Glad-hand Realtor Tom Alcorn picks up where former Flagler kingpin Robert Lott left off with same insider players
Headline Surfer videos produced by Multimedia Editor Serafina Frederick / It was a year ago that Michele and Robert Lott, turned to federal bankruptcy court after ceasing publication of the weekly Observer newspaper in November 2011, after a 3 1/2-year run. The videos contain audio recordings from their federal bankruptcy hearing in Orlando, where they were confronted by 82-year-old Barbara Crosby whose lawsuit seeking damages against the Lotts alleging she was defrauded of her $60,000 investment in the Observer, was wiped away by the bankruptcy magistrate. Headline Surfer attended the hearing. Local real estate salesman Tom Alcorn, shown above in the inset photo, bought the naming rights to the Observer and its bound copies from the bankruptcy court for $2,500. And after nursing along an online version over the last nine months that features calendar listings and occasional press releases, Alcorn has decided to forge ahead with a monthly print newspaper under the banner, The NSB Observer. The first edition was printed Friday, dubbed 'Centennial Edition' as shown in the snapshot graphic from the Observer's Facebook fan page.
NEW SMYRNA BEACH -- A year after Tom Alcorn bought the defunct weekly Observer newspaper off the scrap heat of federal bankruptcy for $2,500 after then-owners Michele and Robert Lott sought protection from creditors owed half a million, the real estate broker has opted to bring it back as a free monthly print publication.
Tom Alcorn promotes a party for the unveiling of his 'Centennial Edition' of the Observer on his personal Facebook page, as shown at left in this snapshot graphic.
The very first issue was unveiled Friday by Alcorn at a private party at a local bar, dubbed the "Centennial Edition."
Dated as "June, 2013," the tab-style paper is 32 pages held together by two staples. Inside are 10-year intervals, beginning with 1913 of newspaper clippings, through the year 2003.
Featured on the front is Alcorn's pin-up model friend, Tia McDonald, a former "Miss Teen Florida," promoted as a "philanthropist, student, model & journalist," in a three-page spread, complete with the University of Florida student in a scantily-clad bikini.
Alcorn took her under his wing a couple years ago as her "personal representative" while she was vying for several pageants.
The 70-year-old Alcorn, a longtime chamber supporter and personal friend of Robert Lott -- the 2008 president of the Southeast Volusia Chamber of Commerce, when he and his wife bought the Observer -- has said he acquired the naming rights and assets of the Observer -- primarily decades worth of bound editions -- because he wanted to preserve its century-old history in greater New Smyrna Beach.
The Observer was established in 1913, and over the decades alternated between being a daily and a weekly before sputtering in the early 2000s, when newsprint costs started skyrocketing.
Despite tens of thousands of taxpayer-supported advertising over the 3 1/2 years under ownership of the Lotts from September 2008 until November of 2011, when they ceased publication before filing for bankruptcy, Alcorn became the new owner, nursing it along as an online product with content that looks more like a Facebook fan page than a community newspaper with calendar listings as its main feature, along with the occasional press release (and gratuitous plus through photos of local bars and restaurants). The online Observer has scant readership and little advertising over the past nine months before the print publication was unveiled at a private party Friday night at a local bar.
Alcorn has not publicly stated how many copies were printed up or how it has been distributed other than small stacks placed in some local businesses that have previously supported the Lotts; like Adelle Aletti of Gone Bonkers on Flagler Avenue and Cindy Jones of Southern Trends on Canal Street.
Aletti and Jones are two of the key merchant insiders who Bob Lott counted on along with a host of chamber insiders as he used his political and business connections with former Mayor Sally Mackay and current Mayor Adam Barringer, among others, to generate advertising revenue from taxpayer-funded government entities, primarily the New Smyrna Beach CRA, Volusia County public relations, The Southeast Volusia Hospital Authority that receives taxpayer support for indigent care at Bert Fish Medical Center and the Southeast Volusia Advertising Authority.
Bob Lott not only was president of the SE Volusia Chamber of Commerce in 2008, but he briefly served on the hospital board. Among his network of insiders was Steve Dennis, then-director of the chamber until he was fired the following year. Dennis also was on the CRA board. Two others were Adelle Aletti, head of the Flagler Merchants and Cindy Jones, head of the Canal Street merchants, both of whom were able to get significant amounts of CRA and ad authority monies for Observer advertising.
And while Lott was on the hospital board, he counted on then-Bert Fish public relations director Garry Mac, a key chamber member, to generate advertising for the Observer, with Michele Lott as the "publisher."
Other key players for Lott were George Richford, owner of the Dolphinview Restaurant and a board member with the SE Volusia Ad Authority for a brief time, along with Nicole Carni, who Lott pushed then-County Chair Frank Bruno into the director's post without a formal hiring process when the previous director, Deborah Boyd left.
And Lott had another insider in Doug Hodson, who was serving on both the CRA and ad authority boards and even went to work for the Observer briefly as director of ad sales when he was let go as general manager of the NSB Pennysaver, owned by the News-Journal.
On his Facebook fan page, Tom Alcorn puts in a plug for Doug Hodson, former general manager of the NSB Pennysaver and director of sales for the former weekly Observer owned by Michele and Robert Lott. Hodson, a member of the SEV chamber, was at one time a member of both the SEV ad authority and the New Smyrna Beach CRA. He resigned abruptly from the CRA two years ago and the year before was told by county officials he had to give up one of the boards. With Hodson is Frankie Robert, an assistant to State Rep. Dave Hood, R-Ormond Beach, and too the right of Hodson is his former wife, Adelle Alleti (whose legal name is Adelle Aletti Hodson), and Melanie Emanuel, a former chamber president.
