“So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here — not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.”
— Hunter S. Thompson, Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72
My husband and I arrived in Jacksonville on a decent February afternoon, pulling a U-Haul trailer into the Holiday Inn on Baymeadows. We parked next to a NASCAR rig, and soon determined it was carrying the car of star driver Ricky Rudd. Bob started talking to the rig operator, who agreed to let him see the car.
Bob, a rabid fan of all things sporty, stared at it for a few minutes before the operator said: “Wanna touch it?”
It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate metaphor for our introduction to the Jacksonville journalism world — standing in a parking lot off the desert-like Baymeadows Road, tentatively touching the smooth wax job of Ricky Rudd’s hot rod and wondering if our fingerprints would leave a telltale mark.
It was 1995, and Bob Snell and I had just moved from St. Paul, Minnesota, so he could be the new editor of Folio Weekly. Compared to the vibrancy of the Twin Cities, Jacksonville was like an outpost: hardly a cappuccino in sight, and a regional blackout of NYPD Blue, my favorite TV series, after Dennis Franz showed his bare ass in one episode. But it was warm, and closer to my Southern roots. I had worried about my ability to mentally survive another winter in the Gopher State.
At the time, the Northeast Florida journalism scene was bleak. A single daily paper churned out ho-hum profiles and vaguely interesting news developments. But juicy stories abounded: a close-knit old boys network ran City Hall, and the city was tormented by racial divides, failing public schools, and growth strategies that seemed designed to rid the region of trees.
Bob inherited a lackluster editorial team, so after a short honeymoon period, he set about assembling his own. The first woman he interviewed showed up in black Converse sneakers. Her name was vaguely familiar; the iconic journalist David Carr, whom Bob had met in Minneapolis, had told him about the journalist, stating simply, “If you come across this woman, hire her immediately.” So he did. Her name? Anne Schindler.
Next, he hired John Citrone as an arts editor. John came in wearing striped bellbottoms, his long, curly black hair in a messy ponytail, and something we later labeled his “Technicolor dream coat.” He seemed edgy and perfect.
The great photographer/photojournalist Walter Coker already worked for Folio Weekly, and was eager to start using his lens to tell stories. And the final crew member was me, a freelance writer able to insert myself into the group because I was married to the main man.
We weren’t naïve enough to think we could change the world, but we were young enough to believe we’d make a difference in this soggy corner of it. Bob encouraged us to think outside the proverbial box — to look for conflict and injustice, investigate the cause, and write it up. It wouldn’t make us popular among the city’s movers and shakers, but it seemed like worthwhile fun. We huddled every Wednesday morning at a coffee shop located one strip mall over from the Folio Weekly office, where we sipped bad joe and hashed out ideas. “Figure out who’s wearing the black hats, and who’s wearing the white hats,” Bob said. Objective journalism was a misnomer to us. There was an obligation, instead, to be fair, and to get the facts right.
Week by week, story by story, we began to leave a mark.
In the mid-1990s, Jacksonville teetered on the verge of becoming nationally recognized. The city was growing, real estate was booming and — most significantly — the city had secured a new NFL team. The Jacksonville Jaguars were about to be born.
To prepare, city leaders embarked on a clean-up project on the edges of downtown, which meant essentially clear-cutting the area known as LaVilla, a historic black neighborhood once known as a cultural hotspot for such rising stars as Ray Charles and James Weldon Johnson. Hundreds of people still lived in the area, many of them poor and black, residing in dilapidated houses owned by absentee landlords. City officials quietly began buying up the properties, evicting the residents, many of whom had lived in the area their whole lives, and relocating them to the suburbs, where they’d have little or no access to their jobs, medical doctors, or public transportation.
Walter and I walked through that neighborhood block by block, knocking on doors and getting people to tell us their stories. We pieced together a narrative about a city’s growing pains, and its willingness to push out its own residents in order to move forward. The city’s development czar called our story “the single worst piece of journalism I’ve seen in my 25 years of public service.” It won Folio Weekly a national award, and changed the way the city relocated the people who lived in LaVilla.
We poked the region’s political structure, profiled its antiquated social ladder, and investigated its environmental challenges. In the award-winning piece “Whitehouse Scandal,” Schindler outlined how the Coleman-Evans Wood Preserving Plant had been poisoning an entire neighborhood with toxic levels of dioxin and PCP for decades. Creek waters were so poisonous that merely dipping a toe in could cause burns; a dog who swam in the creek was blinded. The stories of the many people who lived in the middle of this Superfund site had never been told. Anne also wrote a piece about a Northside landfill that was slowly leaching toxins into the water supply — again, an issue decades in the making that had yet to come to light.
John Citrone had originally applied to be a news writer, but in the arts and entertainment world, he found his niche. As the city’s arts scene emerged from obscurity, John worked to keep new artists rising and cultural events relevant. In a hilarious, telling exchange between John and Fred Durst, leader of the manically popular band Limp Bizkit, Durst threatened Citrone for referring to Limp Bizkit in a Best of Jax issue as the “best example of Southern Culture on the skids.” Later, when the two met to confront the issue, Durst tearfully confessed that he wished he could really sing so he wouldn’t have to rap. “You’re all right,” he finally told Citrone. “I want you to write my autobiography.”
Within a few years, Susan Clark Armstrong had begun writing stories as well, featuring issues in Clay County. What she lacked in formal journalism experience she made up for with pure moxie, nearly single-handedly bringing down sheriffs, county commissioners and others with her investigations into corruption and improprieties.
Folio Weekly, after being known from inception as an arts and entertainment magazine, soon earned a reputation as a hard-hitting alternative newsweekly with few inhibitions. In 1998, after teenager Joshua Phillips was charged in the murder of 8-year-old Maddie Clifton, the community panicked. Parents were urged to hug their children tighter and keep them closer to home. Bob Snell wrote one of the only rational perspectives on the matter, pointing out that the crime, while tragic and awful, was an anomaly. Phillips’ parents subsequently allowed Folio Weekly to conduct the only media interview they consented to during that terrible time.
Eventually, we each drifted in different directions — Bob left to become a professional firefighter, I cut back on writing to raise our children. Anne Schindler took on the editor’s position for the next decade and conducted her own fiery brand of truth-telling, then took a position as an executive producer at First Coast News. John Citrone left to pursue both more writing and a musical career. Walter Coker still takes awe-inspiring photos and sells them in his St. Augustine shop featuring imported Indonesian items.
But before that happened — before the band broke up — we cut our media teeth on a slightly backwards version of this place, and were united in our desire to root out injustice, elevate the truth and, sometimes, just get the damn news magazine out the door. We were a team fairly obsessed with our work — even a night out drinking held potential for a story — and every story begged to be told. We worked hard, played hard, and drove each other crazy, but we got a lotta shit done. And Northeast Florida, I think, was — is — better for our efforts.