Interviewee: Waldo Proffitt
Interviewer: Julian Pleasants
Date: August 27, 2003
JP: This is Julian Pleasants. I'm in Sarasota, Florida. It is August 27, 2003, and I'm
speaking with Mr. Waldo Proffitt. Give me a little bit about your background. I
know you were born in Texas and grew up in Oklahoma.
WP: [That's] true, and attended public schools in Chickasha, Oklahoma. My mother
and father were both high school teachers. I went to college at Harvard on a
scholarship, which is the only way I could afford it. I was in the class of 1946,
which was the most fractured class in the history of the college because of World
War II. There were practically no undergraduates in Harvard from 1943 through
1945, and I was among those who were not there. I went off to the Air Force in
early 1943 and didn't return until early 1946 and actually graduated in 1948, at
which time I went off to work for the Bangor Daily Commercial.
JP: Let me ask you a question. How did you get from Oklahoma to Harvard?
WP: By train [laughing]. No. Harvard was the only school I applied to. That's where I
had wanted to go for a good many years, and I applied and I was accepted, and
they awarded me a scholarship so I could afford it. I couldn't get in now, but this
was at a time when Harvard was emphasizing admission of students from
outside of Massachusetts and New England and New York City and trying to
become the national college, which it indeed became. So, they helped me along
with my ambition.
JP: Tell me a little bit about your decision in 1943 to join what was then called the
Army Air Corps, later the Air Force.
WP: Right. Well, I was seventeen years old when I went off to college. Then in
October, I became eighteen, and from that point on, I was anxious to get in the
service, as was practically every member of my generation. I enrolled in June.
They encouraged you to come to Cambridge just as soon as you possibly could,
which I did. I finished the summer semester and I finished the fall semester, and
then I wanted to go into the service. Fortunately, the Army Air Corps had a
program which sounded very good to me. They were going to train
meteorologists, and you had to have a certain amount of physics and math to get
into this program, and I did, so I and quite a few students from Harvard and MIT
[Massachusetts Institute of Technology] volunteered for this program. This was
the point where you couldn't volunteer and just go in; you had to volunteer to be
drafted. So, I wrote my draft board in Chickasha, Oklahoma and said, would you
please draft me? They were delighted to do so, and away I went. I never became
a meteorologist because they had too many meteorologists by this point. They
offered us some choices, and the choice I picked was communications. After I
got my commission as a communications officer, I was offered an opportunity to
go into an electronic countermeasures program, which carried flight status and
the additional pay. So, I went into that and spent some more time training,
actually in B29s. We were expecting to go to the Pacific theater, and suddenly
they called for volunteers to go to Europe, to Italy, and I raised my hand and
away I went. It was in the spring of 1945 before I got overseas, but I did and had
a fine time.
JP: You were stationed in Italy, and I know-from talking with people like George
McGovern, who was a pilot stationed in Italy but not at the same base, and Steve
Ambrose, who wrote a book called Wild Blue which describes the
circumstances-that most of the bombing runs were into German industrial areas
and Austria. Did you participate in any of that?
WP: I did not. By the time that I got over there, the war was practically over. I flew on
a few inconsequential missions up to the Brenner Pass and around, but I did not
see any actual combat. I did not get shot at.
JP: That was good.
WP: That was good, absolutely.
JP: So, you decided to come back to Harvard. I know when you went back to
Harvard, you got interested in working for the university newspaper, The
Crimson. How did you happen to get interested in that, and how did that
influence your career?
WP: I had a roommate who told me that I should go tryout for The Crimson, and I did.
That was a turning point in my career because until that point, I had absolutely no
interest. Well, the matter of working for newspapers just had never occurred to
me. I had assumed, like most of my contemporaries in Chickasha who went off to
college at that time, that I would become a petroleum engineer, a geologist, or
something associated with the oil industry. In preparation for this, I had taken a
good amount of math and physics. But I got involved in The Crimson, and this
was great fun. I had a great time, and I wound up as chairman of the editorial
board. The Crimson had several boards which were simply divisions that you
have in the newspaper: the business board, the news board, the editorial board,
etcetera. I wound up as head of the editorial page at The Crimson and had a
JP: What was it like the first time you saw your name in print?
WP: I really can't say that it was a great thrill. I don't remember the first time that I saw
my name in print, truth to tell, which would have been on The Crimson.
JP: How did that help you train for your later career in journalism?
WP: Well, in several ways. It gave me a lot of practice writing against deadlines and
dealing with other departments in the newspaper, in interviewing people, talking
to news sources, talking to people who didn't really want to talk to you, like
professors who had gotten a bottom score on the popularity [survey] with the
students. I found that even the student newspaper could influence the course of
events at Harvard because the administration payed attention to student opinion.
They usually disagreed with it, but [they listened].
JP: Almost always.
WP: Almost always, but that taught me a valuable lesson there which I may have
passed on to some [student] newspapers in Florida universities because during
the time I've been here, and this a good many years ago, I have had calls from
administrators at the University of Florida [and] Florida State wanting to know,
how do you deal with the student newspapers? How do you control it? How do
you keep this from tearing apart the campus? And I said, you don't. They have
got to be totally independent. They have to have no subsidy from the
administration, no quarters supplied by the administration. They are on their own,
and you don't meddle with them. They can't embarrass you because you have no
responsibility for them. If you want to dismiss them as the irresponsible student
press, go right ahead. I think that's the case in every university in Florida at this
JP: The Florida Alligator became the Independent Florida Alligator in 1973. As you
probably know, they have done quite a bit in terms of challenging state laws on
First Amendment issues.
WP: Right, absolutely.
JP: One of the issues was that the University of Florida would not open any of its
committee meetings where they chose vice presidents and [other top-level
administrators], and the Alligator got that [changed]. An Alligator editor posted
abortion information and eventually got that law [preventing the dissemination of
that material] declared unconstitutional. It's rather remarkable in some ways that
a student newspaper would be at the forefront of this kind of activity.
WP: I had not thought of this until you brought up this question, but I may have had a
very small amount of influence on that decision because several people
consulted me, and I said, cut the strings. Cut the apron strings, cut the purse
strings. Let them go.
JP: And after a couple of tough years, they have done quite well and [are] now one of
the largest campus newspapers in America. There is this argument over and
over again that in order to be a journalist, you need to have a journalism
background [or] journalism education. Other people argue that you get better
training on a campus newspaper or while you are actually pursuing your
profession. What is your view on that?
WP: I am no great fan journalism schools. They do good work, but I think a student is
better off to take a broad range of liberal arts courses. Heavy emphasis on
economics, politics, literature, history, and pick up the journalism skills as you go
JP: What about your first job? You chose to work for the Bangor Daily Commercial.
Why did you choose that [paper], and, again, what kind of experience did you
WP: I chose that because the advisor on my senior honors thesis had a friend who
was the co-publisher of a newspaper in Bangor, Maine. He was familiar with my
interest in journalism that had been stirred up by my experience on The Crimson.
He said, I know a guy in Bangor, Maine who has a newspaper, and you might be
interested in contacting him. I did, and that was my first job as a cub reporter on
that paper, which was a struggling afternoon newspaper. In fact, it struggled itself
right out of existence eventually. I did everything. I covered police, government,
general assignment, and before too many months got the job of city editor, which
was my first step into administration.
JP: In many ways, people have told me, that is how you really learn the newspaper
business, by being a reporter and covering a lot of different beats.
