to him. I have always
regretted I have never just sat down and locked myself in a room for a week and
read his World War II columns. It was a private opinion; it was the opinion from
the foxhole of the infantryman.
P: Did he say what he thinks about books like Tom Brokaw's The Greatest
Generation, and what he thinks of that concept?
F: He asked for, as a gift, Father's Day or Christmas gift or whatever, he asked for
the Brokaw book, which Mary and I gave him. He has not commented to me on
what he read in it. My feeling is that probably it reflects the feelings of himself as
well as his generation in general, but I never have really sat down to discuss that
P: In 1946, you buy the Record. This is sold by the Gallemore family, I believe.
F: That is correct.
P: Why did they sell, why did you buy?
F: Let me preface this by saying, at that time The Democrat was still once a week.
The Polk County Record had cut back to once a week, which makes much more
sense for a town of only a few thousand people. The Gallemore family had a
great interest in [the] military. As I recall, the father and two sons were all career
naval officers and after the war, they concluded that their first love was the Navy
and not the newspaper business. We were at that time-I say we, I was five
years old at the time-the families were competitors with the competitive spirit
between them. Over the years the Gallemores and the Frisbies have become
very good friends. They wanted to sell because their first love was the Navy. I
would assume we wanted to buy because if somebody was going to own the
competition, we wanted it to be us.
P: I understand it was something around $10,000 and it was kind of hard to come
up with that kind of cash.
F: I have been told that it was, I would have said $12,000, but you probably have
the paperwork on it, it probably was $10,000. This would have been back, let us
see-in 1946, $5,000 would have been a fairly handsome annual income for an
executive. I suspect that it was a substantial sum to come up with. I do not know
how the financing was managed at that time.
P: You know where he got the money?
F: No sir, I sure do not. Good question. You are asking me a bunch of good
questions I need to ask Dad about.
P: This is a sort of an unusual situation: I guess this is the only paper in the state
that has been run by four generations of one family. So here you have, I guess
Lloyd is the publisher, Loyal is the editor, then Richard was involved as business
F: At the time that my Dad and his brother Richard and Granddad and Great-
Granddad were here, I believe that Great-Granddad carried the title of president
of the company, Granddad was publisher, Dad was editor or managing editor, I
am not sure which term he used. On a small paper, it does not make a whole
heck of a lot of difference. Richard, his brother, was business manager, also
sports editor, but principally business manager.
P: I also understand that their wives worked at the newspaper as well.
F: Absolutely. Great-Granddad's wife did not work at the newspaper, she was an
educator. Granddad's wife, Cricket, Marguerite was her given name, but
everybody called her Cricket, came in. It was the classic story, weekly publishers
have been using this scam for years. Well, somebody is on vacation for a couple
of weeks, honey, would you come in and fill in? That two weeks stretched into a
career as a society editor. My mother, Louise Frisbie, came into the business on
a regular basis when Dad was drafted, to help out during World War II. She not
only was in effect managing editor of the paper, basically she was the news staff
of the paper, but I believe she was also stringing probably for the Tampa Tribune
and possibly for the Lakeland Ledger at that time. I do not know if that was
represented to her as a temporary arrangement, but I do not doubt that it was,
because that was the way we usually pull these scams. My wife came into the
business, back when I was in the National Guard and was drilling Wednesday
nights. I would have a four-hour commitment from here to Tampa and back, later
stretching to six hours. She came in to just proofread on Wednesday nights to
help us out a little bit. She is now our head bookkeeper, corporate treasurer, and
number-two person in the business for what is now four newspapers that we
P: Talk a little bit about your mother, because she is not only well-known as a
correspondent, but she wrote several books, the most well-known, I think, is
Peace River Pioneers.
F: Probably that would be the best-known. Yes, Mother started a second career,
sort of began as an avocation in the sense that she never got rich at it. It remains
a very active role for her. In 1969, The Polk County Democrat started a Fort
Meade edition. Fort Meade is ten miles south of Bartow, town of about 5,000
people at that time. It had a weekly newspaper which obviously was in the final
agonies, so we went and started a Fort Meade edition. We were a twice-a-week
broadsheet paper and Fort Meade had a once-a-week tabloid paper. There
simply was not enough news coming out of this town of 5,000 people to make for
a very exciting broadsheet newspaper two days a week. So Mother began
writing a series of historical articles on the town of Fort Meade and discovered
that she had a real love of history, even greater than she realized. So from that
she wrote a book called Peace River Pioneers, which is about the history of the
four counties which abut the Peace River: Polk, Highlands, Hardee, and DeSoto.
It is richly illustrated, with the history divided into eras in Polk County, in those
four counties that abut the Peace River. Then, from that, she wrote one called
Yesterday's Polk County, which is one of a series of books published by a
publisher down in Miami named Seeman, done independently by a series of
authors. It also has a number of pictures in it. That [book was] somewhat similar
in concept to Peace River Pioneers, although obviously focusing strictly on Polk
County. Then, her third and last book was one on the historic hotels in Florida,
called Florida's Fabled Inns, in which she did a great deal of research on the
oldest hotels in Florida.
P: Has the newspaper always been interested in the history of the area?
F: I think, by definition, any newspaper is going to be somewhat interested in the
history of the area. Our real involvement in history began in 1969, when she
started doing the series in Fort Meade and that actually evolved into a column
that she wrote twice a week, which almost entirely consisted of photographs] of
historic events] with captions. She called that one Pioneers. It was actually
from that Pioneers column that the name of Peace River Pioneers evolved.
P: In 1964, you finish at FSU [Florida State University] and come onboard as
managing editor. At that point, what other family members were still working with
F: Actually, I graduated from FSU in 1962 and six or seven weeks later went into
the Army. This was draft era, [I] did my two years of active Army duty, came
back in 1964 and joined the staff as managing editor. That was just a few
months after my grandfather had died. Great-Granddad died when I was in high
school, so Dad was editor, his brother Richard was a business manager. My
grandmother had [retired] by then, so it would have been the two of them, just the
two brothers, Loyal and Richard. Neither one of them held the title of publisher at
that point. The publisher was Frisbie Publishing Company and no one used the
title of publisher. Some years later, it made sense to acknowledge in reality that
the older brother was, in fact, the publisher.
P: Did you ever think about any other career?
F: I never seriously considered it. I always figured that [the] other two things that I
would have enjoyed doing would have been either commercial photographer or a
lawyer. I grew up in the newspaper business. My parents did everything they
could to dissuade me from going into it, because they did not want me to feel like
I had some sort of family obligation to carry on, then later told me when I made
that decision they were delighted. They also had a clear conscience because at
every turn, they said, you do not have to go into the newspaper business,
consider other fields.
P: In 1969, you purchase the Fort Meade paper. Why did you decide finally to
publish? You mentioned that it was on its last legs.
