The Bad Boys of Miami Beach

To the delight of its allies and the squirming discomfort of its enemies, the weekly SunPost just won't shut up

In mid-1995 publicist Ric Katz made a phone call to the offices of the SunPost, Miami Beach's flimsy free weekly. Although Katz often handles election campaigns on the Beach, he wasn't calling on behalf of a particular candidate. He was just checking in to see, you know, how much it would cost to have an article written about one of his clients.

Throughout the late Eighties and early Nineties, the top dog at the little paper was South African emigre Felix Stark. Under him, editorial space in the SunPost was, if not for sale, clearly "for lease," Katz says. But Felix Stark had died in January of that year. His son Andrew, 23 years old and fresh out of college, was now the publisher. Katz says he personally had never paid for play for his clients, political or otherwise, when Felix was around, but he decided to check the rates with the publisher's successor.

"I got into a bit of a row with the paper, because I said to Andrew, 'What's the price?'" Katz recalls. "Look, I liked Felix and I respected him, but that space was for rent. If it isn't now, then fine. And Andrew made it very clear they were not doing that any longer."

Katz's was not the only such call Andrew Stark fielded in his first few months at the helm of the SunPost. "Some of these political consultants came to me and said, 'What we need to do is -- '" Stark relates. "I actually told a few of them to, you know, go to hell, quote-unquote. I was like, 'What do you mean we?' 'Well, you know, me and your father were such good friends, blah blah blah.' You know, I didn't want any of that."

What Stark did want was to reinvent the paper in such a way as to shed its reputation as a journalistic pushover. His solution was to promote a platform of "in-your-face journalism," which means relentless, often provocative, coverage of Miami Beach politics, both in its news articles and opinion columns. Stark emphasizes that he is "a selling publisher," one who -- with the exception of participating in the endorsement of candidates -- leaves editorial decisions to his burgeoning staff.

The SunPost's role in last year's elections, both as chronicler and participant, proved a watershed, earning the paper equal parts respect and derision. Although the publication's agenda remains murky and the caliber of reporting and writing fluctuates, even its enemies acknowledge that it is far more than the fluffy community paper of years past. The SunPost, bless its rumor-mongering, sensationalistic little hide, has become something of a player.

Jeannette Stark, sole owner of the SunPost, lapses into quiet tears at the first mention of her late husband Felix. She's perhaps unusually vulnerable today; she's just come from a friend's funeral and is clad in a severe but tasteful black-and-white ensemble. When the tears come, she accessorizes with a pair of thick tortoiseshell Gucci sunglasses and gamely continues the interview. An occasional tear trickles out from under the frames.

Her husband was not just a "good friend" but "a true journalist," Jeannette says. When the conversation turns to politics, her sorrow becomes tinged with anger, especially when she talks about "the PRs" -- meaning the public relations consultants and political handlers who relentlessly schmoozed, cajoled, and bullyragged her husband.

"People like Gerald Schwartz and Ric Katz, all the mischief was made by those people," Stark says, her South African accent clipped and genteel. "Those PRs are still around, and they constantly make mischief. Dad could walk a tightrope after years of experience, and it wasn't that important to him, but he at least got on with all the PRs. Whereas Andrew, at the beginning, fought with all of them. Right, Andrew?"

Andrew, now 27 years old, looks up from his desk across the room and shrugs. Those are battles, he says, that he's already fought and won. He doesn't dwell on them.

The SunPost office itself is barren; the operation is in the process of relocating to another floor of the 1688 Meridian Ave. building, thanks to a major renovation the place's owner is undertaking. The current suite is a low-ceilinged labyrinth of small offices; the narrow hallways are choked with cardboard boxes filled with back issues and the bright orange SunPost street racks that have become a common sight throughout Miami Beach since Andrew took over.

During the Seventies, Felix Stark published a small daily paper and more than twenty weeklies throughout South Africa. As the anti-apartheid movement grew increasingly violent, Stark decided it was time to end his journalistic pursuits there. "He had two daughters and a son that he didn't want to grow up in the situation that he felt was coming," Andrew says.

In 1979 the Stark clan -- Felix, Jeannette, daughters Kim and Anslie, and Andrew -- emigrated to Key Biscayne. Still interested in the publishing biz, Felix bought the Sun Reporter, a Miami Beach biweekly of the bake-sales-and-bar-mitzvahs stripe. In 1985 he rechristened his publication the SunPost.

The editorial format? Party pictures up the wazoo (compiled by Jeannette), feel-good community news, a bit of straightforward reportage, and during election season, political stories. Sometimes campaign handlers themselves wrote these pieces, using the pages of the SunPost to laud their candidates or bash the opponents.

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