Newspapers play a major role in the life of a small community. Unlike the major papers of the past that were the primary source of news for the nation, a weekly newspaper feels the pulse of a community. It tells a story that if never shared is lost forever.
I first met Waldo “Bo” McLeod when I moved to Donalsonville as a 21-year-old to manage Beall Peanut Company. I placed a few ads in the paper that was located only a block from the peanut mill. Bo, who was already a legend in the world of Georgia newspapers, and I became friends. We attended the same church and came to love the same community.
Bo supported me when I became County Commission Chair, probably because I wrote the articles for him following the meetings. When I became a State Representative, I made sure the Donalsonville News got information as quickly as anyone else. I continued to write articles for the paper, not only about state politics but other items of mutual interest.
Eventually, we built up a trust that takes time to solidify. I would never steer him wrong, and he would always treat me right. We had many discussions about the community we both now called home. We did not always agree, but we never questioned the motives or honesty of the other.
Time moves on, as it does for all of us. There came a time when Bo wanted me to buy his paper, his life’s work. By then I had taken over his column occasionally when he had health issues. We came to an agreement that was hard for us both.
I bought the Donalsonville News to save it. Technology had passed the paper by, and it was losing money at an increasing pace. I could not imagine Donalsonville, which had already lost its local radio station, without any source of local news. Who would tell our story? Not the television stations found in Albany, Dothan or Tallahassee. Not the regional papers that were struggling with their own local issues.
After we met at the attorney’s office on December 31, 2010 to consummate the sale, Bo informed me that he would be at work the following week. “I will see you on Monday, Boss”, he said. No one was more surprised than I.
Over time, Bo realized that it was time to let his beloved paper go. By then, I had made one of the best business decisions of my life. I hired David Maxwell to be the Managing Editor.
I had the resources to back the paper and let it find its way to a more modern world. David had the vision to make the paper relevant and compelling. Pictures became larger and color found its way to multiple pages. The coverage changed and readership increased.
We moved the paper from its longtime office across from the courthouse to a new facility on Cherry Street. Apple computers replaced typewriters and certain functions were outsourced to make the paper more efficient. We found ways to cut costs and put out a better product at the same time.
From the very beginning, David and I agreed that the paper would be a positive force for the community. The paper would try to focus on the good things happening in the community, but not neglect the news that might be unpleasant.
Slowly the paper began to gain additional respect and win some awards. The Georgia Press Association eventually gave over 170 awards to the Donalsonville News during our tenure. I was personally proud to receive three Otis Brumby Awards which are given each year for the best serious column for weekly newspapers our size.
However, the thing I am most proud of was when the Donalsonville News was awarded the Community Service Award by the Georgia Press Association multiple times as the newspaper that had the most impact on its community, regardless of size.
To be clear, I was always the man behind the scene. The growth of our local newspaper during the most challenging times in newspaper history is the result of the hard work of two people.
Rhonda Worrell has been the office manager, chief proofreader, lead sales person and everything else you can imagine. Rhonda began working for Bo shortly before she got married. She celebrated her 50th anniversary just a couple of weeks ago. The Donalsonville News would not exist today without Rhonda’s hard work and unwavering support. Thank you, Rhonda, for all you have done to make this paper a success.
David Maxwell is one of the best hiring decisions I ever made in any of my businesses. He brought new life to the paper and in doing so became part of the community that calls Seminole County home. A good fit is when something works for everyone. David and I were a good fit. I enabled him to take the ball and run with it and run he did.
Thirteen years after Bo telling me it was time for him to leave, I realize that it is my own time to depart. I am happy that the person that will replace my family as the owner of the Donalsonville News is David Maxwell. He will join a long list of publishers of this paper that has been serving this community for the past 117 years.
It is a bittersweet moment for me, as the sale of the newspaper severs my last remaining tie with the community I called home for over 40 years. I am comforted that many of the memories of my time in Donalsonville are chronicled in the past editions of the Donalsonville News.
David Maxwell has earned this opportunity to pursue his own dream of owning a newspaper. I can only hope that the community will support him as they did me. Buy advertising, renew your subscriptions, write letters to the editor and supply relevant content for the paper to publish. If you do this, the worthwhile journey I had as the owner of a small-town newspaper will continue.
Thank you, Donalsonville, and good luck, David. You earned it.
Dan Ponder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org