F: We began the Fort Meade edition in 1969, the [old Fort Meade Leader]
eventually closed up. I have told people they did not go bankrupt, they just
moved out in the middle of the night. They had a fairly nice printing plant. The
previous owner had done a superb job with the paper. He was putting out a first-
class weekly newspaper and had a going job-shop as well. He decided that his
first love was teaching, went to teach journalism at the University of Florida, if my
memory serves, so he sold out to a young couple, I believe, from Tampa, who I
guess had the itch to publish a newspaper but without the experience or the
knowledge to do so. We began publishing our Fort Meade edition in 1969
because we needed an increase in advertising rates. The economy was in pretty
sad shape at that time. We told our advertisers that we needed a five-percent
rate increase and we would guarantee [them a] ten-percent increase in
circulation by going into Fort Meade and that we would give away the papers of
the Fort Meade edition until we had paid circulation equal to ten-percent of the
Bartow circulation. We considered two towns, there are two towns that were
near us that we figured were logical ones to go to: Fort Meade and Mulberry.
Mulberry is six or eight miles to the west, Fort Meade is about ten miles to the
south. There were several reasons. Historically, Mulberry has been more a
satellite of Lakeland, in terms of where people go to shop. Fort Meade has been
more a satellite of Bartow, because from Fort Meade, you have got to go through
Bartow before you get to Lakeland, or Winter Haven, or Tampa, or Orlando, any
of the larger destinations. Fort Meade was the more logical one, also had a little
bit more in common with the community culture, somehow. So, of the two, we
were going to in one direction or the other, Fort Meade looked more logical and
at that point the merchants down there were looking for someone to come in and
start a shopper. They were willing to put up the money to back it. That was
because the paper down there was foundering. Our response to them was, we
will come in with our own money and put out a bona-fide paid circulation
P: Over the years, how has that paper done?
F: It has been excellent as a part of the total operation. We would be hard put to
publish a freestanding twice-a-week broadsheet newspaper in a town of 5,000
people with a very small merchant district. But as a part of the entire operation,
extending the advertising reach of The Polk County Democrat and giving us the
ability to cover for instance, county-seat news, which would not be possible,
certainly was never done, to the best of my knowledge, when Fort Meade was a
stand-alone newspaper. It allows us to give something to the community that the
community would not be able to support with the volume of advertising that is
P: In the 1950s you decide to change your publishing days. You go from what used
to be Tuesday and Friday and you went to Monday and Thursday. Why?
F: Okay, good question. Let me back up. I never quite got where I was heading
with Fort Meade. When the old Fort Meade Leader publisher, he and his wife
simply pulled up stakes and moved out, they left this very nice, small-town
printing plant. The city of Fort Meade bought it at foreclosure sale [to remodel it
as a police station]. We, as the only newspaper left, ran the foreclosure notice
and I read the description. The description read something to the effect that they
were buying not only the property but that newspaper known as The Fort Meade
Leader. We published the notice, waited for the sale to go through, went to our
lawyer for confirmation. He said, yes, you are correct. We went to the city of
Fort Meade and said, you city commissioners own a newspaper. We want to buy
the newspaper, the name of The Fort Meade Leader from you. We have no
interest in the property, we have no interest in the assets or liabilities and there
were not much of either, we simply want the name of The Fort Meade Leader.
One commissioner immediately moved to sell it to us for a dollar. The other
commissioners said, no, they ought to put that out to bid. So they put it out to bid
and we bought it for some weird amount of money. I think it was $652 or $651,
figuring that somebody else might bid $500, so we would bid $600, somebody
else might bid $600, so we would bid $650, and then we will make it a dollar
more. There were in fact only two bids, the other one I think was for $50 or $51
something like that from the publisher of the Frostproof News. Since 1971, we
have owned the name of The Fort Meade Leader and we were very much
interested in reviving that name because of the meaning that it had in the
community. Now going back to your question ...
P: The paper is now the Democratic Leader, or what is the current title?
F: For several years we published it, we called it The Polk County Democrat and
The Fort Meade Leader or the Democrat and Leader for short, and people in Fort
Meade, to our great delight, simply started referring to it as the Leader. So then
we dropped the combination name that was an abundance of journalistic
honesty, [in] that it was in fact two newspapers in one. It was not a freestanding
paper. People in Fort Meade started calling it The Leader, and we were
delighted when they did that, so we changed the name simply to The Fort Meade
P: I wanted to ask you again about your changing of the days.
F: At the time the paper was published on Tuesday and Friday-and I am relying
mainly on what Dad has told me-I was a newspaper carrier at the time, but I was
not deeply immersed in the business decisions. At that time, most grocery
shopping was done on Saturday. I think there may have been one afternoon a
week that most merchants were closed. The big thing was that the grocery
shopping was mainly done on Saturday. So grocery ads at that time were the
backbone of every newspaper, would that it were still so. So the grocers wanted
to be in a Friday newspaper, so Friday was selected for that basis; Tuesday, I
figure, probably because it was the farthest weekday away from Friday. Over the
years, shopping habits changed and Friday, I am told, became the big grocery
shopping day, so then the grocers wanted to be in the Thursday paper, even as
they still do in the daily newspapers-Thursday is the big grocery day, of course.
To accommodate the grocery advertisers, more than any other purpose, we
backed up from Friday to Thursday, then logically backed up the Tuesday paper
to Monday publication.
P: Over a period of time, you are going to improve your technology from hot-press
to cold-type and all that sort of thing. In 1971, you get an offset-press. How did
that affect how you put out the paper?
F: Dramatically. The letter-press, or commonly called hot-type, was basically a
technology not terribly unlike [what produced] the old Gutenberg Bibles. The
majority of type was no longer set by hand, although we still set a lot of headlines
and a lot of grocery ads in handset-type. At that time, a typesetter or a Linotype
operator, a person who operated a Linotype machine, that was an apprenticeable
trade. The apprenticeship period was five years. [When we began setting type
on] computers, the training period for typesetter dropped from five years to about
two weeks. We figured that a good typesetter, this was using TTS, or Teletype-
setter machines, which set type on perforated tape, we could take a reasonably
good typist and train [her or him] in two weeks. Sometimes we got an extremely
good typesetter, who within a couple of days would be trained. The
sophistication or the mechanical skills required for typesetter dropped from years
to weeks. The materials that we used when we were hot- type, everything was
cast in lead slugs. In order to pick up that stuff, basically you had to have the
upper-body strength of a man. Printers, almost 100 percent at that time, were
male. We went from a totally male production force to one which became largely
female because no longer was [heavy-]lifting a responsibility. It was also
considerably safer-offset-technology is considerably safer. There were a lot of
saws and a miterer, a lot of hot metal. When I was working as a teenager down
at our old plant, [I] became, among other things, a stereotypist. This is [a] person
who cast printing-plates in lead. You did this by scooping melted lead out [of an
iron pot] and pouring it into a machine. I am forgetting the names of the
machine, that has been quite a number of years ago. I also learned to operate a
Linotype machine. I was never a Linotype operator. It is the difference between
being able to drive a sports car and being able to take the transmission apart. I
could get a line of type out of a Linotype machine, I was not a Linotype operator.
