Matt Walsh has a saying: “We are not the news.”
He edits the news. He publishes the news. He leads a staff of nearly 80 as they produce five weekly newspapers. But being in the news? That’s forbidden.
But, this is a time when the rules must be broken, because in addition to being publisher and CEO of The Observer Group Inc., Walsh is the 2010 Kiwanis Club of Longboat Key Citizen of the Year. Walsh is featured in this week’s Longboat Observer in part because he was outvoted. He submitted his own list of nominations for the honor. Kiwanis Club President Bob Gault assured Walsh that each nominee would receive ample consideration. But he wouldn’t remove Walsh, whom he nominated from the list. And when the Kiwanis Club board met, members overwhelmingly chose Walsh. According to Gault, Walsh was chosen for two main reasons:
No. 1: “He’s done an outstanding job (through the Longboat Observer) of communicating critical issues, helping to guide the community and city fathers,” Gault said.
And No. 2: He does what needs to be done. Depending on the occasion, he’s pancake flipper, ticket taker, emcee or trash collector.
“In all the service organizations he is involved with, he is always doing grunt work,” Gault said.
He is a longtime member of the Kiwanis Club, co-chairman of the Longboat Key Freedom Fest, St. Armands Circle Association board member and former co-chairman of the St. Jude luncheon.
“He’s not just a Citizen of the Year,” Gault said. “He’s Citizen of the Years.”
The early years
Matt Walsh was born in St. Louis, the third of seven children born to George and Janice Walsh. Walsh credits his mother, a homemaker, with instilling a strong sense of family values in him. From his father, who served as vice president of a truck-manufacturing company, he got his conservative point of view, in part from hearing stories of his father’s negotiations with unions that seemed socialistic.
Walsh enrolled in 1972 at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where he was a left-handed pitcher on the baseball team. He decided to take pre-med courses and in 1973 met journalism student Lisa Beliles (now Lisa Walsh), who forgave him despite the fact that he was hours late for their first date.
“I just thought he was so handsome,” she said. “He had on this blue sweater. I was a goner.”
Lisa Walsh jokes that she thought she had found a future doctor. Then came a 7:30 a.m. Friday chemistry class. The professor vowed to give a quiz every Friday morning.
Walsh decided he didn’t want to be a doctor after all.
He looked at the majors of his fraternity brothers. Most were pre-law or business majors. Both sounded boring. Wanting to be different, he decided to give journalism a try.
“I thought, hey, being a sports writer would be fun,” Walsh said. “Plus I’d get to go to sports games for free.”
Walsh’s first beat was covering the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center. He eventually got assigned to the sports desk, although he gave up playing baseball after a stern lecture about his grades from the dean. As a journalism student, Walsh was required to log long hours in the Columbia Missourian newsroom.
“That was where the ink started to seep into the blood,” he said.
He married Beliles in 1976, and the couple went to work for the Topeka Capital Journal, where Walsh had interned for two summers, during which he decided that he preferred reporting news to sports. Walsh then took a position as managing editor of a small daily newspaper, in Brookings, S.D.
“Years later, when I was looking back, I realized that I probably had the most fun there,” Walsh said. “In a small town like that, you’re extremely close to your reader.”
It was later he would learn that at a national publication like Forbes magazine, he could write a profile on then-Columbia/HCA CEO Rick Scott and not get a single response, but describe a group of downtown merchants opposing a mall in downtown Brookings as “whining” in an editorial? You’ll hear about that.
Walsh went on to become executive editor of the Independence Examiner, in Independence, Mo., where his oldest daughter, Emily, was born. (Daughter Kate followed in 1982, and son Brian was born in 1988.)
Walsh went on to work for the Miami Herald, where he became assistant business editor. He went on to serve as editor of Florida Trend magazine and Southeast bureau manager for Forbes.
But in 1994, less than a year into his tenure at Forbes, Walsh began to consider a dream he had had for more than a decade of owning a business publication. He was outbid on a Pinellas legal weekly. But through a newspaper broker, he learned that the Longboat Observer was for sale. And so, at 11 a.m. on a fall morning in 1994, Walsh and his father-in-law David Beliles, a longtime newspaper editor and publisher, pulled into the parking lot of 5570 Gulf of Mexico Drive.