WP: That's my view.
JP: You left the Bangor paper and went back to Harvard?
WP: Yeah. Before you leave that, can I tell you how I got Harry Truman elected in
WP: ... when I was on the Bangor paper? I was out on my beat one afternoon when
the publisher tracked me down at city hall. He said, go home and pack a bag,
and I want you go with me down to Augusta, and I'll tell you why on the way. We
headed off for Augusta, and he told me what the situation was. This was in the
spring of 1948. I actually finished my requirements for a degree in January of
1948 and immediately went to work. So, I was in Bangor during the time of
Democratic state conventions. The publisher, whose name was Jim Ewing, was
the son of Oscar [R.] Ewing, who was a close advisor to Harry Truman. His father
called him and said, Jim, I'm sitting here at the president's desk and we have just
noted that the Maine state Democratic convention is this weekend. We have not
done any work on this at all, but we need to get a vote out of that convention
which instructs its delegates to the national convention to vote for Harry Truman.
He said, I don't know anything about people up there, but could you go down and
see what you can do?
There was considerable competition within the party amongst would-be
presidents. Truman was not a shoe-in by any means. We went down to Augusta
[and] registered at the Augusta House. Jim got a suite with a reception room and
a bedroom and got a bar set up in the reception room and a typewriter in the
bedroom. We went down to the bar and started chatting with people around the
bar, who were practically all Democratic delegates to the state convention. Jim
talked to these people about what they hoped to get from the convention: the
labor industry, the Maine power company, the bankers, everybody, and he made
a deal with as many people as he could. Oh, and he asked them, do you have a
state platform? [They said], no, there's no platform. [He said] well, you need one.
The deal was, you come see us and we will put whatever you want in the
platform. You tell us what you want, and it goes in the platform. In return, you
vote for an instructed delegation, instructed to vote for Harry Truman. This came
in two parts: first, should it be instructed, and second, for whom? He set himself
up behind the bar, and I set myself up behind the typewriter in the bedroom, and
these people wandered in during the course of the evening, you know, nine, ten,
eleven, twelve, one, and had a drink or two, and then he would send them in to
see me. They would tell me what they wanted in the platform, and I would put it
in, and I wrote a very fine platform.
JP: This is the Maine Democratic platform?
WP: Right, this is the Maine Democratic platform. Totally inconsistent. Anybody who
looked at this would say, well, the labor plank doesn't quite fit with the banking
plank, etcetera, etcetera. And they didn't. Everybody got what they wanted, and I
wrote a preamble, wrapped it up, and we went to bed. Got up late. The
convention started sometime after noon on Saturday. We submitted our proposal
to the platform committee, which they accepted. Then after an hour or two, they
came around to discussing the matter of the national convention and what should
they do? Some labor union leader from Lewiston was supposed to make the key
motion on this. He stood up and he started out, Mr. Chairman, Mr. Chairman, I'll
move that we send, uh . . He was really hung over, and he couldn't
remember what he was supposed to say. Ewing and I were at the back of the
hall, and he nudged me. I crouched over and went down the aisle as quickly as I
could and edged over towards this guy, and I said, instructed. He said, Mr.
Chairman, I move we send an instructed delegation. And the motion passed.
Then, there was no real problem about having it instructed to vote for Harry
Truman. My contention is that if I had not tripped down that aisle and gotten the
word to this union official, Truman might not have gotten the support of the Maine
Democratic party, and that would have been a very serious blow to his chances
for reelection. How's that?
WP: You can edit that all out.
JP: Now, let me sort of quickly follow your career. By the way, just as a minor point,
what did you do at the Harvard news office?
WP: I wrote news releases. I had the grand title of associate director, but basically I
wrote news releases and interviewed professors who had won important prizes
like Nobels and what have you.
JP: Then you go on to the Charlotte News?
WP: No, I went back to the Air Force immediately. Two months after I got back to
Harvard, I was recalled to active duty in what was then the Air Force. I was sent
down to Carswell Air Force Base in Ft. Worth, where I was part of a crew of a
B-36, which was the largest bomber ever built [with] six pusher engines and two
jet-assisted pods on the wings and a cruising range which I can't remember but
is not important because it was refueled in midair anyway. I spent two or three
months cruising around the United States in a B-36 and dropping dummy atomic
bombs on targets. Then the Air Force got around to giving me a physical, and
they told me that my eyesight was not good enough for flight duty so I would be
reassigned. I was reassigned to the Pentagon to the office of a deputy chief of
staff for research and development where, because I now had extensive
newspaper experience, I was assigned to write and publish a classified magazine
for Air Force research and development explaining what's coming down the
pipeline to the commanders in the field. Which I did for about a year and a half.
I didn't think I would ever say this, but this experience was really eye-opening
because in World War II, I had been a smart-ass second lieutenant who didn't
think very much of the phrase "military intelligence". I wasn't sure that the Army
really know what it was doing, and in some respects it did not, I might say. In any
case, on the second go-around, I was in an office of really brilliant, dedicated,
knowledgeable, responsible officers working literally around the clock. I came
away from this with a very high degree of respect for professional military people.
JP: Let me get back to your newspaper career. You go in 1954 to the Charlotte News
as city editor. Why did you happen to choose that position? At this time, I guess it
was a Knight newspaper?
WP: No, it was an independent newspaper. The publisher was Tom Robinson, who
was sort of an entrepreneur and a Harvard man, and I knew him, and he was
looking for a city editor.
JP: We might mention the News was the afternoon paper.
WP: Yes, the News was the afternoon paper. This was the one that Charles Kuralt
worked on. So, I went there as city editor and thoroughly enjoyed that
experience. You know about Kuralt?
JP: Mention that for the tape. What was your relationship with him?
WP: His job as a reporter on the News was his first job on a commercial newspaper.
Charlotte was his home. His father was a public health officer in Mecklenburg
County. Charlie essentially came back to work for his hometown newspaper. He
was a general assignment reporter until he started submitting columns, two or
three a week, columns called "Charlie's People", and it was just beautiful work.
These were ordinary guys, girls he met and interviewed and just wrote beautiful
JP: Sort of a precursor of his "On the Road" series.
WP: Absolutely, only this was "on the street".
JP: I have talked to several people who say that city editor was at the same time the
most interesting job they've had and the most challenging job. Would you agree
WP: I wouldn't dispute it. [It] could be. It's at the heart of the operation. You don't have
enough responsibility that you lose any sleep worrying about things, and yet you
really shape the daily report.
JP: You came to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in 1961 as the managing editor. Is that
JP: Why did you decide to come to this paper?
WP: I had left the Charlotte News and gone to the Lorain, Ohio Journal. I don't know if
I mentioned that in there or not. I'd be happy to omit it because it was the worst
decision I ever made to go up there. I went up at the behest of a friend of mine
who had been dean of the journalism school at the University of Maine and was
now editor of the Lorain Journal, and he wanted me to come up there as
managing editor. He didn't tell me that he was holding a little contest between me
and another guy to see who would get the job of managing editor, but eventually
I did. Lorain was a distant suburb of Cleveland. It's about thirty, thirty-five miles
west of Cleveland and at that time was a really messy, dirty, industrial city. It was
not a really happy place to live. This was in 1958 when I went up there. By 1961,
I was ready to get back to the South where it was warm. David [B.] Lindsay [Jr.],
who was the publisher, was looking for a managing editor. He advertised in
Editor and Publisher, and I responded to the ad. He flew up to Cleveland in his
converted P-51. The true love of his life was aviation, not newspapers. He flew
up and interviewed me at the Cleveland Airport, and I came down to Sarasota
and looked around. I thought this would be a great place to live, and here I am.