I remember the guy who trained me said, you learn to spit real fast and real
accurate. It was just an occupational hazard that little droplets of hot lead,
melted lead, would land on your hands and arms. It was an occupational hazard.
We were lucky we never had anybody seriously injured, but there was that
degree of danger involved. With the conversion to offset, the training [period]
went from years to weeks for typesetters. The flexibility in hot-type days, you
had a certain number of typefaces and you had a substantial investment in brass
matrices, commonly called mats-for every size and typeface, you had a set of
brass mats. Now, it is all done digitally. Later we went to a system which almost
was done literally with mirrors. The images were projected through lenses. So
now, all of a sudden, instead of having fifty or a hundred pounds of brass
matrices or mats, you had a film-strip that would give you from four to eight
typefaces, and by adjusting the lens, you could get maybe a dozen different type-
sizes. All from one piece of film-strip.
P: Now, I presume, you have moved to computerized printing. This obviously saves
time and money, it is more efficient.
F: Yes, it is all of the above. They call it cold-type and hot-type. There is nothing
cold about cold-type except it [does] not use melted lead. Our first cold-type
used phototypesetting materials, [and] just like any other photo materials, had a
high silver content. When we went to our first system that used plain paper as
opposed to photographic paper, we made a $55,000 investment in typesetting
equipment and were able to cost-justify it on the savings in typesetting materials.
It was amazing when I worked out the numbers. We are now in our third
generation of [computerized] typesetting equipment. We went from
Compugraphic, which was a phototypesetting system. Compugraphic, as I recall,
went bankrupt primarily because they abandoned the small community market
and tried to be everything to everybody. [We] went with an outfit called Mycro-
Tek, which stepped into that niche, serving small newspapers. Theirs was the
plain paper technology [with type printed out on laser printers]. Mycro-Tek went
belly-up, again in my opinion, because they quit kind of focusing on the small
paper market and tried to be all things to all people. We are now with Baseview,
which my wife, after considerable research, determined they were going to be
around for quite awhile. We have been extremely pleased with them. With each
upgrade, we have gotten more sophisticated, more typefaces and sizes online.
The system that we have now allows us to paginate, which means that we can
make up a full newspaper page from the [computer] screen rather than cutting
and pasting. We are still only partially into pagination. We paginate the front
page, editorial page, section fronts, and most of our tabloid products, and still cut
and paste most of our inside pages [for] the broadsheet publications.
P: Do you use much color?
F: No sir, we use a little bit of spot color. That is probably, in my looking at that, that
would be the next frontier for us, to go into full color. Full color is very popular in
a lot of newspapers, including newspapers smaller than ours. The secret is that
newspapers smaller than ours that are using full-color are printing at a central
printing plant somewhere. I have often said that I always know how to spend the
next $50,000, I just do not know where the money is coming from. In this case,
we are probably talking more like a quarter of a million dollars to put in the kind of
color equipment that we would like to have.
P: In 1997, you began to publish the Polk County Times. Tell me what that is and
why you started publishing it.
F: Polk County Times is my wild idea that only I thought would succeed. I was
driving home-Mary and I had been over to Lakeland one day-we were driving
back home and I said, Mary I am going to start a new newspaper, it is going to be
modeled after Army Times, and Air Force Times, and Navy Times, and Federal
Times. It is going to be called Polk County Times. She looked at me like I was
crazy. I said, it is going to be a niche publication for county government. What
got me thinking about that, not long before, I [had] served on an economic-
development committee and one of the members of the committee was saying,
Bartow is a county seat, Bartow's current population is about 16,000, at that time
[it was] about 15,000, [and] several thousand people, who do not make their
homes here, work here in the county seat. Polk County is a county of almost
500,000 people. So even though we are the third largest, and a rather distant
third-largest town in Polk County, we are the county seat. Somebody was saying
at this economic-development committee meeting, I wish my business could
reach those thousands of people who work here in the daytime and go home and
night. The little lightbulb lit over my head said, well, Bozo, is that not the
business you are supposed to be in? Putting merchants in touch with their
customers and potential customers? It was from that point that the wheels
started turning on this niche publication called Polk County Times. I told Mary
about it, she thought I was crazy. I announced it to the staff, they thought I was
crazy-only a few of them actually told me so, but it was clear from the
expressions on the faces of the others. The beauty of Polk County Times is that
we do a great deal of county-seat, county-government coverage: both county
commission and school board, the sheriff's office, other county agencies. So
basically the reporting was already done. The merchant community was very
interested in reaching these county employees. Neither the county commission
nor the school board had a viable house organ or employee newsletter. I went to
the county manager and to the school superintendent. The school
superintendent had an administrative bulletin which was rather poorly read. I
think he realized it. The county did not even have that. It was a relatively easy
sell, to sell them on the idea that we would like to publish this publication, we
would like for you to distribute it through your mail-rooms, so our circulation costs
are minimal, because there are no carriers to be paid and no postal bills to be
paid. We maintain a good working relationship with the various mail-rooms. We
break the papers down to a great number of sorts with a relatively small number
of papers so that they go straight to the offices without having to be broken down
in the mail-room. The school board has been an advertiser in the paper since
the first issue. The county commission, or county government, has been an
advertiser in it since sometime in the first year. Just in the last two or three
issues, [the] Polk County sheriff's office, which was also looking for a way to
communicate with their 1,000-plus, maybe 2,000-plus [employees] saw the value
in using this as their internal communications [vehicle].
P: Would they also advertise in The Democrat or would it just be limited the Times?
F: The type of advertising that they are doing they would not advertise in the
Democrat, because the advertising that they do in Polk County Times is strictly to
get the message across to their employees. We get a great deal of public notice
advertising from all the agencies, including those. But the advertising in this, and
I encourage them to do that, this is you, [the] sheriff, this is you, [the] school
superintendent, this is you, [the] county manager, talking to your employees,
telling them about what is going on within your agency, bragging about the
accomplishments of your agency. Of course, the news content is also geared to
what is going on in county government.
P: So this goes out monthly and there is no charge?
F: Once a month, yes sir. That is correct, it is free circulation.
P: So how do you make money?
F: We make money by charging about fifty percent more for advertising in this than
we do in our paid-circulation papers. That was one of the [reasons] that the ad
department looked at me like I was crazy. I said, I know that you are wondering,
are we going to be selling in competition to ourselves? The answer is, yes, of
course we are, because there are [only] so many advertising dollars out there,
but we are not going to do it on the basis of price. We charged a premium rate of
approximately $10 a column-inch. We have contracts and stuff, but it washes out
about $10 a column-inch for Polk County Times. At that time, that was a good
fifty percent higher than the rates for our paid circulation newspaper. [Ads in] the
Polk County Democrat and the Fort Meade Leader are [sold] in combination.