“I walked into the building and I just had a feeling: ‘Wow, this is it,’” Walsh said. “’This is home.’”
On March 23, 1995, Walsh and Beliles bought the paper from founders Ralph and Claire Hunter, and became owners of the Longboat Observer, and on April 6, they penned an editorial together, paraphrasing a longtime Kansas newspaper man by writing, “We will count the week lost when the Longboat Observer doesn’t help its community.”
Nearly 16 years later, Walsh says it’s not up to him to determine whether the newspaper has lived up to that standard. That’s a call for the community to make. But he likes to think that the Longboat Observer contributes to Longboat Key each week.
“I think that’s kind of a natural role for a newspaper,” Walsh said.
Over the years, Walsh’s editorials have sometimes generated controversy in the unique way that a small-town paper can.
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that I came on a little strong in the beginning,” he said. “But it goes back to that belief that a newspaper should have a strong voice and call it like you see it. That editorial voice should take the role of getting people to talk and think.”
In the coming decade, Walsh hopes the Observers (the Longboat Observer, the East County Observer, the Sarasota Observer, the Palm Coast Observer and Gulf Coast Business Review) will maintain their character while doing an even better job of providing the news. He also hopes to see his daughter, Emily Walsh, associate publisher-multimedia of The Observer Group, sit in his chair someday.
When it comes to being Citizen of the Year, Walsh said that he is honored to be recognized by the club he got involved with at Ralph Hunter’s advice in 1995, although he doesn’t need the accolades. One of his greatest influences — up there with family members and former editors — is a former Kiwanian, Art Falls, who owned Key businesses, including the Sea Stable.
“When I asked him why he was so involved even at his age, which was then 60s or 70s, he said, ‘It doesn’t do any good to be sitting on the sidelines,’” Walsh said. “I hope I lived up to what he advised me to do and that was to get involved, and if something’s not right, get up and do something about it.”
Walsh said that the Kiwanis Club holds a special place in his heart.
“To me,” he said, “it represents a lot of what is good about small towns.”
Feb. 25, 1954 — Walsh was born in St. Louis.
1972 — Enrolled at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Jan. 24, 1976 — Walsh married Lisa Beliles, whom he met at the beginning of their sophomore year of college.
1976 — Walsh graduated from the University of Missouri and began working at the Topeka Capital Journal.
Feb. 9, 1980 — Walsh became a father when his daughter, Emily, was born. (Daughter, Kate, was born in 1982, and son, Brian, was born in 1988.
1980 — Walsh was hired by the Miami Herald.
1986 — Walsh began his seven-year tenure at Florida Trend, the last three of which he served as editor.
1994 — Walsh became Southeast bureau manager for Forbes.
March 23, 1995 — Walsh, his wife, Lisa, and his in-laws, Ruth and David Beliles, became owners of the Longboat Observer.
July 1, 2010 — Walsh became a grandfather with the birth of Rhys Humphreys Parry.
IN THEIR OWN WORDS
“He seems to be a step ahead in the business. He’s a tremendous organizer and focused. But I think the thing I appreciate most is he had three kids and managed not to miss a thing they were involved in. I’ve seen nights where he would go to a concert and then come back to the office.”
— Dora Walters, senior editor of the Longboat Observer
“He is very clear in his writing and always knows where he stands … He’s a fair man and, above all, he is a good guy. I look upon him as a good friend to the whole community. I congratulate him. In my view, he’s a top-notch guy.”
— Jeremy Whatmough, former Longboat Key mayor
“Every week when I read the newspapers and I read the editorials, I don’t know how the Observers could exist without Matt Walsh, but I definitely will strive to fill that role.”
— Emily Walsh Parry, daughter and associate publisher-multimedia of The Observer Group Inc.
HAVE A BALL
The Longboat Key Kiwanis Foundation is holding its first Valentine’s Day Ball from 6 to 11 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 12, at the Longboat Key Club and Resort Harbourside Dining Room. The event features a 17-piece band, dancing, cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and dinner and recognition of the 2010 Kiwanis Club of Longboat Key Citizen of the Year. The event will raise money for local children and students in need. Tickets are $85 per person, $47 of which is tax deductible. Contact Bob Gault at 387-8458 or John Wild at 383-4253.
Contact Robin Hartill at [email protected]