JP: When you first took over, you were managing editor. Was that for the Journal?
WP: No, that was for the Herald-Tribune. You are aware that at that point we had two
papers? The Journal was the afternoon. The Journal had its managing editor,
and the Herald-Tribune had its managing editor. At the same time he hired me,
Dave Lindsay hired an editorial page editor so that for the first year I was here, I
was strictly concerned with news coverage. The person he hired as editorial
page editor was temperamentally incapable of working with the Lindsays, and he
left. So, I got both jobs, managing editor and editorial page editor on the
Herald-Tribune, which eventually got a title of editorial director. The Journal
lasted until 1982, which was the year that the New York Times bought the paper.
We had a very spirited competition. The executive editor of the Journal was Roy
Cook, who had come here from Wilmington, North Carolina and was a very
savvy old-time newspaper man. He had no polish, but he was a very solid
newspaper operator with a feeling for news, and he and I got along fine. He died
in the mid 1970s, and then I became editorial director of both papers.
JP: What caused the demise of the afternoon newspapers in America?
WP: The morning newspapers got much better, and the afternoon papers did not
adapt. As you know, he news cycle is such that everything is in favor of the
morning papers. Eighty percent of the significant news that you're interested in
breaks on the time of the morning papers. The afternoon papers responded in a
not-very-effective fashion by dumbing down, becoming tabloids, almost throwing
in the towel on the serious coverage. The most egregious example I can think of
was the Cleveland Press, which when I was in Lorain was the dominant paper in
that whole part of the state. The [Cleveland] Plain Dealer improved to the point
where the Press just gave up trying to compete with it, and Scripps Howard
[news corporation] didn't want to put the money into it that it would have had to.
JP: And obviously, subscriptions were way down and it became a real problem [to
WP: That's right, absolutely. You asked what did them in, and it's money.
JP: When you took over as executive editor, what kind of problems did you face from
the newspaper? Did you have any problems in terms of economic issues or
WP: I never actually had the title of executive editor at the Herald-Tribune. I was
editorial director. Most newspapers had managing editors.
JP: What was your specific job?
WP: It was to supervise news coverage and opinion on both papers.
JP: In a sense, you combined editorial page editor and managing editor?
WP: Yes. I guess the biggest problem is getting good people, attracting and keeping
good people, which is still a big problem in this community on these papers. The
Lindsays were interesting and difficult people to work for, and not everybody has
the temperament to put up with that. I did, I guess. I think that Dave Lindsay is
one of the unappreciated geniuses of Florida journalism. As I said earlier, his
main interest was in airplanes. He had a small factory out here at the airport in
which he converted old P-51s into two-seater private airplanes. Which for a few
years, before the widespread advent of jets, were the fastest means of
transportation in the United States, put yourself into the backseat of a P-51 and
hire a pilot to fly you from coast to coast. He did that, and he renovated P-51s for
sale to Central American nations. This was what he really liked to do. He'd rather
spend time with airplanes than with newspapers.
JP: Did he interfere with your editorial page?
WP: Almost never. We had a couple of real go-arounds, which he won, but not very
JP: What policies did you change when you took over as editorial director?
WP: None, really. I guess the Herald-Tribune made a name for itself as a champion
for environmental causes. While I get a certain amount of credit for that, actually
the inspiration came from Dave Lindsay, who had a very sensitive nose and
whose father suffered from throat cancer as a result of many years of cigarette
smoking. Dave could not stand polluted air, and he could sniff it out. He could
sniff it out over Tampa, and he could trace it to the phosphate plants, and he
wanted to go after them. I got interested in this, and we went after them. He
banned cigarette advertising the day after the now famous surgeon general's
report on cigarette smoking came out. He said, we will not accept cigarette
advertising, and we didn't. The Sunday supplement, Family Weekly which was
pretty widely distributed, put out a special edition for the Sarasota
Herald-Tribune, and they took out all the cigarette ads and ran the rest of them.
JP: When you look at your career as a newspaper man, what do you see as the most
important functions of a newspaper?
WP: To provide information to citizens that they need in order to make intelligent
decisions. That's the only justification for the First Amendment.
JP: When you look at that as a function of the paper, how did your audience change
during the time you were at the paper?
WP: Well, of course television came into its own and eventually became the primary
source of news and information, which meant that newspapers had to shift
emphasis to background and interpretation. The Sarasota papers have been very
fortunate in that they have the oldest subscriber group in the United States. I say
that pretty categorically, but I think it's true. Our subscribers in Manatee,
Sarasota, and Charlotte counties would turn out to have the highest average age
of the subscribers of any daily newspaper, and so they are readers. They grew
up as readers.
JP: One would assume they would be a little better educated and a little more
WP: Yes, I think so.
JP: How, then, do you attract younger readers?
WP: I think just by doing the things that we do best, and that is to report local news.
I'm of a school of thought which thinks that every time a commissioner sneezes
at a meeting, it should be reported. Now, nobody is doing that, not even the
Sarasota Herald-Tribune, but I think detailed reporting on local news is the most
important function of a newspaper. I think in many places, including to some
degree here, this function is being taken over by weeklies, neighborhood
weeklies, town weeklies.
JP: Sort of like the Venice paper?
WP: Yes, and the Long Boat Key Observer and the Siesta Key Pelican. I think that
they are taking a slice of our market.
JP: In that context, how have reporters changed during your time at the
WP: They have become younger and smarter and more transient.
JP: Some newspaper men told me that if you would look at, say, the 1950s, reporters
would turn out eight or ten stories a day, whereas now, even with computers, the
current reporters tend to have more access to information and tend to do a more
thorough job, but turn out less work. Would you agree with that?
WP: Yes and no. They have more time for a takeout on a major story. If a reporter
wants to take two weeks on a special project, fine. Thirty years ago, they didn't
have that luxury. But they do not do as good a job of reporting on the nitty-gritty
of local government. Who asks for the zoning change? Who owns the property?
What city official is responsible for that decision?
JP: Do you do less investigative journalism than the paper used to do?
WP: No, they do more investigative journalism but less reporting.
JP: The cost of investigative journalism is often high because sometimes you can
work on a story for a couple months and not really get anything. A lot of editors
and publishers tell me that they have cut back on that activity, for example the
Miami Herald, because it's really not "cost effective". Do you see that as a trend
in American newspapers?
WP: No, I do not. Maybe I'm just not reading the right newspapers.
JP: How do you assess your competition? You talked about some of the local
papers, but I know you put out editions of the Herald in Bradenton and in general
in this area. Do you see competition from the St. Pete Times or the Tampa
Tribune or the Ft. Myers paper?
WP: No. I think they are negligible. When I came here, the St. Pete Times and the
Tampa Tribune together had more circulation in Sarasota County than the
Sarasota Herald-Tribune, but we have increasingly become a fringe area for
them and neither St. Pete nor Tampa really competes in Sarasota or even in
JP: In this state, then, newspapers are pretty much regional. I know, for example, in
Gainesville, we no longer get the St. Pete Times, and the Miami Herald, they in a
sense served regional areas. Is that what you are trying to do with your paper?
