Tom Childers is a new kind of newsman. With a video camera and a website, this citizen-journalist keeps a watchful eye on Winter Park city government. He says his only agenda is ensuring openness and transparency.
Tom Childers is editor and publisher of the Winter Park Voice, a hyper-local news and opinion website that debuted in July 2012. Forgive us for not calling it a magazine — we reserve that term for something that’s actually printed on paper — but whatever it is, the Voice is attracting attention and getting Winter Parkers excited and intrigued about what goes on at City Hall.
Childers, 60, who grew up in Maitland and graduated from Winter Park High School, spent his first two decades of adulthood in Los Angeles, where he worked in TV and movie production — first at CBS, later with Roger Corman’s New World Pictures and finally as head of his own motion picture advertising distribution company.
He sold his business and moved back to Maitland in the mid-’90s to start a family. He and his wife, Susan, have a 9-year-old daughter.
Before founding the Voice, Childers worked locally in the computer industry and then as a producer for a small event-planning company that specialized in staging panel discussions with well-known journalists and politicians.
The Voice, which can be accessed at winterparkvoice.com, is a well-designed compilation of extraordinarily detailed but highly readable news stories, nearly always related to Winter Park city government and encompassing issues ranging from tree ordinances to zoning changes.
The stories are illustrated — and often enlivened — by video of public meetings during which commissioners, city staffers and citizens are commenting, questioning and sometimes arguing. Voluble developer Dan Bellows, whose current mixed-use project, Ravaudage, is taking shape on U.S. Highway 17-92, nearly always provides lively moments.
While local governments have broadcast their meetings for years on public-access cable channels, the Voice is more than an unwatchable archive of inexplicable municipal minutiae. Childers has created sort of a one-man, laser-focused CNN, providing analysis and background and inviting commentary from anyone who has a bone to pick and access to a keyboard.
A self-described news junkie, Childers spoke with Winter Park Magazine about his burgeoning publication, the motivations behind it and the joys of videotaping marathon city commission meetings.
Q. What motivated you to start the Winter Park Voice?
A. An old friend of mine, [philanthropist and entrepreneur] Steve Goldman, had been interacting with Winter Park city government for quite some time, generally having to do with residential development in his neighborhood. He had been thinking about how the city works, and it occurred to him that another way to get the news — a news outlet constituted in a little different way — would really benefit the city.
Steve began to talk to me about whether some kind of Internet-only news operation might be viable. He and I had known each other since we were at Maitland Junior High, and he was quite aware I had been an avid consumer of news since the time I was 12. I still remember sitting down with my father and watching Walter Cronkite; it was easy for someone my age to get interested in the news, because the news was so compelling in the 1960s.
Anyway, when Steve began to talk about his idea, my ears perked up. Ultimately we decided I might be the right person to build out this concept. I had some basic web-design experience, and it seemed like the best, most economical, most far-reaching approach was a simple web news magazine.
We decided that what was missing in the city was an in-depth focus on policies and issues. I always knew it would be a fairly narrow focus for people interested in that kind of information. And that’s our mission to this day.
Q. How does your background in TV, movies and event planning relate to what you’re doing now?
A. I’ve been around media professionally for many years. In college I started out as a political science major, but I came to realize my other love, movies, was something that was more compelling for me as a career. I made the decision in the mid-’70s to strap a surfboard on my old Dodge Coronet and head out to Los Angeles with a few hundred dollars in my pocket.
Q. You spend a lot of time videotaping Winter Park Commission meetings. Why is that so important to you?
A. The commission meetings are where an awful lot of important city business gets done, and there’s one very basic reason why videotaping commission meetings is helpful to me personally as a writer: Even though the city audio tapes and audio streams its meetings, I’ve listened to the audio streams, and sometimes it’s difficult to know who’s saying what. When you have it on videotape, there’s no question. Plus, it adds the additional element of, “maybe they were saying it with a smile on their face.”
We all know there’s a lot more information in an image than there is in simple audio. So we videotape commission meetings not only to help me report accurately, but to help Winter Park residents view their government in action.
Q. Are readers of the Voice actually watching these full videotaped meetings?
A. In the first place, this is not just raw video that we load onto the site. It’s edited video.
Q. Doesn’t that open you up to the charge you’re leaving important information out?
A. Sure it does. Veteran reporters, who I occasionally talk to, have from time to time taken me to task for posting very long videos on the site, because traditional practice, as everyone who watches these things knows, is to take a one- or two-hour proceeding and cut it down to two or three minutes of excerpts.
I very consciously do not do that, because I’m sensitive to the concerns of the people who are being covered about being taken out of context. For that reason, we sort of break the unwritten rule of journalism, which is that you need to be absolutely concise because the attention span of the audience simply won’t sustain a long piece.
Q. While there may be some fascinating discussions, a lot of what you record must be pretty dull. Do you have a lot of trouble staying awake?
A. One easy way is that I’m standing virtually all the time. Meetings can take anywhere from an hour, which is unusually short, to three or four hours. I have a little stool that I rarely get to sit down on, because rather than take a video camera and push the on button — as anyone who has seen one of the videos knows — I’m panning and zooming.