P: So that has been successful?
F: It has been successful, yes sir.
P: So you were not crazy?
F: Yes, I was crazy, but we were successful nonetheless.
P: In 1998, you purchased the Lake Wales paper. Why did you publish that paper
and how has that worked out?
F: Okay, the Lake Wales News, it is remarkable. Lake Wales News is five years
older than The Polk County Democrat, The Polk County Democrat, as we have
discussed, has been under the management of one family since 1931. Lake
Wales News was founded in 1926 and had been under the management of
father and son of the same family, just two generations for that many years, from
1926 until 1998. The Brice family at Lake Wales News and the Frisbie family
have been friends for two generations on their side and three or four generations
on our side. We had printed the Lake Wales News for the better part of twenty
years. They went offset, printing at the Winter Haven News Chief, and then
came to us approximately twenty years before we bought it, and we had been
printing them [since then]. Owen Brice, the publisher, his father O. A. Brice long
since deceased. Owen Brice had a stroke and his three adult daughters came to
me and said, would you help us keep the newspaper alive until we can decide
what to do with it? I said, yes, I will be glad to do that. They said, we will have to
pay you. I said, oh no, this is a labor-of-love for Owen, he would have done the
same thing for us-incidentally, when you decide what you are going to do with it,
I hope you will give us first option. There were basically two possibilities, sell it or
close it. They came to me because they did not want to close it, this was on a
Friday. They said, would you come over Monday morning and let the staff know
that you are going to be helping us run [the paper]. I said, no, the staff needs to
know this now. It has been three weeks and I know that they are wondering from
day to day what is going on. So I walked in and said, hi, I am S.L. Frisbie, I have
not met you folks yet, I have no authority, I cannot sign checks, I cannot hire and
fire, but I am going to help you keep the Lake Wales News going. Anything is
open to negotiation, except we will not cease publication. Within a very few
weeks, the daughters had convinced Owen's wife, Laverne, who was his partner
in the business, that the smart thing to do was to sell and made her aware that
we were interested in buying. We negotiated. The price was never a problem,
the price was the first thing that we agreed on, it was the details that ran us
crazy. Finally, we did negotiate a purchase as of close of business, March 31 or
as I sometimes said, [on] April Fool's Day of 1998, I became owner of the Lake
Wales News. We kept the staff intact, in fact, I told them, I interviewed each one
of them. I said, I am not interested in buying a shell, I want to buy an operating
newspaper, so all the members of the staff did stay on. It was funny, the day that
we went over there to announce that we were buying the paper, the bookkeeper
said, I have a question. The petty-cash account is going to be closed out at 5:00
and turned over to, I think Brice Printing Company was the account, and said,
what are we going to do for petty cash? I had $20 in my pocket. I said, here
[are] two ten-dollar bills, take this until we open a bank account. [So] the
purchase of the Lake Wales News was capitalized for $20.
P: Is there a different editor for that paper, how do you run that paper?
F: Unlike the Fort Meade Leader, which is operated as the satellite of the Polk
County Democrat, Lake Wales News is a totally freestanding newspaper. In fact,
effective the day we bought it, we chartered a new corporation, The Lake Wales
News, Incorporated. There were several reasons, some legal reasons, but in
particular, I wanted the checks to have the word Lake Wales on them, I did not
want our checks over there to come out under Frisbie Publishing Company,
because I wanted to emphasize that our commitment was to the community of
Lake Wales. The management is handled primarily by my wife and me. We do
not have a general manager over there. [That is] a condition which I hope
someday to reverse, and have a general manager or a publisher, or someone
who is totally in charge. The staff over there is four full-time people and three
part-time people, no two of whom do the same task. That has been a little
something new for me. When we went in over there, Owen's management style
was, your job starts at A and it ends at B. The next employee's job starts at B
and ends at C. Virtually all decisions were made by him. My management
philosophy is totally different, and that is, we are all in it together, let us all do
what it takes to get the job done. If you feel comfortable making a decision,
make a decision. If I disagree with you about your decision, we will talk about it
later, but nobody is going to get mad about it.
[End of side Al]
P: How was the Lake Wales paper different in content from the Polk County
F: [Our] Lake Wales [paper], even more so than [our] Bartow [paper], is oriented
100 percent to community news. Bartow, not only do we have the community of
Bartow, but being a county-seat newspaper, county government is the biggest
business in town. We have a great deal of coverage of county government. In
Lake Wales, we run a few county-government stories, generally though, only
those which have specific applicability to Lake Wales. Also in Bartow, having [a]
substantially [greater] number of pages per week, we run a lot of feature-type
stories, [including] stuff that we get off the Internet. In Lake Wales, we have
trouble getting in all of the news that we generate in Lake Wales. Our Bartow
focus is unquestionably on Bartow, but [also on] Bartow, as the county seat of
Polk County. [In] Lake Wales, we are, if anything, more parochial and focus
strictly on the community of Lake Wales.
P: If you look at all the papers, what is your main source of advertising?
F: The Polk County Democrat in conjunction with the Leader. All Bartow
advertising, Polk County Democrat advertising, goes in The Fort Meade Leader
without additional charge. So that is where the greater portion of our advertising
comes [from]. We get a relatively small amount of advertising from Fort Meade,
mainly from auto dealers and a few other businesses that have something to
interest Bartow people. [The] Lake Wales [News] is self-supporting, unlike [The]
Fort Meade [Leader], which is operated as part of the Bartow operation and we
do not attempt to keep separate [books] on Fort Meade. Lake Wales, [is a]
different corporation, totally different set of books. The display advertising, as a
ratio of the number of pages, is probably higher because in Bartow, being a
county-seat newspaper, we have several pages of legal advertising, whereas
Lake Wales has only a relatively small amount of legal advertising.
P: Do you get a lot of local restaurants and car dealers? You said you do not get
grocery advertising anymore.
F: Right, in Bartow the only grocery advertising that we have is Publix inserts and
there is a small independent grocer in Fort Meade [who] advertises in the Fort
Meade Leader. Lake Wales does not have any grocery advertising now. The
grocers have gone almost entirely to direct-mail with a secondary [buy] with the
daily newspapers and some television. Fort Meade [has one] grocery account,
[and] we get retailers, auto dealers, [and] some amount of chain-store
advertising. The nature of our business is that weeklies rely to a great degree on
locally-owned independent businesses, where the local manager is, in all
likelihood, the local owner and makes his own decisions. The chain stores to a
large degree, believe in daily newspapers, no matter where the daily newspaper
is. They just simply do not believe in weekly newspapers, in many, many cases.
There are many exceptions.
P: Obviously, local weekly papers are important, and I want you to sort of explain
why, because I would assume most people read the Tampa Tribune, or the St.
Pete Times or the Lakeland Ledger as a daily newspaper. They get news on
television. Why is a weekly newspaper important?
