Fl weekly rallies community to save family’s home

Feb 4, 2014

BY Stanley Schwartz
Managing Editor | Publishers’ Auxiliary

VERO BEACH, FL—The tragedy of a local murder was going to be compounded by the loss of the family’s home until the local paper, Vero Beach 32963, stepped in.

In November 2011, Brian Simpson arrived home early and surprised a pair of burglars in this quiet community on one of Florida’s barrier islands, and died after being shot. Brian’s wife, Kristen, learned months later that she would lose the home she and her husband had spent years renovating.

After hearing that the Simpson family would lose its home, Vero Beach 32963 Publisher Milton R. Benjamin, published a story about the family’s plight. Within hours of the story hitting the street, Benjamin said readers started to call the newspaper’s office.

“People wanted to know how they could help,” he said. It was right then that Benjamin decided the weekly would take the lead on organizing an effort to keep Kristen and her two children in their home.

With the help of a lawyer and certified public accountant, a home fund was created at a local bank, Benjamin said. Contributions started to pour in.

“This is an affluent (and philanthropic) community,” he added. “There are quite a few retired CEO’s living here.”

According to an article on the donations in the Vero Beach 32963, “Kristen’s mailman sold honey from his hives. A local musician sold CDs. A restaurant owner contributed a nightly percentage of the gross. John’s Island residents joined together to contribute tens of thousands of dollars. Other communities added thousands.” In all, $220,000 was raised. For more on this part of the story, see the full article written by staff writer Meg Laughlin on Page 20.


Heart of the community

“This demonstrates a community paper’s ability to rally a community to a common cause,” said Benjamin. And the 16,000-free distribution weekly did just that.

Benjamin, a former Washington Post reporter and executive, started the weekly a little more than five years ago. While at the Post, he also served as former owner Katharine Graham’s assistant.

Even though Vero Beach was being served by a daily newspaper, Benjamin thought the community would benefit from its own paper; one that would focus on just the local news. In addition to sending the paper to all the residents on the island, he also mails it to about 3,000 selected homes on the mainland and places it in offices and other locations to attract upscale readers.

His staff of 23, half of which are editorial, cover the area thoroughly. Many of them are seasoned journalists. The reporter who wrote the story on the outcome of Simpson family home, had at one time worked for the St. Petersburg (FL) Times.

“I picked up people who had been let go by dailies that had cut back staff,” Benjamin said. “It’s an impressive group of people.” Not long ago, former Washington Post associate Bob Woodward of Watergate fame, stopped by the office to visit.

“Everyone was excited,” he noted.

The staff was pleased they could help the Simpson family and become such a central part of the community.

“They were excited they could play this kind of role,” Benjamin said. He added that the community is a low crime area and this murder was the first in anyone’s memory.

“It was a sad thing,” Benjamin said, “especially when the widow and children were going to lose their home.”

Even after the funds were raised—in just three weeks—there were some legal hurdles to overcome. One of the people in the community stepped in and reached out to the mortgage company, smoothing the way for the happy outcome. Just two days before this past Christmas, everything fell into place and the deed to the home was signed by Simpson.

The two men who broke into the Simpson house were caught weeks later when they returned to the Vero Beach neighborhood searching for a weapon dropped after the burglary, said Benjamin.

“A postal carrier noticed they looked out of place and called 911,” he said. “He followed them until the police arrived.”

Benjamin is organizing a reception at the newspaper office so Simpson may personally thank the donors who helped her and her children stay in their home. He expects more than 100 people to be there, though some donated anonymously.