Q. It’s been nearly a year since the Winter Park Voice debuted. Have you noticed any difference in how friends and acquaintances treat you?
A. Not really, no. We’re a fairly low-key operation. People come up with news tips, and I find that gratifying. What we want to do at the Winter Park Voice is to report the facts, and I do my best to keep my reporting opinion-free.
As with most news operations, there’s part of our site available for opinion: not my opinion, but community opinion. We encourage columnists and letter writers to state their points of view about the news that we report. We want the community to interact on our site and put forward opinions and ideas.
Q. How have you been treated by elected officials and city staffers?
A. Just fine. I have a good, respectful relationship with the city. I do my best to always be straightforward and honest in my dealings with them, and they’ve treated me the same way. It’s true with any governmental entity that at times they want to hold information closely, and might prefer that certain things not be trumpeted in the press. But I have to say that when I ask questions, I get good cooperation.
Q. What do you think are the biggest issues facing Winter Park?
A. I think development is an important issue. What do the people who live in the city of Winter Park want it to look like 20 or 30 years from now? The decisions that are made now will make a difference in how our city grows, and I think it’s important to bring transparency to that process.
Once again, I’m not pushing a point of view in that process, but I’m trying to bring that process to our viewers so they can make up their own minds about how decisions are being made.
Q. You must track how many people are reading the Voice.
A. There are analytics.
Q. Care to share those analytics?
Q. Can you give us some idea?
A. Sure. I would say our readership has grown by leaps and bounds. We obviously started small, less than a year ago, and it’s gone from hundreds in the initial days to thousands now. The population of Winter Park is just under 30,000, and the citizens who are typically highly engaged in city governmental life, voters in essence, typically number somewhere close to 6,000.
Q. In that case, it sounds like most of those highly engaged residents are checking your site.
A. Many are. And as with any publication, it varies month-to-month depending on the stories. One story that our readers found very interesting was about the candidacy of Ross Johnston [who filed to run for a city commission seat and then dropped out].
If you’re a store owner, you put things on the shelf and after a while you get a pretty good idea of what your customers are interested in. It’s the same in the news business. With the analytics available, you get an idea of what people want to read.
Q. In the news business that often means more stories on the sensational rather than the important. How do you balance the two?
A. I think any writer wants to have readers, but our focus is very narrow. We typically don’t cover parades; we generally don’t cover stories that are primarily about places other than Winter Park. Our prime beat is City Hall. As it states at the top of every page, we’re a policies and issues magazine. I think we’ve been pretty true to that focus, and that’s our niche.
Q. How are you going to build on what you’ve already achieved?
A. We’re frankly looking for voices throughout the community, who have different points of view. I’m very, very interested in getting different points of view. We have a real high quality of input from those who do write letters and columns for the Voice.
If you look at the comment sections attached to our articles, participation is growing. It’s not at all unusual to find three or four times the number of letters on a particular issue than you’ll find in any other media outlet in the city.
I think for the people who want to be informed about what the range of opinion is in Winter Park, we’re hoping to be a place you can go and see that — not in our own reporting, but in our letters, in our reader-comment section and in our columns.
Frankly, if you look at the quality of the letters attached to our articles, I’ve had any number of people comment that they are quite compelling and that the letter writers themselves seem unusually literate. We have a high quality of input. I’m very happy about that, and I do everything I can to encourage that.
Q. How do you keep the commentary civil?
A. Someone I know chuckled when he read a little statement that we include at the top of every comment page, which includes the word “foolishness.” We really don’t have much tolerance for foolishness.
Now, that doesn’t mean we censor with a heavy hand. In fact, I think it’s something that can be said for the city of Winter Park and the people who are interested in the kinds of policies and issues we cover. I read every single letter. And out of the many, many letters we’ve received over all these months, I think there aren’t more than a handful that I haven’t published.
People have been very insightful as well as respectful of what it is we’re trying to do and the quality of the discourse we’re trying to promote. So it hasn’t been a big policing job for us. People have managed to follow the guidelines, not attacking others but trying to stay on the issues and presenting a well-reasoned argument.
We’re interested not just in reason but in passion, and I think we have a good mix of that.
Q. How is the site staying afloat financially?
A. Our business model, as you can see if you read our magazine, isn’t advertiser-based. Even though we’re not a nonprofit, you could say our model is more PBS-oriented. We’re funded by contributions from the community, from our readers.
And just as our readership has increased over the months, the same is true of our contributors. But I suspect I’ll never be buying a yacht or a second home from the proceeds of the Voice.
Q. Are you confident it will be around years from now?
A. That’s certainly the plan, and it’s my feeling the community is responding to what we do. I think we were correct that there’s a need in our city for serious, long-form reporting covering important policies and issues affecting the city.
Our overhead is low and will continue to be low, so as long as we write what our readers are interested in reading, and as long as they continue to support us, we’ll be here. We’re here for the long term.
Q. Does that mean it will last beyond its founder?
A. I think it’s very clear that the need for this reporting will always exist. As far as my own involvement, I’m definitely in it for the long term.