July 8, 2007

Write hard, play hard

an interview with...

Key West Citizen

For more than a century, The Citizen has been the only daily newspaper in the Florida Keys (first issue: April 29, 1905). So who would blame Tom Tuell if he rolled into work after a morning of snorkeling, did a little light editing after lunch, then drank away the evening on Duval Street?

Tuell would. Whenever he posts job openings, he boasts, “The Keys are a paradise to those who love the outdoors.” Yet he never fails to add, “The Citizen is a small newspaper (10,000 circulation), but we take pride in our aggressive coverage and commitment to readers.”

Translation: Beach bums need not apply.

How is journalism in the Keys different than, say, Miami or West Palm?

The reality of working at The Key West Citizen (or our community weeklies) is this: It’s one of the best places in the country to practice journalism.

It's an environmental reporter's dream. We're at the tail end of the Everglades ecosystem, we’re home to a host of endangered and threatened species, and we have the only living coral reef tract in the continental U.S. At sea level, global warming literally hits home with readers.

All other beats also are entwined with the environment. Growth regulations are among the strictest in the state because, in many respects, we've reached or exceeded the islands' environmental carrying capacity. Strict development regulations mean property rights issues are constantly in play. Nearshore water pollution, which adversely affects fishing and diving industries, led to a mandate for advanced wastewater treatment by 2010. Soaring land values create much political pressure to find loopholes in development regulations.

Then you throw in about four million tourists per year, and you have a balancing act of economy, environment and quality of life. We are a Petri dish of interrelated issues.

The biggest mistake your job applicants make?

The biggest may be unavoidable: The "living in the Keys" concept embedded in their imaginations usually does not match reality.

Sure, the fishing, diving, kayaking and sailing are great, but the newsroom is still fast-paced and often stressful. (My sailboat hasn't left the dock in years.) The added economic stressors – including the reality that owning a home here is an impossible dream for most – wears heavily after a while.

At the other end of the spectrum is the seasoned (and often overqualified) applicant who sees a job at a small Keys daily as semiretirement. I like to hire mature employees, and I don't mind if they plan on retiring in a couple of years, but I expect the same passion for the job from them as I do anyone else on staff.

What’s your job turnover like?

The most frequent opening is for page designers. There hasn't been an opening for a photographer in a decade. Reporter openings average about two per year for news, and about the same for sports.

The Citizen newsroom has seen relatively low turnover compared to other Keys businesses. I attribute this to two factors: Decent wages for a small daily – entry-level reporter salaries range from $36,000 to $40,000 – and most people willing to put up with the high rents are here because they really want to live in this environment.

How does your staff cope with the high cost of Keys living?

The cost of living in the Florida Keys is a challenge for all professions, but especially for workers in the early stages of their careers who earn less than their more experienced colleagues.

Most Citizen staff members rent apartments in Key West, sacrificing space for convenience and atmosphere. Clearly, rent consumes a larger percentage of a paycheck here than elsewhere. It’s easier for two-income couples to make ends meet than it is for unattached employees who frequently must seek out roommates.

Those of us who own homes generally live outside the city, where homes are more affordable. I commute 50 miles each way from Marathon, but that’s largely because my wife works 40 miles in the opposite direction. Most of our commuters live within 15 miles. (Any commute through the Keys is far more pleasant than comparable time on South Florida interstates.)

What’s your philosophy on hiring?

I try to keep a mix of experience levels in the newsroom, though I rarely hire new grads. One exception is the assistant to the editor position. In that capacity, an employee spends a year or more doing obituaries, news briefs, calendars and such, while becoming familiar with newsroom operations and local issues.

Otherwise, experience requirements range from a year or two for the crime beat to five years or more for a government beat. We draw from our community newspapers in Tavernier and Marathon for about 20 percent or our reporter hires.