F: To me the role of the weekly newspaper, and I have said this many times to
readers and anybody else who cares, that we do not try to be a little Tampa
Tribune. We can not begin to compete with the Tampa Tribune or the Lakeland
Ledger on the scale that they can in covering statewide, national, and
international news or for that matter, news of the total county. What we can do
and what the nearest large daily newspaper cannot do, is to cover, if not
everything that happens in our communities, a whole lot more than anybody else
can cover. We can and do cover civic-club meetings, and Chamber of
Commerce luncheons, and print substantially more detail in weddings and
engagements and social activities, large volumes of school news in all three of
our community publications as distinguished from Polk County Times. The
dailies cannot possibly devote that amount of coverage to each elementary
school in the county. We can devote that much attention to each elementary
school in Bartow, Fort Meade, and Lake Wales. We have a great deal of church
news, local features, much more in-depth coverage of city commission in each of
our three communities than the dailies can devote space to. What I tell people is
that everybody ought to read a daily newspaper. I read two. But you also, to
really have a thorough understanding of what is going on in your community and
to read about what your friends and neighbors are doing, [read] the community
newspaper. The local community, by inference, weekly newspaper is the only
place you are going to get that degree of local coverage.
P: One of the questions that always comes up in a family-owned newspaper, did
you all get along pretty well through most of this? Were there times where there
were issues that divided you?
F: We have been very fortunate that we get along extremely well in this business.
[My] Granddad and Great-Granddad, as I say, they were partners in various
newspapers, one would move on and then the next would catch up with him.
They enjoyed doing business together. My dad had the same relationship with
his father, my granddad. Dad and I are both editorial people, we are both news
people. Dad's brother, Richard, is primarily a business person. It was a
wonderful combination when Dad and Richard were both active in the paper
because Richard's strengths were in the business side, and Dad's strengths
were in the news side. There are inevitably some conflicts, never major, that I
can recall when there was that type of divided responsibility and the fact that we
did not have a single person designated as publisher-it was management by
committee. I was the third and junior voice in that committee when I came into
the business. Dad and I have never, that I can recall, had a major disagreement.
He votes Democratic more often that I do, I vote Republican more often than he
does. Occasionally, at least once that I can recall, we did not endorse a
candidate for governor, because he was a strong supporter of the Democratic
candidate, I was a strong supporter of the Republican candidate.
[Interruption in recording]
P: Another question that I wanted to bring up is that you mentioned endorsing
political candidates. How do you go about deciding which candidate to endorse
and what impact do you think that endorsement has on the voter?
F: We decide. That is a classic editorial "we," the editorial board is me and if we
have any other member of the staff who wants to sit [in] on the interview, they are
welcome to do so. I almost never get any takers on that. Occasionally the
school-board reporter will sit in with the school-board candidates. Occasionally,
Dad will sit in, but not often. We make the decision, at the risk of sounding over-
simplistic, based on who we think will do the best job. The name of the paper is
The Polk County Democrat. I got out of the Army in 1964 and persuaded Dad to
endorse Barry Goldwater [U.S. Senator from Arizona, 1953-1965, 1969-1987;
Republican candidate for President, 1964] and it was the first time from 1931 to
1964, [in the] years of our newspaper history, that we had ever endorsed a
Republican for president. We have endorsed every Republican candidate [for
President] since then, both when Dad was making the decisions and when I
made the decisions-some years with more enthusiasm and some years with less
enthusiasm. Dad and I are both conservative in our political positions, [and
believe] that government is best which governs least. A little bit of an over-
simplistic comment, but we believe generally that it is better for people to make
their own decisions than for government to make decisions for them. In local
races, the [party affiliation] is barely even a consideration because, especially
when you get closer home than the state offices and senatorial candidacies, the
party labels are really a matter of convenience. Right now, Polk County is voting
about 55-45 [percent] Republican for everything, so the politicians [who] can hear
thunder and see lightning are registering Republican. We try to interview every
candidate. We send out an invitation to every candidate to come in for an
interview. Those who do not come in, we consider them even so. I generally
spend one to two hours with each candidate. I have said many times that we
endorse not because we are any smarter than anybody else, but because in a
county of a half a million people, there are not many people who have the
opportunity to sit down one-on-one with the candidate for an hour or two hours at
a time. We do. That is the value we see in our endorsement to the readers, that
we at least have had a chance to talk to the folks, we occasionally make discreet
inquiry of other people who know them, particularly in candidates for judges who
basically will promise to be fair and impartial administrators of the law. We have
the kind of rapport with other lawyers and some judges that we can call up and
say, whisper a name in my ear, tell me about these folks.
P: In that category, it is probably important, because I doubt very much that the
average voter knows anything about judges at all. They probably know the
candidates for governor and president, but they would not know much about
some of those offices, would they?
F: That is correct. In Polk County, in fact, throughout Florida, if you want to be a
judge, you should choose a father whose last name starts with A, B, or C,
because the first candidate on the ballot has a huge advantage in judicial races,
much more so than [in] other races. All they can say is they will enforce the law.
They cannot tell you about capital punishment, they cannot tell you this, they
cannot tell you that. They can brag about their endorsements, and they do, but
they really cannot say, if I become a judge, I will do such and such. As far as the
importance, I asked a veteran campaign-manager that one time exactly what you
asked me, just how important are our endorsements? His or her response was,
considerably less important than the candidates think they are, but they want
them anyway. Fortunately, in Polk County, fortunately in this aspect, not from a
competitive standpoint, there are a number of newspapers in Polk County and
contrary to what some readers believe, we do not all get together for coffee and
decide who is going to be the next county commissioner. There is seldom
unanimity in the endorsement of candidates. I would say that among people, and
I have had people tell me, the people that absolutely know nothing about the
candidates will tend to just accept our endorsements for the reason they do not
know anything else. I have often said, the bumper-sticker on your next door
neighbor's car or the yard sign across the street from your house is also an
endorsement. If you know and trust the judgment of the person driving the car or
the person who lives in that house, that is a bona-fide endorsement. Billboards
to me are meaningless in terms of anything other than just name-recognition. I
think [our endorsements probably have] some impact. I think it is probably less
than most of us in the business would like to think. In the presidential and
probably even gubernatorial races, I doubt that we sway one vote in a hundred.
People know who they want for president, they know who they want for governor,
but we have still got to go out and give it our best shot.
P: What would you consider to be the most important functions of this newspaper?
F: From an editorial-leadership position, I think that it is important for us to speak
out, to take editorial positions on important issues, even if and perhaps, even
especially, if it is not a particularly popular position to take. Which is not to say
we do so every week. The most recent and more successful one that we did
was, [when] the city commission voted one night with absolutely no discussion,
they were mad at the county because the county was not paying-in the opinion
of the city manager-enough money to the city for providing fire protection outside
the city. The city manager said, I think we ought to quit providing first-responder
medical response outside the city limits. Period. The city commission said,
okay. I was sitting next to the fire chief and our jaws hit the floor at about the
same time. I said, Jay, I am not believing what I just heard. I wrote a series of
very strong editorials saying that people were going to die as a result of that
decision. Within a week or two, a man almost did die from an allergic reaction to
an insect bite. The nearest county first-responders were twice as far as the city
of Bartow. What saved him was that there were two first-responders working at
the company, it was a phosphate mine, who kept him alive. As it happened, one
of them was a Bartow volunteer firefighter.