Like Bert Fish's former PR flak Mac, Richford, Carni and Hodson were key players in the chamber with Lott, as were Sean Keaton, a vice president of Regions Bank, Kenneth Bohannon, who represented the Lotts in lawsuits, and Melanie Emanuel, an insurance saleswoman. She and Bohannon served as president of the chamber in 2012 and 2011, respectively.
But despite those connections, the Lotts had no journalism experience other than the glad-handing of Robert Burns, who produced advertorial content favorable to the chamber. Without strong news content, the Observer was unable to sustain private sector advertising.
A longtime friend of the Lotts and a chamber promoter, Alcorn has acknowledged he has no experience in the newspaper business and the product itself, nursed along over the past nine months online has been devoid of real news. His editor is Tiffany Evers, who used to work with him at Ocean Properties answering phones.
Though Evers has a journalism degree, she has readily acknowledged her strengths are in the calendar listings and social media. She has no prior reporting experience and hasn't produced a byline story other than limited press release rewrites since Alcorn hired her last year.
The main offerings for the Observer's website have been community calendar listings, grip-and-grin photos, and numerous shots of sunrises and sunsets.
The advertising staple remains Aletti's "Gone Bonkers," insurance salesman Buddy Davenport, the Om Bar and Alcorn's sales in Ocean Properties, though not from the principal owner, Bill Roe, who has been a signature advertiser with Headline Surfer since the 24/7 internet newspaper's April 7, 2008 launch, initially as NSBNews.net.
The Observer has come and gone several times in the past five years -- from a daily in 2007, to a weekly only to fold the following year, before the Lotts bought it for $20,000 from Indiana-based Horizon Publications.
Propped up mostly by Lott's connections with chamber insiders, the Observer was the benefactor of $50,000 from Bert Fish alone. By comparison, Headline Surfer received $680 from the hospital and the check was delayed for two years. And Headline Surfer is the lone media outlet purposely excluded from advertising opportunities over the past five years with the City of New Smyrna Beach because of its news coverage.
Mayor Adam Barringer and the city commissioners allowed thousands in CRA funding for the Observer, with Holly Smith, then a CRA public relations consultant -- and since hired full-time earlier this year -- billing the city for for her work on the Observer's advertising pages promoting Flagler Avenue and Canal Street. Headline Surfer only found out about these expenditures through a series of public records requests.
And Lott, then a financial planner on Flagler, had ad revenue coming in from the Southeast Volusia Advertising Authority until two years ago when then-Director Nicole Carni was fired amid a scandal involving county allegations she overpaid herself.
Things got so bad for the Lotts that they moved the Observer operation off Canal Street, to Lott's Flagler Avenue office, and eventually operated the newspaper from their Edgewater home for the better part of 2011.
Lott's financial services business went under, the Lott home was foreclosed on and they were sued by an 82-year-old widow, Barbara Crosby, who claimed she was defrauded of her $60,000 investment in the Observer newspaper through Lott Financial Services. A second widow claimed Lott got her to invest $50,000 in the Observer as well.
Alcorn, who has described himself as independently wealthy, doesn't have the taxpayer-supported revenue that his predecessor Lott was able to generate through his chamber connections with that organization's former director Steve Dennis, who was fired four years ago and was forced to resign from the CRA when the Lotts retreated to their then-Edgewater residence from Flagler.
The bankruptcy filed by the Lotts revealed they also owed the owners of the Hampton Inn $46,000 that was supposed to go to future advertising. But with the bankruptcy, the Lotts were able to avoid paying more than half a million in debts, though they lost their Riverside Drive home.
Though the taxpayer revenue is no longer available for the taking, Alcorn continues to receive limited advertising support from Lott's former chamber and merchant insiders like Aletti, insurance salesman Buddy Davenport and even Mayor Barringer, whose So Napa Grille wine-bar restaurant, is featured in a half page advertisement in the Centennial Edition" as well as online in recent months.
The mayor is facing multiple state ethics charges, though Alcorn's Observer has not reported on that, or any news for that matter, other than occasional promotional press releases.
The new monthly is free, but there's no distribution set-up other than a few drop-offs.
Alcorn readily conceded when he acquired the Observer that it would be a tough sell. Several hundred paid subscribers weren't given refunds by the Lotts. Others still, lost close to $200,000 in investments, including the two widows.
Other than the story written here by Headline Surfer, the only other public knowledge of the paper's attempted comeback is through its Facebook fan page posting from Monday under the heading "NSB Observer Celebrates 100 years in Business," which in and of itself is inaccurate, because it has not been continuously published for the last hundred years.
Here is what was announced by the Observer through the Facebook posting, verbatim: The new and improved print edition was released at the 100 Year Anniversary Party at Flagler Tavern. The event included complimentary appetizers from Johnny’s Restaurant, a raffle with 100′s of dollars in prizes, live entertainment by Walter Lee and Krista King, and dessert tastings by KD Desserts. The NSB Observer will continue to print monthly. Papers can be found at the Visitor’s Center, Chamber of Commerce, in businesses on Flagler Ave. and Canal St. as well as local 7-Eleven stores.
The posting also encouraged people to go to its website for "web exclusive stories and daily updates."
Headline Surfer reviewed the web content early this morning and discovered the following: