How The Sun Set

The Sun Newspaper Group was launched 15 months ago and, at its peak, was circulating 235,000 copies a week. When the end came, it was as sudden and dramatic as the group's beginnings.

The Weekly/January 17, 1991

Jim McCotte [formerly leader of Great Commission International], who pulled the plug December 20 on his hobbled Sun newspapers, no longer glides into the Sun lot in his red Porsche. He still visits the shuttered main office in Ocoee, but these days - perhaps to disguise his presence, or perhaps just to protect the car from vandals - he arrives in another vehicle.

Says one former Sun manager: "He probably has reason to be paranoid."

Launched 15 months ago with titanic hopes and bigger boasts, the weekly tabloid of neighborhood news grew to 18 editions before layoffs thinned coverage and McCotter's own tactics chased away an ardent buyer - certainly once, perhaps twice. Unwilling to ante up further, he called it quits, forcing the last 96 employees - all of whom were owed at least two weeks' wages - into the street without paychecks five days before Christmas.

Immediately locks were changed and guards posted. Employees who learned of the closing at about 5 p.m. on a Thursday were more or less escorted out. Those who left earlier learned they could return Friday for their belongings. In fact, few have been allowed back inside. As of last week many still awaited overdue pay.

McCotter, a dynamic and self-assured businessman, has yet to offer an explanation. Though engaged for 14 months in a regular exercise of the First Amendment, in the end he handled the press as he did his employees - with silence.

Requests made over a three-week period by telephone, letter and in person for an interview with THE WEEKLY were ignored. Reached late last week at his Windermere home, an agitated McCotter said, "As a rule I generally don't give interviews. I never have."

He referred the caller back to his office, which directs inquiries to Orlando attorney Doug Bowdin, who relies on the last statement issued by Sun Newspaper Group: "Due to circumstances beyond our control, the Sun is having to temporarily suspend publishing. This period of temporary suspension begins immediately and will continue until further notice. Management and operation of the Sun Newspaper Group will be reorganizedduring this period."

"As the days and weeks pass, there doesn't seem to be much hope, if any, that it will revive itself," says Doug Hodson, the Sun's former director of operations.

Few ex-employees are waiting for that to happen. And Hodson, along with many others who spoke for this article, says that as long as McCotter is involved, he's not interested. For the one consensus to emerge is this: while likable and confident, McCotter showed little skill with people - and even less for running a local newspaper.

He picked a bad time to try. 1990 was the industry's second year of recession, with tumbling ad revenues prompting layoffs that stung top newsrooms around the nation for the first time in more than a decade.

The publishing experience was not McCotter's first. He has had a longtime involvement with Great Commission Church, an organization that began as part of an evangelical movement that swept college campuses in the 1970s. Through that movement, McCotter has been involved with several Christian publications, says Larry Pile, a former church member who left the movement because he felt it had become too "authoritarian."

It was as a church leader that McCotter formed a church subsidiary to purchase a Washington, D.C., radio station, says Pile. That station since has been sold to a company that also oversees radio programming for the Christian Broadcasting Network.

Radio also brought McCotter to Orlando with his purchase in late 1987 of Florida Radio Network, a statewide news supplier. Soon after, in February 1988, he set up shop in Florida under the name Profit Group Inc., and began to expand.

He moved first to boost his broadcast base in March 1988 by acquiring Tampa-based Sun Radio Network, a supplier of news and consumer programs. A partner of McCotter's, Rogers Kirven, took over the network for about two months, but the deal collapsed in June when McCotter's team backed out. The seller then filed suit, charging McCotter and Kirven with diverting assets to the Orlando network and failing to make payments on Sun Radio's debts. In a countersuit, McCotter alleged the owner misrepresented the network's finances. Both suits are pending.

About a year later, McCotter's interest turned to print media. At one point, he apparently had talks with George Bailey, owner and publisher of the weekly West Orange Times. Subsequently, McCotter went off to start a competing newspaper - one to reflect his own conservative outlook.

Bailey won't discuss it. "We decided long ago to peaceably coexist with our neighbors to the east," he says, adding: "When folks are having trouble, I don't want to engage in piling on."

Meanwhile, McCotter's evolving plan for his Sun newspapers began to attract managers with a rich knowledge of the area market.

His first hire was Hodson, a former manager of the Orange Shopper, a multi-zone giveaway publication that features advertising with almost no editorial content. (The Shopper has since been replaced by THE WEEKLY.)

Hodson helped lure Bill Clifton and Pat McGuffin to McCotter's venture. Clifton, a former manager of the Winter Haven News Chief, became advertising manager. McGuffin, a former editor and publisher of the Apopka Chief, signed on as the Sun's editor-in-chief, but in the four weeks between his first day and the Sun's debut rose above Hodson to the posts of president and publisher.

Led by that team, a skeleton crew prepared the first four Sun papers, each focused on a west Orange community: Apopka, Windermere, Pine Hills and Winter Garden. They hit the front lawns on October 4, 1989.