P: Do you write all the editorials?
P: I noticed that in today's paper, there is an issue that is probably rather
controversial. I guess it is the city government that wants to post the Ten
F: The County Commission was planning to post the Ten Commandments as an
historical document, thereby attempting to get away from First Amendment
issues. I said, that I think basically it is a good idea that the moral precepts
expressed in the Ten Commandments, as well as the first amendment, can stand
on their own merits, and that it is sort of a shame that in order to post these basic
precepts, about half of which are part of the legal codes of every civilized
country, thou shall not kill, thou shall not steal, thou shall not commit adultery,
bearing false witness, perjury ... I think it is a shame that in order to post these
fundamental moral values that we have to pretend that it is not a religious
document, that it is an historical document. I will tell you that although I feel that
is the case, that is not a big issue with me. That is not something I would go to
the mat with somebody over. Lakeland Ledger incidentally said just the opposite,
[said the county is] heading for a legal hassle for no particular purpose. A good
argument could be made to that effect.
P: Somebody surely will challenge that. Somebody will sue for sure.
F: There is some belief that that will be the case. They have attempted to set up
this particular item, the display of the Ten Commandments, in a way that has
been held constitutionally valid by posting the Declaration of Independence, the
preamble to the Constitution, and maybe the Code of Hammurabi, which even I
had to look up to remind me from my college history days what the Code of
P: What is the hardest thing about running a weekly newspaper?
F: Oh, let me count the ways. Probably the biggest challenge, particularly [as] an
independent weekly newspaper, we are not part of a group unless you consider
that our four papers are a group, probably the most difficult challenge is recruiting
and training people. We do not have a farm-team system. If you are a New York
Times, or a Gannett, or a Knight-Ridder, you have got the small papers out there
where you not only are training the editors and publishers of your big papers, but
you are training pressmen. [The] hardest job I have to fill is pressman. There are
only three Web-newspaper presses in Polk County: the Lakeland Ledger, Winter
Haven News Chief, and the Polk County Democrat and we are not hiring people
away from the New York Times chain on the basis of the money we pay. To a
lesser extent, [that is also a problem] with the reporters. Almost everyone who
starts with us starts as entry-level and we train them. I enjoy training young
people and new people in the business. Our supervisors enjoy training them. It
would certainly be nice sometimes to be able to hire someone who has five years
of experience as an advertising salesman or five years of experience running a
press, or three years of experience as a reporter. But the financial realities are
that the weekly field is an entry-level into newspaper journalism. The hard
realities are that the income-levels of weekly newspapers, with relatively few
exceptions, are not nearly those of the daily newspapers. What we can and do
attempt to offer is a very family-friendly operation. If the kids are sick, we
understand that there are more important things than coming to work some days.
We try to offer a sense of participation for employees. The reporter, [who would]
have to write obits for five years on a daily newspaper will be writing front-page
stories [for us] in his or her second week on the job here. We genuinely involve
the staff in making decisions.
P: They can learn the business.
F: Right. They can learn the business and they can have an impact on the
P: Since you have been involved with the newspaper, 1964 to the present, how has
your audience changed?
F: Our audience probably has changed by virtue of the fact that we have a more
transient population even in Bartow. Bartow, like I would assume in common
with many small towns, used to have a pretty solid, pretty stable population.
There were not a lot of new people coming in, so there was not much growth, but
it was generally the same people here year after year. Those are the people, at
least on the community newspaper side of the business, [they] are your core
readers. The person who got in last month and got a sample copy of your paper
from Welcome Wagon is not your core readership. We hope eventually they will
become core readers, but our core readership historically has been the folks
[who] grew up here, went to school here, raised their kids here, and would not
miss reading an issue of the Polk County Democrat. They come in [after] they
have been on vacation [to pick up back-issues] or they have it sent up to the
mountains in the summer because they just would not miss an issue. As we
become a more transient society, and that certainly is the case with our markets,
the change in our readership is that those core readers are dying off and the new
readers are here one year and next year they are off somewhere else. My
perception, at least, is that is our biggest challenge in maintaining readership is
trying to appeal to the person who is really only interested in what is the latest
thing going on in Afghanistan and really does not care that right now [that] the big
issue in Bartow is that the city commission is wrangling with the county
commission over building a new county-government complex which will draw
several hundred jobs and move them out of the city of Bartow and move them six
or eight miles north of here. The person who just moved in last week and is
going to be moving on in another year or two, that is not a big issue to them.
P: What is your circulation now?
F: Combined circulation of The Polk County Democrat and The Fort Meade Leader
is in the neighborhood of 6,000.
P: Is that up or down?
F: That is down from what it was, quite a number of years ago, I think at one time
we were up, our total combined circulation was in the neighborhood of 6,500.
There is a lot of room for quarreling over circulation versus distribution. I am
talking about total-press run, this includes the ones that go to the 7-11
[convenience] stores [and] the racks and do not get sold and get brought back.
So, we are probably down about ten percent from our all-time high. Lake Wales,
we are actually up since we bought the paper. At one time-of course, we know
their figures because we were printing them-we were printing 4,000 papers for
Owen and that press run had dropped to about 3,000 when we bought the paper.
We are back up a few hundred over 3,000. So we are growing there a little bit. I
think it is because we have done some more aggressive reporting and put a little
more money into the product in Lake Wales.
P: How has Bartow changed since 1964? I am not just talking about the transients,
but the town itself.
F: Within the merchant community, the biggest change is that there are fewer and
fewer locally-owned sole proprietorships, more and more chain and franchise
operations. The growth of both city government and county government has
been geometrical in relation to the growth of the community. One of the biggest
changes, and it certainly is not limited to Bartow, but in my opinion the biggest
change in Bartow in the years that I have been covering here is the coming of the
integration of the school system. With the integration of the school system has
come in a large part, the integration of society. Integration not only in the
numerical mixing of races, but in a genuine sense of camaraderie, friendship,
and understanding which has come about because of the forced integration at
the school system. We have become much more empathetic and understanding
of each other.
P: Do you have many immigrants in this county?
F: We have a fairly large Cuban community. In fact, if you took out the doctors with
Spanish surnames in this town, you would be hard-put to find a doctor when you
needed one. We have a fair number of southeast Asians. Particularly among
the Cuban community, [we have] a disproportionate number of leaders of the
community, leaders both in the community and commerce, the manager of the
country club for many years was a Cuban, the best heart surgeon in town is a
Cuban, some of the top-ranking students at the high school have names like
Champavanarath, other Asian names typical of the southeast Asians who have
come to the United States and excelled in the first- and second-generations.
