After more than 30 years of reporting stories and keeping the community informed, the Winter Park/Maitland Observer is closing its doors.
The May 17 issue of the Observer will be its last.
“It breaks our hearts that we won’t be here to tell our readers and the residents of Winter Park and Maitland what’s happening in their communities,” said Executive Editor Michael Eng. “That’s what hurts the most.”
Matt Walsh, editor and CEO of Sarasota-based Observer Media Group Inc., owner of the Winter Park/Maitland Observer, announced May 9 to the staff the newspaper would close after the May 17 edition.
“After much and careful analysis of our operations in Orange County, and where best to invest and concentrate our resources,” Walsh told the staff, “it became clear the scales tipped in favor of focusing on our three papers in West Orange — the West Orange Times, West Orange Times & Observer and Windermere Observer, as well as OrangeObserver.com.”
Walsh added this week: “This kills us to leave. When we purchased the Winter Park/Maitland Observer two years ago, we were thrilled and excited to be part of these two great communities.
“These are the kinds of communities in which we’ve built our company,” he said. “But we just couldn’t get the revenue traction we needed to give us the confidence that we could make it work.”
Observer Media Group publishes 10 similar weekly Observers in the Sarasota-Bradenton market, West Orange County and in Flagler and Volusia counties, as well as business papers in Jacksonville and on the West Coast of Florida.
Informed of the news, Winter Park Mayor Steve Leary said what he’ll miss most of all is the staff.
“It’s the people that were involved,” he said. There have been some great people. [They] were a big part of the community. [They] were here and participated, so that’s going to be a big deal for us. We’re going to miss seeing [them],” he said. “[They] were the ones that kind of shared with the public some of the things that were happening.
“Anytime we needed something, and if we did have to ask [them] a question and get on the phone with [them], [they] were there. Having that access was really important, so we appreciate it.”
The Winter Park Observer was launched in January 1989 by Gerhard J.W. Munster, a native of Vienna, Austria. Shortly after, in 1990, Munster added Maitland to the paper’s name.
“[The Winter Park/Maitland Observer] is integral in the awareness of how Maitland, Winter Park, Eatonville work together,” said Maitland Mayor Dale McDonald. “It has raised the level of expectation, what we expect of ourselves and what becomes acceptable.
“Every time I see a new edition, [I] want to know what [was] written, what we’ve done and what has been reported,” he said. “It’s a positive influence.
“If there’s not some discomfort that comes from rational discourse,” McDonald added, “you’re not making headway.”
“It’s kind of sad,” Maitland Police Chief David Manuel said. He added that the paper brought “a little hometown atmosphere with things going on the city. This is our paper, it’s personal, and it means something. That’s what I’m going to miss about it.”
Getting information to readers that was timely and accurate was always a priority for the staff. Much of that meant working closely with first-responders to share critical news happening in the area.
Said Winter Park Police Chief Michael Deal: “We’re going to miss [it]. Our No. 1 job is developing public trust in the community. Having the Observer there to reach out to our citizens and to tell a story sometimes helps us promote ourselves. That’s critical.
“It’s disappointing we’re going to lose that aspect and that resource,” Deal said, “but life goes on.”
The Observer frequently covered stories at Rollins College — from its many academic programs to its evolving campus.
“The Winter Park/Maitland Observer has been a staple here in Winter Park," Rollins College President Grant Cornwell said. "The reporters we have worked with over the years have covered Rollins College with the highest degree of thoroughness and professionalism. As a resident, I will miss seeing the weekly copy of [the] newspaper in my mailbox.”
In early 2018, the Winter Park/Maitland Observer made it a point to focus more coverage on the arts and culture scene in Winter Park and Maitland with a dedicated section.
“The influence the paper has over helping communicate the arts and culture of our area, helping us spread the word and the balanced editorial staff overall have played a very important role,” said Debbie Komanski, CEO/executive director of the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens. “It’s just kind of heartbreaking to see that go away. I’m getting that reaction (from) everyone who has heard the news.”
“I thought it began to really diversify — show the diversity in Winter Park,” Hannibal Square Heritage Center Manager Barbara Chandler said. “It was accessible, easy to find. I’ll miss seeing it and seeing the local news.”
“I thought it was a quality paper for its size and its manpower,” Chandler said. “The thing about outlets like these is they get to report the story firsthand from people who were really connected to the community. I felt like [the staff] was really connected to the community, and people trusted it as a great, reliable source."
Added Chandler: “That’s what we’re going to now miss — the reliability and the trustworthiness.”