JP: What was the circulation when you retired?
WP: I don't really recall. I would think it was year-round 110,000, maybe.
JP: Of course, it's always more in the winter than in the summer.
WP: Oh, yeah, lots more.
JP: Talking about competition, when I was talking to Diane McFarlin [publisher of the
Sarasota Herald-Tribune] and asked her how significant competition was through
television, she said it was not so much the medium as it was time and
convenience. It's easier for people to click on the TV and get short-term
information than it is for them to sit down and read the newspaper. Do you think
that's becoming more true?
WP: Yeah, probably so.
JP: Is that a negative impact on society?
WP: Yes, it is, very much so.
JP: Do you think they're less informed?
JP: How would you rate your paper against papers of comparable size in the state of
WP: It's the best.
JP: Would the Tallahassee Democrat or Pensacola paper or Gainesville paper be
WP: I think they're smaller, but they're in the same category. Lakeland, Daytona.
[End of side Al]
JP: When you were working with the editorial page, how would you go about deciding
what editorials to write? What process did you go through?
WP: We had an editorial staff meeting every morning, and we would discuss possible
topics, who should write them and what we should say. We generally reached a
consensus. There were very few times when I would say, this is what we're going
JP: In writing editorials, would you always take a position in political races?
Presidential contests, governors' races?
WP: Yes, every race. Our intention was to take a position in every race. There would,
in any election, be a couple of races in which we would say, you've got two really
good candidates here and we can't make up our minds, or, you've got two really
unqualified candidates here and we don't want to be responsible for either one of
JP: Would you go through the process of interviewing each of the candidates if you
WP: Oh, we did, every candidate, every race. Well, I say every race. Sometimes we
wouldn't be able to get to things like the charter review board or what have you.
JP: How important would an editorial endorsement from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune
have on voters?
WP: People from the Tampa Tribune have said that we could swing 15% of the vote,
which if you figure it out is a 30% swing.
JP: And that was probably more true in local races than presidential races?
WP: Absolutely. I don't think voters paid any attention to what we said in presidential
races, and shouldn't because we don't know any more about the national
candidates than they do, really. I think that this was true to a certain extent, a
lesser extent, in state races. But in local races, I think that the voters followed our
recommendations in large numbers, and rightly so because we took it very
JP: And particularly, I would think, in judicial contests like judges where they would
have virtually no information about them.
WP: Yeah, right.
JP: How have letters to the editor changed, and how important are they for inclusion
on the editorial page?
WP: They are vital, and they have increased over the years. They have increased
dramatically with email. Readers of today's paper can sit down and tap out an
email and send it to the editor, and if it's really timely and well-written, it can be in
JP: How did you choose the letters?
WP: We tried to pick the ones on the most pertinent topics on a given day and to have
a rough balance between what appeared in print and what was sent in. I never
felt an obligation in editorials to be balanced. You know, you've got an opinion,
stick with it and pound the hell out of it. But when you are purporting to represent
readers' opinion, you should include a number of letters proportionate to what
was sent in.
JP: There might be some pro-Bush letters and some anti-Bush letters?
JP: Did you always allow for op ed pieces?
WP: Oh, yes.
JP: To balance the editorial view?
WP: No. I didn't. I think that's what they're doing now. I think the Herald-Tribune is
consciously seeking out people who disagree with it for op ed pieces. I didn't.
Once again, I say if you've got a point of view and you think you're right and you
think you're serving the public well, push it.
JP: That's what the editorial page is for.
WP: That's right.
JP: What about editorial cartoonists? Did you use them fairly frequently?
WP: Oh, yeah. Editorial cartoonists probably influence more people than editorial
writers. An editorial cartoon is a potent device precisely because it is not
balanced. It is a point of view.
JP: Who did you use in particular? Did you have one that you had permanently, or
did you just choose on a daily basis?
WP: We picked on a daily basis. We were fortunate both in editorial cartoons and
editorial page columns that we were pretty much able to buy all of the best in the
country and pick the best on any given day. I think that's still the case.
JP: I noticed today the paper featured columnists Tom Teepen, Cal Thomas,
Maureen Dowd. Cal Thomas is very conservative and Maureen Dowd is rather
liberal, so you get sort of a balance from the columnists you use. Do you use
many from the New York Times?
WP: Oh, yeah, simply because they have some of the best in the business, but there's
no requirement [for using them].
JP: Do you get a break on the cost?
JP: It seems like you ought to get a slight economic advantage.
WP: That's my view, but I don't think so. I know I never did.
JP: Another element that's really not very important in the overall scheme of things
but people get very exercised about, is the comics. If you change one comic
strip, people can get more angry about something like that than an editorial. How
important are comics as part of the "entertainment package?"
WP: I think they're pretty important. I think they're probably more important to my
generation than they are to my grandchildren. I always spent a great deal of time
selecting the comics. I can tell you that the biggest furor I was ever involved with
in Sarasota was over a crossword puzzle. When I first came here, I got several
phone calls and letters from people who said, why don't you get an
honest-to-God crossword puzzle in your paper? This one is so simple that I don't
even mess with it. I said okay. As you know, all of the syndicates offer puzzles of
various degrees of difficulty, so I picked a more difficult one and put it in, and all
hell broke lose. I mean, the roof caved in with people saying, you can't do this to
me. I start my day with the crossword puzzle, and I'm usually able to sit down
and do it in a few minutes, and it gives me a good feeling that sets the tone for
my whole day. I tried to hold on, but I couldn't. I just said okay, and we went back
to the old puzzle.
JP: I think most people don't want to try the New York Times crossword. For most
people, that's a little too difficult.
WP: That's right, and this wasn't even the daily news puzzle.
JP: When you were on the paper, what did you get the most complaints about? Wet
papers? Editorials? Late delivery? What really bothered the readers of the paper
so that they would complain?
WP: All of the above. The ones that I got most were accusations that we were a
member of the eastern liberal establishment and were not treating conservatives
fairly, which is balderdash.
JP: Part of that is the fact that you're owned by the New York Times.
WP: Yeah, but this was before we were bought by the Times.
JP: Okay, but since that time I would imagine ....
WP: It has increased, yes.
JP: How much impact has the New York Times, both good and bad, had on the
WP: I never had a conversation with anybody from the New York Times about
editorial policies. Zilch. I had conversations about budgets, but it did not try, and
I'm confident does not try, to influence editorial policy or news coverage. I think
as long as the paper stays within what you would broadly define as the
mainstream of American journalism, the Times will keep strictly hands off.
JP: One good thing from the Times when they came in here, they really upgraded the
equipment and made some improvements ....
WP: Absolutely, and [it was] high time.
JP: ... which was rather costly.
WP: Oh, yeah.
JP: Now, the down side that I hear from a lot of people in the corporate world of
newspapers today, the New York Times [Company], Knight Ridder and on and
on, is that the bottom line has become the dominant issue. Carl Hiaasen of the
Miami Herald said that Knight Ridder wants a 22 to 25 percent profit, and to get
that, the Herald has had to cut back on some local news coverage and has had
to fire some of the reporters and other workers at the paper to meet those goals.
Was that a problem with you when you were at the Herald-Tribune?
