by Shelton Hull
By any appreciable standard, 2020 was, among other things, the worst year ever in the long, complex, storied history of print media in this country. Dozens of daily and weekly papers were closed, crippled or curtailed, from coast to coast, and Florida was no exception. Indeed, our community was hit harder than many with the shuttering of two long-standing pillars of print: Folio Weekly closed after publisher Sam Taylor retired, while EU finally ceased publication a couple years after the death of Will Henley, its publisher.
In July 2020, Folio Weekly returned to the stands—as a monthly publication. And at the end of 2020, Folio’s new parent company Boldland Press also acquired the rights to EU, which will be given a new life as a section of Folio. Of the dozens of print publications to die in recent years, alternative media sources like Folio and EU are among the very few to be reborn.
It’s hard to arrive at any strict definition of “alternative media” relative to mainstream. The Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) exists as a sort of trade organization linking more than 130 papers around the U.S. and Canada. (There is even an AAN affiliate in Longyearbyen, Norway with a circulation of just 500 copies; not bad for a town of only 2,400 people.)
The most important role of “alt-weeklies” (also known as “alt-pubs” since some are no longer publishing weekly) has traditionally been to service parts of the larger community that struggled for representation in the mainstream press, which tends to skew conservative in regions like Jacksonville. Women, minorities and LGBTQ community, as well as musicians and artists, have all seen the bulk of their coverage come from the alternative press. In Northeast Florida, EU was a major player, thanks to Henley, who ran the paper for 17 years.
Will Henley was born September 23, 1951 in Jacksonville. From start to finish, the news business was an elemental presence in his life. His parents Grover and Gladys worked at The Florida Times-Union and the Jacksonville Journal, prior to the papers’ merging in the 1980s. He worked as a photographer, and she was an archivist.
Shirley Easters Wright worked alongside Grover for 30 years. “He was a true professional and was admired and respected by everyone,” she said. “When the Times-Union was on Adams Street, paychecks were distributed from a window in the hallway, and many times Grover would have a chair there and tell me about his day. Never do I remember a negative statement.”
Grover died when Will was still in high school. The paper offered to send him to South Dakota for photography school, but he didn’t want to go too far from his mom. He attended Florida Junior College (now FSCJ) briefly, then studied philosophy at East Carolina University before taking a job in advertising with May Cohens. He and his now-widow Shelley met in the late 1970s, married in 1981 and were joined soon after by daughters Rachel and Morgan, who would both start working at the paper as young adults.
EU’s predecessor The First Coast Entertainer, led by the late Tony Trotti, was well established in the local arts and entertainment scene by the time Will joined in 1991.
“One of the things that Trotti did, and a lot of the other publications did a shitty job of, was they interviewed and they reviewed every single Jacksonville band,” said Stephen Dare, a local writer.
“They have probably the most exhaustive record of the musicians, bands and permutations of musical groups in the history of Jacksonville, I think, from the ’70s forward.”
When Trotti died of cancer in 2002, the Henleys rebooted the paper as Entertaining U.
“Being an entertainment paper, we would often be getting information, literally the night before we went to print,” Shelley said. “So we were always on a tight schedule; all of our production would happen three days before distribution.”
The paper remained a weekly until 2008 at which point they adopted a monthly format, built up a stronger digital presence and changed the name, again, to EU (not to be confused with the rap group of the same name). Circulation figures fluctuated depending on the particular issue but peaked around 40,000.
As the Internet grew in popularity, EU quickly adapted. Eventually, Shelley said, more people were reading the publication online than the physical paper itself. Will steered that ship through what had been, up to that point, the darkest days yet for print media. “[Will’s] main asset was his knowledge of Jacksonville and its audiences,” Shelley said.
“Jacksonville is notorious for being a walk-up city, where people buy their tickets at the last minute. He knew all the venues, inside and out,” Rachel added. “He never really wanted to be the center of attention.”
Will worked in other fields with an emphasis on entertainment, including movies and theater. In 1991, he helped create an indie wrestling organization, IWF (International Wrestling Federation) founded with Eddie Mansfield and operated out of Universal Studios in Orlando. He was also a minister. “He was always into new ideas,” said Rachel, “and I think that’s what really helped him grasp what we did at the paper and what kept our advertisers so loyal. He had the ability to make [EU] a very special thing.”
The end came quickly. “It was very sudden when [he] got sick,” Rachel said. The family thought it was just a bad cold and had no idea he was terminally ill. (To that, Will’s widow has one piece of advice: “If you smoke, and you have a cough, you should look into that.”)
He died in the saddle at Memorial Hospital on November 23, 2018, working on his deathbed and on the weekend, no less. He even sold three ads from the hospital the day before he died at the age of 67.
A lot of folks in such a situation would’ve shut down immediately, not wanting to deal with the stress and the sadness that comes from the memories surrounding them on all sides. But nope, not the Henleys.
There was never any question of the paper continuing, and it actually helped with the grieving process. Will’s responsibilities were divided up between Shelley, Rachel and her husband Nate. Though the final issue Will worked on came out a few weeks late, it still hit the stands, of course. “It wasn’t the same without Will,” Shelley said, with sales being the hardest part, but they held on ferociously, until the choice was really no longer theirs. “Every year, it [got] tougher and tougher,” said Shelley. Will’s loss was like a punch to the gut, but COVID-19 was the knockout blow.
“We did the good news,” said Shelley. “We didn’t mess with the wrecks or the crime or the politics. We always tried to keep things positive.” That spirit helped make EU an essential part of the city’s life and the Henley family beloved members of our community.
These days, Rachel has taken leave of the newspaper business and works in graphic design in the city’s Special Events department, a career not far removed from the family trade. The department has been a real workhorse for local culture in this era, and they benefit from her presence. “One of the things that helps me with this work is that newspapers are such a multi-layered product,” said Rachel, who was also involved in the planning of GastroFest, a highly influential food event created to promote and elevate Northeast Florida’s food scene. “Being able to pull at multiple straws and put things together on the fly has proven to be a very useful skill.”
EU, much like the story of Folio itself, was all but history by last summer, but the intervention of John Phillips and his partners at Boldland Press has allowed for a new chapter to be written. When Phillips approached the Henleys about acquiring EU, they were instantly taken by his own family values and his obvious talent for promoting the community. “We wouldn’t have done this with anyone else,” Rachel said.
What this means is all of the work put in by Tony Trotti, Will Henley and their friends and families will continue—and give new generations access to the invaluable material they created.