Expansion came quickly. Two weeks later came four more papers covering the rest of Orange County; the first three of an eventual seven papers in Seminole County followed in November.

"Some of us were kind of dragging our feet, saying, 'Hey, give us a chance and let us at least work on perfecting what we have,' " says Milt Sanderford, an early sports columnist and assistant to McGuffin. "There were some really embarrasing mistakes. You hated to see the paper come out."

But those were early efforts, soon lost in the zealous grab for readers and advertisers; soon the Sun had 18 separate editions. Distribution followed municipal, political, school and shopping patterns. With such narrowly drawn markets, the plan was to offer retailers rates below those of the more widely circulated Orlando Sentinel.

Though the Sun sold in vending boxes for 50 cents, top managers - if not McCotter - knew they were producing a free paper. Subscriptions were voluntary, and throughout its brief life the Sun blanketed lawns at no cost to readers. "I didn't care if we ever got any money out of it from a 'paid' standpoint," says McGuffin. "We could still be highly successful whether we ever got any subscribers."

Yet McCotter wanted the money. "He constantly urged and pushed and promoted us to sell subscriptions," says Hodson. In final printings of about 166,000 copies, that effort produced "probably no more than 5,000 paid."

Then, in July, the Sentinel unveiled revamped local sections in Orange, Seminole and Volusia counties that represented more reporters, new zones and lower ad rates. Steve Vaughn, the Sentinel's executive editor, portrayed the changes this week as "part of an ongoing effort," rather than a direct counter.

But it played straight into McCotter's image of the Sun as underdog David in the biblical mismatch with Goliath, a crusading image that became familiar to Sun readers.

That crusade peaked July 12 with a Sun cover story, titled "Newspaper War," that advanced the Sun as an "alternative voice," scoffed at the Sentinel's plans and wrongly reported as a conviction the outcome of an early '80s anti-trust suit that forced the Sentinel to sell five weeklies it had acquired in Osceola County. (The suit was settled out of court). No one from the Sentinel was quoted. An accompanying editorial reprised frequent blasts in the Sun accusing the daily of "extremely liberal and biased reporting."

The timing of the Sentinel effort let McCotter crow, in the Orlando Business Journal, that "we're having an impact." But that same report also set him off by quoting Fred Fedler, chairman of the UCF journalism department, who criticized the Sun's quality and content after eight months as "a bunch of fluff" - a view Fedler held to the end.

He concluded at the time, "I don't think they deserve to survive."

"They do not deserve to survive!" screamed the next Sun editorial, comparing Fedler to the "inhumane Nazi fascists of World War II," finally tagging the professor as "somebody who doesn't have the same values as the local Sun newspaper - God, family and America."

"Obviously (McCotter) was very conservative and felt that our editorials should reflect a very conservative viewpoint," says Bill Bradford, formerly the Sun's managing editor.

To Hodson, who sees McCotter's influence as "fundamentalist," the dictate went further. "There were a lot of opportunities the Sun had to cover things that could have been controversial - a bit more exciting reading, so to speak - but it took the conservative route." He cites for example "lots of coverage" of the Greater Orlando Coalition Against Pornography.

"They were very even-handed," says Calvie Hughson, executive director of the two-year-old coalition. And the Sentinel? "Less objective and a little slanted in the opposite direction, mainly in their wording that we are a 'fundamentalist' group, which basically we felt was really trying to paint us as a religious organization... when we are not." (A month after the Sun's last edition, Hughson was unaware of its demise.)

While the moral crusade at times was obvious, it was not ubiquitous. "I never got any interference," says Bradford. "Actually, we often were right down the middle."

The Sun filled its pages with items from schools, libraries and town halls. Cover stories showed McCot­ter's emphasis on potentially helpful movers-and-shakers over issues, with profiles of men such as Amway President Richard DeVos, supermarket king Jim Gooding and Winter Park hotelier Robert Langford. A Father's Day cover featured Orlando Magic general manager Pat Williams with his family; a May cover displayed faces of high school valedictorians.

Opposing sides clashed in a point-counterpoint feature that let readers participate with a phone poll (a debate on whether to let religious clubs meet on high school campuses brought the most calls; 83 percent said "yes") that "gave us credibility with both sides," said Bradford. And there was news, sometimes with impact, as when a report on a dangerous Rouse Road intersection helped speed the state's decision to install a traffic light.

That it was all packaged with church socials and school dinners didn't hurt. "Those were some of the things that the Sentinel wasn't giving readers, and that they liked us for," says Bradford.

In March, McCotter sold Florida Radio Network to the firm that had purchased his D.C. radio station. In June, he pumped up the Sun's paid subscriber base by about 3,400 by buying and absorbing the seven-month-­old Outlook weeklies in Oviedo, Winter Park and Winter Springs. That month, the Sun also formed 18 editorial advisory boards comprising educators, politicians, business leaders and housewives to have an impact on each paper. The boards would be abandoned in August with the paper's first cutbacks.