WP: Yes and no. The Times is a publicly owned corporation, and there is pressure
from stockholders to pay dividends. I think the Times is a unique institution in that
the Sulzberger family really understands that in order to make money, you have
to spend money. I know there have been cutbacks, there have been personnel
freezes. There were in my time and there still are, but I think that the New York
Times has been much less afflicted by this than most newspapers.
JP: I know this is sort of privileged information you might not have, but would you say
if you take the corporation Gannett, which has sort of been known as a frugal
owner of newspapers, do you think that the bottom-line attitude affects the daily
quality of the newspapers? I have noticed that newspapers are getting smaller.
JP: What is the long-term outcome of this? Are they going to get worse and worse?
WP: I'm afraid that's a clear possibility.
JP: Do you see a time when we will no longer have a physical newspaper, that
everybody will get if off the Internet?
WP: No, I don't. You can never tell what's going to happen to customs and mores
over a period of time, but I think people for the foreseeable future will want to
have something they can clip, they can tear things out of, they can take it to the
bathroom, carry it around with them. It is a lot more convenient to turn the pages
of a newspaper than it is to flip from page to page on a computer.
JP: That's exactly what newspapers do. They take all this information and compile it
for you and give it to you in at least four or five sections that are organized
according to what reader's interests are. Someone told me he thought that there
might be a process where people get online and print out the sports and print out
the first section, and they don't want the rest of the paper.
WP: I think that already exists. I think you can do that.
JP: When you were involved in the paper, did you ever have any advertisers threaten
to cancel their advertisements because of editorials you had written?
WP: Oh, yeah.
JP: Could you give me a couple of examples and how you responded?
WP: Automobile dealers, real estate brokers, department store owners. In every case,
and this goes with the Lindsays as well as with the New York Times, I was able
to say, well, you've got to do what you've got to do and we'll do what we've got to
JP: I noticed in reading a couple of your articles that there was a clear-cut opposition
from some of the people in the business community. They saw the paper as
anti-business. How did you deal with them? Did you meet with them?
WP: Oh, sure.
JP: In other words, it was easier to explain your position one-on-one than to continue
to write editorials?
WP: Yeah, and at times, I can certainly understand how they might think we were anti-
business. We were certainly anti-bad development.
JP: I understand that there is a difference of opinion about editors and publishers,
whether or not they should get involved in community affairs. What was your
position on that? I'm talking about being a member of the Rotary Club, head of
the blood drive, and that sort of thing.
WP: I think publishers should and editors shouldn't.
JP: Why shouldn't editors? Conflict of interest?
WP: Too much chance of conflict of interest. I think almost without exception, editors
would be able to resist this potential conflict, but I'm not always sure that they
could successfully refute the appearance of conflict. The appearance is often the
JP: What was the status of women as you were involved in the newspaper? I notice
today that three of the top four positions in the paper are women.
WP: The newspaper is now a matriarchy, which is fine with me. The men had it long
enough, and the women are not going to do any worse than we did.
JP: It was sort of a general sense that it was an old boy network in the newspapers
and that women were restricted to society pages. Did you have a program while
you were at the paper to increase both the hiring of women and minorities?
WP: No, I did not. Now, let me say that I think your perception that it used to be an old
boy network, I think that's accurate. It was. I hired a lot of women in my time and
the first minorities on this newspaper. I think that women will become a majority
in the newspaper business. They're good at it. There are more women than there
are men in the country. We will have newspapers increasingly geared for
consumption by women. It is a business which doesn't require any physical
strength. It is creative. It calls for organization, personnel skills. Women are very
good at all of these things.
JP: I understand that it's difficult to get and keep qualified minorities. How do you
change that circumstance?
WP: It is. I think you just keep trying. At the Herald-Tribune, we frequently have good
black people hired away by larger newspapers. I say good for them. That's the
way the system works.
JP: How has technology changed since you started? Obviously, I don't want to go all
the way back to hot type.
WP: Well, that's where I started, with typewriters and hot type.
JP: Since you've been at the Herald-Tribune, how has that changed? For example, I
know that now you have SNN and have a sort of interactive website and
information on the Internet.
WP: Yeah. Well, you've just described how it has changed. It's a different world, and
successful newspapers are going to get involved in all of these things.
Successful newspapers will realize, and have realized, that what they are selling
is not newsprint but information. You convey information any way you can and
hope that you'll be able to find a way to do it profitably, and we will.
JP: What about the new buzzword, the "converged newsroom"? Media General owns
the Tampa Tribune and the TV station. Do you see that as a coming trend? With
all this discussion at the Federal Communications Commission, do you see that
as a threat to democratic news, as it were?
WP: I think the threat is not so much in a newspaper owning a television station or
vice versa as it is in having large corporations control dominant percentages of
the news and entertainment business. I think that the fact that Clear Channel
Radio owns a huge percentage of radio stations ...
JP: It's like, what, 75 percent or something like that?
WP: It's getting close, including a dominant number of the stations in the Tampa Bay
area. It is a much greater threat to diversity of information than having the
Tampa Tribune and a television station operating out of the same newsroom. I
think there has got to be a clear numerical limit on how many such operations
you can have, joint operations, or how many outlets one entity can control.
JP: I know in one of your columns, you worried about the fact that eventually Rupert
Murdoch might control everything, and that's a clear possibility.
JP: So, it's the responsibility of the FCC, and this case now has devolved to
Congress, to keep that number down to 35 percent instead of 45 percent.
WP: Yeah, or get it back down to 20 percent.
JP: When you were involved with the newspaper, I know that at one time you were
president of the Florida Press Association. How do you view that particular
organization and its function in helping newspapers in the state?
WP: I was not president of the Florida Press Association. [I was president of] the
Florida Society of Newspaper Editors.
JP: Sorry. Can you talk about that organization?
WP: It's an influence for good, for a couple of reasons. It brings editors together, and
in the case of the Florida Press Association, it brings editors and publishers
together to discuss areas of mutual concern and to actually improve their
performance. Also, with their contests, each of these associations recognizes
merit and encourages people to raise their sights.
JP: What about the Florida Press Association? What is your view of that
WP: What I've just said applies to them as well. I think is an essential support group
for an essential public service.
JP: What is the general consensus and your personal opinion about USA TODAY?
WP: It's a free country. If you want to buy it, God bless you [laughing]. They have
JP: Jump stories and the color and the charts obviously influenced just about every
paper in the country. Has that been good for newspapers?
WP: It hasn't hurt them.
JP: Do you see USA TODAY, as some critics have called it, "McNews"?
WP: Yeah, I do.
JP: It does, I presume, serve some function as a national newspaper so you can
read it on airplanes and as people travel. But you do not see that as a particularly
strong source of information?
WP: No, and I doubt that USA TODAY does either.
JP: Although they have in the past years done a little more investigative journalism.
They have improved in that category. Is that the future of American newspapers,
WP: I don't think so. I think that we need strong national newspapers, but there can
only be a few. I would hope that the future of American journalism is in strong
regional and local newspapers.
JP: How important was it for the Sarasota paper to cover the Florida legislature, and
in specific terms, how did you do that? Did you have a reporter there full time, or
did you use pool resources?
WP: It is extremely important. The coverage of state legislatures by newspapers is
one of the scandals of the newspaper industry today. The Sarasota
Herald-Tribune has had at least one reporter in Tallahassee longer than I recall.
