The SunPost Is Setting

Once a power on the local scene, the scrappy weekly has seen its fortunes plummet.

Phones were disconnected last week. The lone staff writer has applied for unemployment. The executive editor's name — and that of almost every employee — has vanished from the masthead.

The SunPost, one of this town's only truly independent voices, is in deep trouble. "It's sad," says Andrew Stark, the young genius who published the weekly from 1995 until he departed in 2007. "We always liked to think of the paper as the New York Times even if it wasn't quite that. We wanted it to be a voice for the community."

Jeannette Stark, Andrew's mom and the current publisher, insists it's just a temporary setback. "We're still running the paper. Talk of our disappearing is a bit premature. A couple of in-house problems have been ironed out."

Issues of last week's 24-page edition were a rare find. A new batch was never delivered to several distribution boxes along Biscayne Boulevard, and some locations near the SunPost office on Miami Beach's Meridian Avenue never received their regular complement.

The paper, like many publications, including the Miami Herald and New Times, has noticeably slimmed down over the past year. The February 21, 2008 SunPost weighed in at a healthy 80 pages, fat with full-color ads from realtors and developers touting luxury condos in South Beach high-rises, but as the foreclosure crisis crushed that industry, page counts fell. Recent issues, with the exception of a healthy 96-page Art Basel edition, have rarely cracked 40.

"The SunPost hasn't paid me since December '08 and probably won't," says one freelancer who has worked there for years and whose name was on the masthead until last week. "They even stopped giving me rubber checks."

Adds another: "I called the cops when they wouldn't pay me."

Marketing manager Antwon Thomas acknowledged the last two full-time editorial employees, Lee Molloy and Angie Hargot, were let go in the past few days. He says the newspaper plans on paying everyone who is owed money. "There may have been some oversights in paying freelancers, but those people will be paid."

The weekly's roots date back to 1979, when Felix Stark, who had owned a chain of small papers in his native South Africa, bought the Sun Reporter, a lightweight rag full of community dribble. He rechristened the paper the SunPost in 1985, two years before another South Beach tabloid, The Wave, was bought up by a couple of guys from Phoenix and rechristened Miami New Times.

For the next ten years, the SunPost built a reputation as a business-friendly paper that sometimes got a tad too close to its sources — perhaps even accepting planted stories from political operatives and advertisers. Then, in 1995, Felix Stark died, leaving the paper to his widow Jeannette. The couple's son, Andrew, 23 and fresh out of college at the time, took the reins as publisher and set out to remake the SunPost.

Under Andrew's direction, the paper embraced a brand of muckraking, in-your-face journalism. In 1997, it earned a coveted "Laurel" from the Columbia Journalism Review for its heavy and often opinionated coverage of the "Save Miami Beach" referendum, which limited the size of construction on the waterfront.

"That campaign really launched us into the spotlight," says Michael Sasser, the paper's executive editor from 1996 to 1999. "It made us kingmakers."

One of those "kings" was former Miami Beach Mayor David Dermer, a big player in the Save Miami Beach effort. "The SunPost was the driving force in moving [Save Miami Beach] forward," he says. "They were an integral part of the city."

In 2002, the paper took a big risk by trying to spread its hard-earned Miami Beach reputation to the mainland, circulating from Aventura south along Biscayne Bay. "When I started, we were 7,000 unaudited copies, and when I left, we were ABC-audited 45,000," says Andrew Stark, referring to the Audit Bureau of Circulation, which monitors newspapers. "My theory was everywhere anyone had a distribution box, we'd have one."

Rebecca Wakefield, a former Miami New Times employee, was the SunPost's freelance political columnist from July 2005 through July 2008. Her work was read by political watchers from Miami City Hall to Tallahassee. When columnist Jim DeFede left the Miami Herald the same month she started, it created an opening for the SunPost, she says. "There was a vacuum after DeFede left, a hunger to know where the bodies were buried," she says. "People who wanted to know this kind of thing found me in the SunPost."

In recent months, local papers — and those across the country — have been socked by the bad economy. The Miami Herald is up for sale. The parent company of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel is in bankruptcy. Those papers have cut back local coverage, including that of Miami Beach, so the SunPost's disappearance would be acutely felt. "I'm sure many folks who would like to see less coverage, less light shone on corruption, are probably celebrating right now," Dermer says.

One area where some newspapers, such as the Herald and New Times, have pinned their hopes is the Internet, investing substantial money in blogs and multimedia content. But the SunPost hasn't found an effective online strategy. A rough estimate from Quantcast.com shows the clunky website attracted less than 10,000 people in January. The paper's blog hasn't been updated since September.

Kim Stark, Andrew's sister and co-publisher with Jeannette, is nevertheless optimistic. The phones, which were disconnected last week, were switched back on Tuesday. Some freelancers, including those who still work for the paper, have been promised payment this week. Though the office was empty on two New Times visits, three people were hard at work Tuesday afternoon. "My family has been publishing newspapers in Miami for over 25 years and has been through many recessions," Kim Stark wrote in an email. "We will have an issue out this Thursday."

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