P: Do you have many letters to the editor?
F: In terms of what I call bona-fide letters to the editor written specifically to us as
opposed to mass mail, we probably average a couple a week. One to two a
week, during political season, it gets to ten, fifteen, or twenty a week.
P: Do you publish many of those?
F: Yes, we publish almost all of them. We publish almost none of the ones that are
sent out in mass. The ones that are sent exclusively to us, we almost never fail
to publish one, unless it is unsigned. We have a hard-and-fast rule, we will not
print unsigned letters, even if we know who the person who writes it is. We find
that the content becomes much more responsible when the person understands
that his or her name will be published. We probably decline to publish only one
or two a year, and then only because they go far beyond fair comment. I am not
even sure it is one or two a year, very seldom do we fail to publish one. It has
nothing to do with whether we agree with them or not, to me. I insist on a level of
fair comment, perhaps not the same level that I try to maintain in writing
editorials, but at least it has got to be reasonable. For instance, it is one thing to
say that the city commission made the stupidest decision they have ever made, it
is something else to say this is the stupidest bunch of city commissioners Bartow
has ever had. To me the latter is not fair comment, the first is fair comment.
When there is something harshly critical of a person, normally of a politician, we
try to get a response. Occasionally the hospital, for instance, there was a
criticism. We try to get a response and print the response in the same issue with
a letter rather than a follow-up response later on. The theory [is] that half the
people who read the criticism will not read the response and half the people who
read the response will not know what it is about because they did not read the
P: Have the letters changed over the years?
F: They have gotten somewhat more responsible since we have put in a policy of
[printing] absolutely no unsigned letters. I have the feeling probably the volume
of letters is up a little bit. It seems like we used to have almost none. Perhaps
the fact that we are obviously willing to print them because we do print them and
we have a filler on the editorial page saying this newspaper welcomes letters
from its readers[, helps].
P: Something that I forgot to ask a minute ago, there are not many independent
newspapers in the state of Florida. How have you managed to avoid being taken
over by Knight-Ridder or New York Times or a larger conglomerate?
F: Just say no. We used to get fairly frequently, particularly ten or twenty years ago
when there was a frenzy to buy up newspapers, we would get a serious inquiry
every few months. Now, most of the inquiries that we get are mailings from
brokers, you know, if you are interested. It was terribly tempting to take the
money and run, but to some extent, I think the nature of community journalism,
certainly the nature of the Frisbie family, is that we have always wanted to be
independent. We were more interested in working for ourselves and making our
[own] decisions than we were in getting rich.
P: Also, from what I understand from talking with other newspaper publishers, if you
are part of let us say, Knight-Ridder, they are going to make certain demands on
how you run your business. They may not interfere with your editorial policy, but
I talked to Carl Hiaasen [writer/columnist, The Miami Herald], whom you know.
He said, Knight-Ridder requires the Miami Herald to make twenty-five percent
profit. Therefore, they do less investigative journalism, they have to fire some of
the people who work there, and they, in his view, do not turn out as good a
newspaper because it has now become a bottom-line business as opposed to a
newspaper trying to serve the community. Do you think that is a fair
F: Absolutely. Several years ago, I was moderator of a panel at [the] Florida Press
Association. I believe it was four publishers who had sold to the chains, and in
each case they were community papers, I think all [were] weeklies. Three of the
four of them said that they were very disappointed with how it had turned out.
Although they had come out very well financially, as I recall three of the four of
them had left the papers. They basically took the money and ran. The fourth
one said that he knew when he sold it there were going to be changes and that
he was accommodating to those changes [but,] within a year, he had taken the
money and [ran]. Contrary to the public perception that the New York Times
buys newspapers so that it can dictate editorial policy and determine who is
going to be the next president of the United States, the New York Times buys
newspapers to make money on them. Yes, there are pressures. I tell folks that
come to work here, that you will never make as much money working at The Polk
County Democrat as you could make working for government or working for the
phosphate mines, or even working for the daily newspapers, but since 1931
when we were established, we have never ever laid off an employee, and it is my
hope to retire with that boast intact. We have fired some people, but it has
always been on the basis of job performance or whatever. We have never had to
say, Joe, you have done a great job for the last five years, but business is down,
so this will be your last paycheck.
P: Now, when you leave the business, is there going to be another Frisbie to come
F: My children are all aware of that opportunity, [but] thus far, none of them [has]
availed themselves of that opportunity. One daughter and son-in-law have said,
keep asking us before you make any irrevokable decisions. I have told our
supervisors this, [that] my first choice would be that my family would take over
the paper. My second choice would be that somehow the employees could get
together through an ESOP [employee stock ownership/option plan] or whatever,
form a corporation, buy the paper. Our third choice would be that someone in
the community with a continuing interest in the community and in the newspaper
would buy the paper. My fourth and final choice would be to sell out to a chain.
You can sell out to a chain any time. That is the easy way out and probably the
more profitable way out.
P: In most of these, the chain is not so much interested in the local paper and the
local community as they are in the profits produced from that paper.
F: Right, and the franchise. We are fortunate in our three community newspapers,
we own the newspaper franchise in our three communities. The franchise, more
than anything else is . no, not more than anything else, profitability is the first
thing that they are looking for, the other thing is a franchise, the reach into these
three communities being the dominant newspaper voice would have a certain
amount of appeal to the chains.
P: Do you use any syndicated columnists? Do you use editorial cartoons?
F: We use syndicated cartoons through [the] Copley syndicate. We do not use any
significant syndicated columns. I think we have like a church column or
something that we get. But we do not use any of the big-name syndicated
P: Have you ever gotten any pressure from advertisers over editorials you have
written that they might threaten to withdraw their ads?
F: I personally got pressure on an issue of a mobile-home park, which I was very
much opposed to. One reason I was opposed to it was it was a half-a-block from
my home. In this case, I was going to be one of the property owners whose
property values would go down. I felt also that it was poor zoning. I felt it more
personally because it was in sight of my home. There was some pressure then,
[but] not a whole lot. Incidentally in that regard, I was mistaken. As it has turned
out, the retiree mobile-home park has been a real asset to the community. There
has been a certain amount of pressure, but not much. Sometimes a big
advertiser will bring by somebody and say, I am supporting Joe, I hope you will
endorse him. We will talk to Joe. To my knowledge that has never been a
factor. At one time, the Polk County Commission operated its own Highway
Patrol, for reasons that were never quite clear to me. I think there was kind of a
conflict with the sheriff or conflict with the Florida Highway Patrol or something.
At that time, Dad told me there was a referendum on whether to keep operating
the county Highway Patrol, as I recall, Dad told me at the time that he editorially
supported eliminating the Polk County Patrol, knowing that in doing so, he would
probably lose the county commission's legal advertising for awhile. I do not think
anybody came and told him that, I think he just figured that up-front. It has not
been nearly as big an issue as the perception is.