There was not one when I came here, and I sent one up there at some point. I
don't recall when, but we've had a bureau there for many years. After the New
York Times bought the Herald-Tribune, the Tallahassee coverage came out of
the New York Times' Florida Newspapers Bureau in Tallahassee, which has
three or four reporters full time up there, [and they] pay pretty close attention to
JP: I noticed in a couple of articles you wrote fairly recently about the legislature, that
one problem that I think we're all seeing now is the negative impact of term limits.
JP: How has that impacted the efficiency and the effectiveness of the legislature?
WP: Quite negatively, and it's also affected county governments in Florida. It is a
pernicious concoction led from a Washington office that furnished all of the states
with the propaganda to promote this. It has resulted in legislators who simply
don't know what they're doing, who have no sense of history, and who do not
have time to develop essential skills before they move into positions of
JP: I think in one of your columns, you indicated that we have let ourselves get taken
in by slick rhetoric and nifty slogans and that the legislature lost its vision as a
servant of the people. Everybody is either trying to get re-elected or caving in to
what you decry as the excessive power of the lobbyists in this state.
WP: Yes, that's an accurate statement.
JP: Part of it has to do with just sheer funds. I know this is a pejorative term, and I
have been told that you shouldn't say Big Sugar, but the tobacco industry
lobbying against Lawton Chiles. How do you deal with this huge amount of
money, soft money, direct contributions, that tends to influence legislators?
WP: I don't know, and we have not been dealing with it very successfully. The recent
legislation with respect to soft money, while I applaud it, is only a very small part
of the solution because people are doing end runs around this right and left and
overhead and underground. The single biggest source of trouble in American
government today is the influence of money. We've got to combat it with better
information. We're going to need more legislation. We're going to need to get
public money where we can for use in political campaigns.
JP: One would assume that if an industry gave money to legislators, they did it for a
specific reason, to have influence.
WP: Oh yeah, absolutely.
JP: And if they didn't get that influence, they wouldn't be giving that kind of funding.
WP: Absolutely. If they didn't get that influence, their stockholders should complain.
JP: This past summer, the legislature had to meet four times to try to deal with the
cost of malpractice insurance. I thought it was very interesting that many of the
members of the legislature are trial attorneys and it seemed to be very clear
where they came down on these issues. It would seem to be a conflict of interest
because that legislation could directly affect their income. The legislature seemed
almost unable to come up with a solution to this problem. Is that due to
self-interest or incompetence, or how do you explain it?
WP: It's partly self-interest and it's partly the inability of the governor to compromise
and the reluctance of the senate to compromise about something which is really
a peripheral issue. A $250,000 cap or the $500,000 cap is not going to make any
difference. A $1,000,000 cap wouldn't make much difference. Did you read my
column on this subject?
JP: No, I missed that.
WP: Well, I said when it comes right down to it, the trouble with malpractice is that
there is malpractice. Yes, Virginia, there is malpractice, and its victims are
entitled to some sort of compensation. The only people, said he dogmatically,
who can deal effectively with malpractice are physicians, who have got to get
actively involved in policing their own streets. Until that happens, there ain't going
to be any effective solution.
JP: Plus, as I know, many physicians practice defensive medicine, and they order all
kinds of tests that may not be necessary in order to cover themselves from a
lawsuit. When you look at the history of the governors of Florida, and I don't want
to get you too involved, but I know that in a couple of your columns you praise
the integrity and the industry of Reuben Askew [1971-1979] and Bob Graham
[1979-1987]. How would you see [Bob] Martinez [1987-1991], [Lawton] Chiles
[1991-1999], and Jeb Bush [1999-present]? How would you evaluate their terms
WP: I would put Chiles in a class with Askew and Graham. Martinez was a
well-meaning governor who never quite understood what the hell was going on.
Bush is a real disaster who will be cursed by future generations of Floridians.
JP: For what specifically?
WP: For cutting taxes instead of improving services, for decimating the education
system, for his kowtowing to polluters who are decreasing the livability of Florida.
JP: Although he did support the Everglades restoration.
WP: Yeah, but then he harpooned it.
JP: The recent legislature?
JP: If we see Bush as detrimental to the future of Florida, isn't he the kind of politician
who is going to be successful in the current environment?
WP: Could be. Sadly, could be.
JP: What we lack are, in effect, statesman.
WP: Yes, I would agree with that.
JP: Let me ask a question. I know this is after you left the paper, but I was just
curious. If you look back at the 2000 presidential election, what's your
assessment of all that and who do you think actually won the state of Florida?
WP: I think Gore actually got the most votes in the state of Florida. I think that the
Republicans recognized the situation early on, they organized quickly, they got
their troops in here and went to work, and they won the election in the courts.
JP: Is that a blow to democracy?
WP: Yes, indeed.
JP: Another issue that I'm intrigued about, and you wrote about this, not only is
television news becoming more entertainment but there is the trend, at least in a
lot of newspapers, toward that end. There's not as much hard news or foreign
news. People tend to do sports, local news, and let it go at that. Is that a trend,
again, in regional newspapers?
WP: Yeah, I think so.
JP: How can you reverse that?
WP: You've got to have right-thinking publishers.
JP: And that's sometimes hard to do when you're still dealing with corporate
headquarters and the bottom line.
JP: What did the paper do when you had errors in the newspaper? How did you
correct them? Where did you correct them?
WP: We corrected any significant errors of fact that were called to our attention and
tried to do it on the same page in which the mistake appeared. Sometimes it was
more practical to do this on the section page of the section in which it appeared.
JP: Many newspapers put all the corrections in one place.
WP: Yeah, that's true, they do. We did not do that, and as far as I know, have not
JP: You have a position that I think is fairly unique. You have a position in the paper
called advocate. It's sort of an ombudsmen, I presume?
WP: Well, not really, at least as I understand it. Now, this occurred after my time and
I'm not sure exactly what the advocate's mission statement is, but my
observation is that the advocate simply receives complaints and passes them
along to somebody but does not actively campaign to get something done and
can't in as much as the advocate changes every week.
JP: It is not a permanent position?
WP: No. It's a different person every week.
JP: One of the problems I see with newspapers, and I won't get into any specific
names, is errors. I was reading a newspaper the other day, and on one page, I
found at least-and I quit counting- ten factual errors or misspelled names. I
wonder why newspapers don't do a better job of proofreading.
WP: I'm not aware of anybody who does any proofreading [laughing].
JP: I think that's true.
WP: You know, it goes into the machine, it goes to the electronic typesetter, and it's
stripped on the page.
JP: Shouldn't newspapers do proofreading? It seems to me that when I see names
misspelled and I see factual errors, the credibility of the newspaper declines. I
read a newspaper the other day that said Lewis and Clark discovered the Grand
Canyon. That could not be farther from the truth. It sort of undermines my faith in
the credibility and the accuracy of the newspaper.
WP: Absolutely. I agree with you. I'm going to plead the Fifth on a general answer to
that question. It becomes costlier and costlier to do any effective proofreading the
more you go into new technologies. I think that perhaps newspapers need to
employ more people who have more skills to catch the errors before they actually
appear in print. The spell checker on your computer will catch spelling errors, but
it won't catch any factual errors or grammatical errors. I would think that there is
a role for better trained copy editors.
JP: One publisher told me that he was thinking about hiring retired schoolteachers
and bringing them in, not having to pay them a lot of money, but he could bring
four or five of them in and let them proofread the paper. That seemed like a
pretty pragmatic response.
