Burying the lede is an editor’s pet peeve, so I will practice what I preach and just spill the ink:
This is my last column as the Crestview News Bulletin’s editor. Following several months of prayer and contemplation, I am moving back to South Alabama — home.
REVISITING ‘MY TOWN’
I am grateful for the Hub City home I’ve made these past five and a half years, the people I met and worked with, and the countless stories we have shared in that time.
The Crestview, Baker and Laurel Hill areas are special because of the people in these tightly knit communities. And you — yes, you, dear reader — are why the decision to leave this newspaper was so hard to make. It’s actually something I’ve considered, off and on, for two years.
Reserved, professional exterior aside, deep down, I’m just a sentimental South Alabama boy longing for his hometown, missing friends and family.
Country music fans will recall Montgomery Gentry’s hit song, "My Town." The duo — rest in peace, Troy Gentry — sang, "Where I was born / where I was raised / where I keep all my yesterdays … this is my town."
For me, those lyrics — an anthem for all who want to settle down where they grew up — describe the Eastern Shore communities of Baldwin County, Alabama, particularly the Daphne area.
Crestview has been a great home away from home; I have no complaints. However, I am sure many of our readers can understand the "My Town" mentality. Many of you would never want to leave North Okaloosa County.
You would miss dining at the Tropical Palm, Gator Café, Laurel Hill Grill or other favorite places. You would miss rooting for the Bulldogs, Gators or the Hoboes. You would miss the schools — over the years, I’ve heard many of you proudly say you’re a "product of the Okaloosa County school system." You would miss the churches, clubs and organizations where you have made many friends. You would miss the support system when the chips are down and the fellowship when things are great.
I will miss all that Northwest Florida has to offer, but there is a time and a season for everything, and the seasons have changed.
SETTING NEW STANDARDS
Five and a half years ago, when I accepted this position, Northwest Florida represented a chance to rebuild a six-year journalism career that was halted by a 2011 layoff and was interrupted with a one-year stint selling insurance.
I’d never visited Crestview before, but recalled seeing the name on TV weather maps. The thought of moving here was exciting because I recalled childhood trips to Destin, and the city really didn’t seem so far way.
"From Spanish Fort, turn right on I-10, drive a straight shot an hour and a half, take a right, and you’re there!" I thought. That hour and a half went by fast because I sang along with CDs or the radio, a favorite pastime.
That seems like it was yesterday.
They say time flies when you are having fun, and while the CNB staff had fun on numerous occasions, we often covered serious topics. So, with respect to all the topics we have covered, I would prefer to say time flies when you are staying busy.
Nevertheless, our staff made the most of that time, and I am very proud of their achievements.
The Crestview News Bulletin received the Military Order of the Purple Heart Newspaper designation; numerous Florida Press Association awards; numerous Best of GateHouse awards, national recognition from our parent company, for news writing, opinion and social media excellence; and the News Bulletin made Inner Circle, the company’s production benchmark, all quarters for which it was eligible.
The CNB set new standards for reporting and local commentary; it reached a record web audience; and our Facebook page became the area’s digital water cooler. Whenever breaking news happens or a North Okaloosa business opens — especially a restaurant — you know where to find the most engaging social media activity — it’s on the News Bulletin’s Facebook page.
In March of 2016, following all the strides the CNB made, I was blessed to receive the opportunity to manage a second office, the Santa Rosa Press Gazette in Milton. The Press Gazette also found success, with a 1,000 percent online readership increase within a year and some Florida Press Association awards.
We have achieved so much, and met all our goals. That is why I knew it was time to let the news career take a backseat. You see, leaving Northwest Florida, for me, also means leaving journalism.
I will be happy to have what some might call a more traditional schedule — and to leave 1:30 and 3 a.m. prepress deadline days behind — but will miss the chance to share North Okaloosa County’s never-ending story.
And I will miss each of you.
A SIMPLE SUGGESTION
Before I wrap this thing up, I’d like to thank everyone who supported me along the way: Diane Winnemuller, our regional publisher; Jim Fletcher, the News Bulletin and Press Gazette publisher; Bob Heist, the Northwest Florida Daily News executive editor; Wendy Victora, the Daily News managing editor, and all the Daily News, Destin Log and Walton Sun staffers. Though we all worked in different offices, we were truly a work family.
Of course, I am very grateful for our CNB and SRPG staffs, past and present — particularly CNB editorial assistant Renee Bell, who everyone says is the glue that holds our office together; Sherrie Stanley and Diana Baker in advertising; office manager Carol Barnes; and front desk associates Barbara Dale and Holly Maneval.
And I appreciate SRPG reporters Alicia Adams and Aaron Little; Debbie Coon and Tracie Smelstoys in SRPG advertising; and front desk associates Jean Schuler and Ashley Abraham.
I also appreciate having worked with those who have moved onto other things, particularly former CNB publisher Skip Foster, former CNB sports editor Randy Dickson, former reporters Brian Hughes and Matt Brown and, of course, I must thank the man who hired me, former Daily News publisher Tom Conner! Thanks to all CNB and SRPG contributors, past and present.
Thank yous aside, here are some parting words.
Traffic and development have remained top concerns in this area. However, sometimes, the related frustration can cause us to lose sight of what we do have.
When I think of North Okaloosa, I recall all the residents who excitedly offered a "big Crestview welcome" for each new reporter we hired; people stopping traffic for town fixture Ms. Sara to cross the road; and #PrayForDrew signs everywhere when a child was critically injured.
Forget the traffic for a second; as long as there is kindness and togetherness, this community will remain strong.
But I’ve read every comment our sites have received these past five and a half years, and some of them raise concerns.
At the end, I’ve learned, the little things matter. So rather than dwell on the big issues that will take decades to complete, might I suggest something — join the Crestview Area Chamber of Commerce. Or the Crestview Area Shelter for the Homeless. Attend city council and Okaloosa County Commission meetings to stay informed and "hear it from the horse’s mouth," so to speak. Visit the Baker Block Museum or the Carver-Hill Museum; enrich your mind with books from the Crestview Public Library or one of our area's Little Free Library sites. Visit the Okaloosa County Veterans Memorial and reflect on the sacrifices so many men and women have made to secure your freedom. Paint a rock with an inspirational message and hide it somewhere around town. Better yet, do it privately.
Please don't brand your neighbors with D's and R's for life. Whether they are Democrats or Republicans (or atheists, Christians, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or of other faiths), the most important thing is to coexist, find common ground and work together to achieve things we can all agree about.
That said, I have felt incredibly privileged and honored for sharing your stories these past five and a half years.
This job has been an answered prayer and a daily blessing.
And with that, I bid you farewell.
Thomas Boni was the Crestview News Bulletin and Santa Rosa Press Gazette's editor. He thanks everyone for reading and sharing their stories these past five and a half years.
Please keep reading and support local news — and be kind to each other.