McCotter used his power of veto sparingly. But his mandates - in or out - ruled, as when he decided to devote the business page to comments by social scientist George Gilder, to run in five parts, the first of which credited U.S. technological advances in part to the nation's moral and religious underpinnings.

"It was ridiculous editorial garbage," says former regional editor Jayme Kreitman. "In my newspapers in Seminole County, I conveniently forgot to put in the first part. I got in trouble for it." She corrected her error, but the Sun's abrupt halt cut the series short.

It apparently was at a Christian breakfast that McCotter met Paul Broadhead, the Meridian, Miss., real estate developer and investor who nearly came to the Sun's rescue. Though Broadhead had no previous publishing interests, he formed a subsidiary, General Media, in August, and directed a Maryland-based broker to investigate the purchase of Sun Newspaper Group.

"People were encouraged, because they felt we were going to be owned by somebody bigger, with more money," says Joe Hoeddinghaus, then the Seminole editor. "That's not a negative on Jim McCotter. Most people just felt it was a good move. I mean, we all knew there was great potential."

Among some staff, there was also an implied urgency, for the Sun already had laid off 12 employees in production. A day after those firings, a window at McCotter's Profit Group office had been shattered. "That kind of had Jim nervous," recalled a Sun manager. "So anytime subsequently we had a cutback, he hired security guards."

In Orlando, General Media agent Dick Smith talked big. The new owners wanted to go twice a week. And the Sun, then printed out-of-town, would have its own press, maybe by Christmas. People began scouting real estate to replace the Ocoee office with one more centrally located.

"They had literally moved in and taken over," says the manager, who recalls a meeting Smith had at that point with top management. "He really laid into McCotter, saying 'I'm amazed this deal went through. This guy was so greedy.' "

McCotter, too, was preparing for the transfer. At Profit Group, where the Sun's accounting staff worked, "he literally had people pulling the computers out of the wall and putting them on the lawn," says the manager. "He'd sold these people. They weren't a part of him any more. He wanted them to get the hell out of his office." Removed to the Ocoee office, the accounting staff "never forgave him."

At the same time, ad salespeople had orders to run down as many outstanding bills as they could in the final days before the sale was to close - with up to a 25 percent discount for immediate payment.

"When Smith and General Media found out about this, they hit the roof," says the manager. In a private conversation, Smith told him: "I can't see us doing business with this guy. He's so unethical."

Though General Media was listed in September 6 editions as the new owner, the sale never went through.

Weeks passed before the fallout hit. About 30 employees were laid off - the result of a 30 percent reduction order. Keys were collected, and locks changed. McCotter himself named several of those to go, dismaying those who disagreed with his choices. "It sounds funny to say you're president of the company and didn't have any authority," says McGuffin of his role, "but that's how it worked at that point."

The highest-paid officers were out. Then-managing editor Bob Nolte was replaced by Bob Bradford, who at the time was the Orlando editor. Seminole editor Hoed­dinghaus was laid off but returned as a salesman; his duties fell to Kreitman, a copy editor who received no pay raise for the added work. The Seminole reporting staff, which had to fill seven different papers, shrank from six to four, and then to three.

McGuffin was stripped of his publisher's title, which fell to Clifton, and transferred to Profit Group to seek investors for the paper. None could be found. Sun managers who remained were handed drastic salary cuts - in Hodson's case, $10,000. In October the Clermont paper, the sole Lake County edition, was dropped. In November, the Seminole office was closed.

Hoeddighaus prayed for a sale. "When you're small and in trouble," he says, "how else can you bail out?"

Kreitman, frazzled, stayed because "I loved it. Pay is secondary to a lot of things," she says. "That's what hurts the most. You really work hard for something, and then it's taken away."

It almost wasn't. Perhaps sensing a better deal in McCotter's desperation, Smith returned. Two days before the end, word filtered to the staff that Smith was in town and "people started getting excited," says Sanderford.

On that day, editors signed off on the December 20 edition, but it never reached the press. Neither of the two printers would accept the job until they were paid for two previous weeks' work, says Hodson. "It wasn't anything that (McCotter) could come up with."

When the paper didn't appear that Thursday, the dread increased, until Clifton read the announcement to the assembled Ocoee staff at day's end. Smith, with no agreement in hand, hopped a plane out of Orlando the same day.

McCotter was obvious in his absence when the notice was read. Hodson, the director of operations, had just 15 minutes warning. Bradford, the managing editor, learned the news from a reporter who called him at home. "At that point," Hodson says, "locksmiths were on hand."

Maybe McCotter under­estimated the high cost of gathering local news. Maybe he miscalculated the risk. Maybe he pushed expansion too quickly, racing ahead of a billing system that couldn't catch up. Maybe his sale requirements overvalued the product. He won't say.

But if, as promised, a newspaper is still to emerge from the wreckage, any potential buyer would acquire only equipment. McCotter's Sun team has scattered.

Some even miss him.

"I like Jim McCotter," says one. "And that sounds crazy, 'cause I also see him as devious and unethical and a money-grabber. And yet he's a very likable guy. You go figure it out."

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