WP: It sounds like a good idea to me. I think that you ought to have on any sizable
copy desk maybe a retired geography teacher and a retired historian. I
thoroughly endorse that idea.
JP: I read in a paper the other day in the sports section that such and such a football
player will not play in Saturday's game because he "enjoyed" his ankle. Now, you
would think somebody would catch that. Of course, enjoyed was spelled
correctly, so the spell checker is not going to pick that up, and obviously they
meant to say injured. I think people don't complain or don't worry about it, but
there are individuals, particularly in the academic community, who are quite
concerned about that because it is a major source of information, and when
people get incorrect information, that really undermines the whole process.
WP: That's true, and when you get incorrect grammatical constructions, the
uninformed readers tend to think that the newspaper knows what it's doing.
JP: Let me talk to you a little bit about an issue that is current, and that is the Jayson
Blair embarrassment for the New York Times [Blair was a NYT reporter who
plagiarized stories]. Was this a problem of lax editorial control because there had
been previous complaints about his work, or might you see this as a failure of
WP: I'm going to plead ignorance on this one because I don't know anything except
what I read in the newspapers. I have no particular information about the case. It
was an embarrassment to the New York Times. This sort of thing is always, in
one format or another, going to be an embarrassment to newspapers and to
television and to textbook publishers, any source you can mention.
JP: Do you think the New York Times salvaged its reputation by doing a thorough
investigation and publishing all the details?
WP: Yes. I think in general the New York Times handled it well. I was a little
disappointed that the publisher had said at first that he stood wholeheartedly
behind Howell [Raines, former executive editor] and then had to change his
mind. I think he may have spoken a little hastily, but overall I thought they
handled it well.
JP: Because eventually Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd [managing editor] both
ended up being "asked to resign." I guess that's the way it's understood anyway.
WP: Yes, and I have no problem with that. If it had been in Japan, they would have
committed hara-kiri [ritual suicide by disembowelment].
JP: Well, it was on their watch.
WP: That's right.
JP: Let me continue with the questions about the Jayson Blair incident. This is not
the first time that something like this has happened. I recall Janet Cooke of the
Washington Post, and Stephen Glass writing for the New Republic. You get
these kinds of situations where journalists, in effect, make up sources or make up
facts. Did you ever have any problem with that at the time you were at the
WP: I don't recall any out-and-out fabrications. I recall lots of mistakes.
JP: In terms of editorial control, if you look at somebody like Howell Raines, how
could he possibly keep up with all the sources of all the people who work for the
New York Times?
WP: Oh, he can't. He has simply got to establish a culture. It's just like the failure of
the culture of NASA in this morning's headlines. You've got to establish a culture
in the newsroom where people feel free to walk in your door and say, hey, here's
something you ought to know about.
JP: Is this an example of a deteriorating ethical standard in society? We have people
who want fame and fortune, we have Enron, we have all of these corporate
failures, and we have Martha Stewart. Do you think this is reflective of a change
in ethical values in America?
WP: No, I don't really. I don't see any widespread deterioration of ethics. I think what
has happened is the same thing that has happened with crime. Crime rate has
actually been declining over recent years, but there's more and more crime news
on television. I think that the ethical standards, I won't say that they're any higher,
although they may well be, but I don't think that they have been declining. I think
that we are just in such a state of instantaneous contact with everything that goes
wrong anywhere that when something like this happens, we all know about it.
JP: We're just more aware of these events because of CNN and other places. There
is now a group of politicians who are saying, well, we never trusted the New York
Times anyway, and now we see that they are printing material that is not correct,
so now, we're going to ignore them all together. Do you think that long-term can
hurt the credibility of the New York Times?
WP: No. I think short-term it will, and I think that it is difficult to refute what they're
saying when they can just point to it and say, aha, gotcha. But I think this too
shall pass, and fairly quickly.
JP: Anna Quindlen [columnist, author] said she thought it was an overreaction and
that, whatever you say, the New York Times is still the best newspaper in the
world, even with these failures. That it is almost inevitable in a large corporation
like that for something to happen.
WP: Yeah, and the people who are saying this never believed in the New York Times
JP: I noticed also in one of your articles that you have been opposed to this "gotcha"
journalism. There is a tendency to attack and misrepresent, and if you go on any
of these talk shows, there's no rational discourse. It's primarily James Carville
yelling at some conservative Republican. I noticed in your article, you said that
really doesn't reflect the attitude and demeanor of most Americans. Why do
those shows work, and why are they popular?
WP: Because they're cheap to produce.
JP: Why do people watch them?
WP: We watch them because that's what's on, and sometimes there's not much other
choice. I know my wife and I look over the television schedules for an evening
and say, what do we want to watch tonight? Nothing.
JP: Therefore, television has been dumbed down for the mass audience.
JP: Is that also true of newspapers?
WP: To some extent.
JP: I notice you quoted Robert McNeil of the MacNeil/Lehrer Report, and one of the
things he was saying about the process was that the network news departments
have abandoned serious documentaries all together and that what you have now
is almost pseudo news. How can newspapers fill in that gap? I can remember, for
example, a couple of years ago, Dan Rather was talking about genome research
or something and he said, we can't explain this on television. So, it falls to
newspapers to give the in-depth details or analysis of these issues. How can you
get people to read newspapers? Here's a further example. I took a poll in one of
my classes at the University of Florida this summer. Out of seventy people, one
student said he read a daily newspaper. How do we get people educated?
WP: The short answer to that is I don't know. I think we just keep plugging away, and
if we don't find a way to do it, then newspapers will suffer and the country will
JP: Let me ask a few questions about something you mentioned earlier. I know the
issues of the environment have always been very important to you. In one of your
articles, you wrote, which I thought was rather perceptive, that everybody talks
about sustainable growth, but nobody is quite sure exactly what that means. How
did you present your views in your paper about what one might call slow practical
growth? In one case, I think developers wanted to build a series of high rises in
Sarasota Bay, just sort of fill in the bay. That was Arvida, wasn't it? Was that the
WP: Yeah, Arthur Vining Davis.
JP: So, what kind of impact do you think your editorials and the writing of the
newspaper has had on, at least in this community, keeping negative growth
WP: I think it has had a very positive impact, and I think that we were able to stop
several very harmful developments, including one by Arvida which would have
put condominiums on the whole south end of Lido Key, which is now a public
park. We just kept plugging away on this. I always tried to sell the concept that
growth is good up to a point, but after a certain point in your life, as well as in the
life of your community, you don't want to grow anymore. You're capable of
functioning as an adult doing everything that you want to do, and any more size
that you add will actually detract from your ability to perform. I think we may have
sold that concept. I think we may also have sold the idea that growth in Sarasota
County is going to stop. When, I don't know, but I can tell you what the maximum
population will be. I figured it out to be 1.6 billion. The population of Sarasota
County would give you twelve square feet for every person to lie down in the sun,
and you couldn't have any double decking because everybody wants to get the
sunshine. At 1.6 billion, the growth is going to stop. Now, actually it will stop well
before then, and we don't know where, but once you accept the concept that
growth will stop, then you can start asking the question, how much growth should
we have? Then you start asking a whole different set of questions, and then
you've come to the concept of sustainability. How much growth can we sustain
over the long haul based on the resources available? The truth is we don't know,
and people have thought about this and they still don't know. We will never get a
satisfactory answer to that question, but as long as you keep asking the question,
you get people in a mind-set where they are not afraid to say, no, you can't do
that because that is something we can't sustain over the long haul. We can't
follow this precedent.