P: What is your view of USA Today and do you see that kind of newspaper, that
format, as the future of publishing in America?
F: I think there has been a lot of imitation of USA Today, most notably the weather
maps. But I recall hearing, either John Quinn [senior vice president and chief
news executive, Gannett Co.] or Al Neuharth [founder, USA Today; vice
president, Gannett Co.] [speak] to the Florida Press Association one time. He
said, they call us McNewspaper, I wish they would quit stealing our McNuggets.
A great deal of the format, particularly in the daily newspapers and to a much
lesser extent in the weekly newspapers, is taken straight from USA Today. The
use of graphics, pie charts, big color weather maps, the shadow-box format that
they use to set [highlight] their stories, the idea of a dominant front page story as
opposed to the major story of the day, it is the issue du jour, if you please. I see
that more and more in a lot of the dailies. [At] the weeklies, some cosmetic
changes. We used shadow boxes until we went to our present typesetting
system, which will set a regular border but will not do a shadow-box border. We
did some of that. USA Today believes in a high story count of short stories. One
of my approaches, and part of my theory on what we can do differently in our
community is, we can devote thirty or forty column-inches to a story of local
importance in almost every issue, devote thirty or forty inches to why the county
commission and the city commission are wrangling over the community
redevelopment agency boundaries, which is a big issue right now, whereas in ten
inches we could have said what the results were. In that sense, we are different
from the USA Today approach, which is lots of short stories to the point. I am not
sure we are right. Certainly I am not one to lecture Al Neuharth on how to be a
success in newspaper publishing.
P: What is the future of the newspaper as we know it today? Are we going to
eventually go to electronic newspapers?
F: I do not believe so and partly because I hope we will not, and partly because I
remember my dad saying that when AM radio came along that was going to be
the death of newspapers, and when FM radio came along that was going to be
the death of AM radios and newspapers, when TV came along, that was going to
be the death of AM and FM radio and newspapers, when the news crawlers
across the bottom of your cable channel came along, that was going to be the
death of newspapers. I think that the printed word is going to be around for a
long, long time to come. I know that we are going to be scrambling harder and
harder to hold our share of the market, or even to hold a sufficient share to
remain profitable. As small as our papers are, we have two Websites, one for
Bartow and one for Lake Wales. They have been failures economically, but the
number of reader hits we are getting is growing and we get a lot of comment on
them, so we feel the necessity to be on the Web, and again, to protect our
franchise. We figure if we do not get out there, somebody else will fill that niche
in the marketplace.
P: What have you done in hiring minorities for the paper?
F: Not much, quite honestly. We have interviewed, I really want to say that we
made a conscious effort to hire minorities when we have the opportunity to do so.
We do not get that many minority applicants and the hard truth of the matter is,
particularly at the professional level, the journalist level, that is to say someone
with a four-year degree, the dailies are going to grab up talented minorities just
as fast as they can and they are going to pay them fifty percent more than we
would, just as they are going to pay the white journalists fifty percent more than
we would. We have, in fact, had minorities on the staff before. I have made, as I
say, a conscious effort to try to get more, to be more reflective of the community,
and have not had a whole lot of success.
P: One thing I have noticed that you are involved in a lot of community activities on
your own, outside of the newspaper. Do you feel that is incumbent upon a
publisher, to get involved, and for even your staff to get involved in community
F: Absolutely, not only in the newspaper business, but I think every business owner
owes a certain amount back to his community of his or her own time and effort
and the time and effort of the staff, whether it is serving as president of the PTA
[Parent-Teacher Association] or encouraging the staff to go out and speak to kids
on Career Day or take part in volunteer-mentoring programs, that type of thing. I
feel like there is an obligation on the part of people in business to support the
P: What do you want to accomplish in the remaining part of your journalistic career?
F: To a certain extent, continuing to do those things which I feel like we do
reasonably well. I talked about the importance of strong editorial leadership
where it is needed and thorough coverage of the news, as opposed to a once-
over-lightly, which the nearest metro-daily can do in any small town. From my
personal standpoint, doing everything I can to ensure a smooth transition to new
management, whether it be one or more of my children, or some new owner. I
would like to be able to put in a four-color [printing] unit, but that requires a
substantial investment. That is one of those dreams where I know where I would
spend the next quarter [of a] million [dollars] if I knew where the money was
coming from. To some extent, to maintain the quality and the standards that we
have maintained. With my father not in the greatest of health and being eighty-six
years old and wanting to slow down a little bit, we currently have only one
generation of the family actively involved in the newspaper management, which I
guess is probably the first time that is happened since the paper was established.
We do not have the depth of management. My wife is an integral part of the
operation. I want to maintain the quality, and the standards, and the commitment
that we have. I would like to see a smooth transition to a new management that
would continue to be committed to the community and to our staff.
P: Can you recall some really funny or bizarre or unusual incidents during your
career at the newspaper?
F: There have been some, let me see what I can do about recalling them. No sir, I
am sorry, I had not given any thought to that. There is the kind of staff kidding-
around that goes on, but as far as something journalistically ... as soon as this
interview ends or at 3:00 tomorrow morning, I will come up with four or five really
P: If I may, there was sort of an important story that happened here in Polk County,
the crash of that helicopter, and I suspect there have been some incidents like
that throughout the history, or hurricanes or events like that, that have been of
major importance for the newspaper and the community.
F: The major stories are somewhat easier to remember. Some of the major murder
stories, the political intrigues, indictment of sheriffs. One time, it seemed like
every sheriff we ever had who served more than one term went out under
indictment rather than by vote of the people, and usually for relatively small
corruption. The major fires, one of the big shopping centers in town was
extensively damaged in a fire that turned out probably to be arson. One of the
big things going [on] right now is whether or not the city can dissuade the county
from relocating some of the major offices in the county seat [to a location] outside
of Bartow. Growth is going to be a major issue. There is a 3,500-acre planned
community called Old Florida Plantation that has a lot of people concerned. It
would have about 10,000 residents, compared] to 16,000 that Bartow now has.
Just recently Clear Springs Land Company has come in and bought, I think it is
12,000 or so acres. So, all of a sudden, over half the property within the city
limits is owned by one developer. Another 3,500 acres is owned by another
developer. In a town that has always grown by little bits-and-pieces and always
under the leadership and ownership of local interests, that is a little bit frightening
to people. So Bartow is going to change and it is going to grow more than it has
in any time in its history other than the first few years when it was growing by
leaps and bounds from 100 to 300 to 500 residents. We are now looking at
going from 16,000 residents to maybe 40,000 residents in the next ten years or
so. That is a little bit frightening, a little bit unsettling to those of us who have
seen the town have a very slow rate of growth and most of that growth has been
of pretty high quality.
P: On that note, we will end and I want to thank you very much for your time.
[End of the interview.]