JP: In very specific cases, if we look at Southwest Florida, already there are issues of
water, pollution, and traffic. Once that starts impacting the life of an average
citizen of this community, they are going to start complaining.
WP: Yes, and [they] have.
JP: But the power of the developers is that they will say, look, we want to expand,
that's jobs, more people come, more businesses, it helps the economy, more
taxes, better schools, that growth is not only essential but beneficial. How do you
counteract those kinds of statements?
WP: In the first place, you go back and examine the tax history in the county, which I
don't think anybody has done recently but I did several times and printed the
results. The truth of the matter is that as the community grows, the per capital tax
rises. Growth doesn't lower your taxes; it actually raises them. I think in most any
situation, you can check the tax records and that is what happens.
JP: I noticed that the 1000 Friends of Florida gave you an award, and I also know
that there is a Waldo Proffitt Award for the best article written about the
environment. I'm sure you feel very good about that kind of recognition of your
WP: Hm-mm [yes].
JP: What is the future of Sarasota? Is it going to end up like Ft. Lauderdale?
WP: Well, it could. I hope that it will be enlightened enough to avoid that fate. The
Sarasota County government and citizens have been devoting a great deal of
time and thought to that question. What do we want to be when we grow up, in
effect? A lot of people have been thinking about it, and I think just the process
will help to keep us from making some of the worst mistakes we could make.
JP: One of the comments about you when you retired, even from people who might
have disagreed with some of your editorials and some of your positions, was that
"he was incisive, fair, and balanced and wrote with integrity and was an
independent thinker." I would say that would be about as good of things as you
can say about an editorial writer.
WP: Oh, yeah, I'd be pleased if that was all true.
JP: But there is a difficult circumstance when you are trying to write about such a
crucial issue for Sarasota because part of the economic success is tourism. If
you come in here and destroy what makes this a beautiful community, you
ultimately undermine the economic base, do you not? It's sort of like despoiling
the Florida Keys, and then after a while, nobody wants to go to the Florida Keys.
WP: That's right, absolutely, and that's the message that we have tried to deliver, that
a healthy economy depends upon a healthy environment. They go together. If
you have one, you have the other. If you don't have one, you don't have the other
one, either. The enlightened businessman or the enlightened developer, in their
own self-interest, will choose to do business and to develop in a way which will
not endanger the future of the community.
JP: The problem is, as I see it, that neither the federal government nor the state has
a sound pragmatic energy policy, number one, and a very efficient or effective
growth management policy. Would that be fair?
WP: That's an understatement. Our national energy policy is a disaster, and,
effectively, there is no state growth policy. The Bush administration has
JP: You're talking about things like Preservation 2000, where they would purchase
land and wet lands, mitigation, and that sort of thing?
JP: If you had an effective state policy, how much difference would that really make
on the local level? Don't many of these decisions have to be made on the local
WP: Yeah, and should be. But your pollution standards can and should be set and
enforced at the state level, and that will make a big difference on what happens
at the local level. If, for example, you say, thou shalt not pollute rivers or thou
shalt not pollute underground aquifers, that makes a difference. Regulations can
make a big difference in what you can do locally.
JP: It at least gives the local officials a standard where they can at least decide to
adhere to that standard. In the long run, that strengthens all of the people's
attitudes, as it were, because this is the state law and we have to adhere to that,
even though something might provide more jobs. I think at one point, some oil
company was going to try to build a refinery around here, and the newspaper
came out against that, right?
WP: Yeah. Belcher Oil Company wanted to build an offshore unloading dock for
supertankers some fourteen or fifteen miles off of the coast, which would have
been a disaster, and we contributed heavily to the defeat of that. There are three
or four people or organizations who can claim that they defeated that because
the margin of victory was something like 498 votes. Either one of these groups,
including the newspaper ....
JP: The Sierra Club and organizations like that?
WP: Yeah, and ManaSota-88, which was the leading environmental organization of
the two counties. Any of us could have swung that many votes, so it took all
collective efforts, but that was defeated.
JP: Let me ask you a few generic questions that you were kind enough to prompt me
with. Why did you suppress a prize-winning photo in Charlotte and therefore
learn a lesson that would help ease school integration in Sarasota?
WP: Okay. Good question. I was city editor in Charlotte at the time that President
Eisenhower called out the National Guard to assure peaceful integration of
Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, which was probably 1957. I was
really happy to see him do that because that helped to take a little of the heat off
of Charlotte, which, as you know, is close to South Carolina, which, as you know,
was a hot bed of the KKK and White Citizens' Councils. Charlotte had a White
Citizens' Council operating under another name, and Charlotte was under order
to integrate some schools that year. They were starting with the early grades,
and we had a really tense situation. The fact that Eisenhower was willing to send
out troops to integrate schools, or to assure that local governments would
integrate schools, affected what happened in Charlotte.
On the first day of school, we did indeed have black kids going to a certain
number of first grades, and we had photographers. This was one of those few
events that happened, fortunately in the news cycle, for the afternoon paper, so
we had reporters and photographers out at all the key spots. One of our
photographers came back with an absolutely world-class picture of a little black
girl dressed up in her Sunday finery walking down towards the school with great
gobs of spit drooling down her face. He brought me this picture, and I took it in to
Brodie Griffith, who was the executive editor, and I said, Brodie, look at this. This
is a prize-winning picture. Yeah, he says, it might be, but not in the Charlotte
News. I said, Brodie, how can you say that? He said, very simple. If we publish
that picture, there will be blood in the streets. We didn't publish it, and the next
year it won first prize in a world contest in Amsterdam. That taught me a lesson.
So, when I came to Sarasota, which probably was in 1962 or 1963, the Sarasota
School Board voted to send a few black kids to previously all white schools. They
were not under court order. We just had a right-thinking majority on the school
board, and they wanted to get started, and they did. I didn't send very many
reporters out on this and even fewer photographers. I told them to get some good
constructive shots, and we did. We covered it very thoroughly, and we had a few
pictures that would have been inflammatory, nothing in the same category as the
other one, but we just published the positive stuff. I edited them out, and things
went off very smoothly. Now, I must say that in a sense this integration was not
successful because it didn't go on and progress.
JP: You're talking about Sarasota?
WP: Sarasota, yeah. It did not go on up with more black kids going to white schools
each year because there was no real pressure from the community. The black
community did not instigate this. This was not something that they had started,
so they didn't feel any stake in it. Some years later, new and more active black
leadership came forward, and they pressed for really substantial integration, and
it happened, which is another lesson in this or any other situation where a group
is involved in advancing its right, its economic position or what have you. The
impetus has got to come from them. They have got to have a stake in it.
JP: This was pretty late in coming, wasn't it?
WP: No, this was pretty early.
JP: Was it? What years was this?
WP: This was 1962 or 1963 in Sarasota.
JP: Charlotte was really a little bit ahead of the curve, weren't they?
WP: Yes, it was, as was Little Rock.
JP: Is there anything that we have not talked about or questions that I have not
asked you that you would like to comment on?
WP: Gee, I don't think so. You have been very thorough. I'm really surprised that you
have allowed me to wander so far afield.
JP: It was great, and on that note, I want to thank you for your time.
WP: You are very welcome. Thank you for coming down.
[End of the interview.]