A new Focus
Alissa Smith was only two weeks shy of graduating from the University of Central Florida when she learned the student newspaper she had worked for was shutting down.
The Central Florida Future printed its final edition Aug. 4. After 48 years, its owner Gannett shut down the publication. Smith, who had worked as a news editor and contributor for the Future, was impacted by the reaction to the closing by a younger staff member.
“She was so heartbroken that she said she was just going to change her major to English,” Smith said. “Because if people don’t believe (in journalism) in college, then what’s the real world going to be like?
“I was really upset. I wanted people to know that we still believe in student journalism.”
So, Smith spearheaded the launch of an independent, online-only student publication to cover the UCF campus and community. Four months after the Future closed, approximately three-quarters of its staff are now working for the Central Florida Focus.
Smith, who graduated from UCF with a business management and entrepreneurship degree, sought the help of a friend and fellow business graduate to get the Focus off the ground. Angela Minerva, who currently works full-time as an office manager in the Orlando area, became her co-Chief Operating Officer.
“I was just about as livid as Alissa when I heard about Gannett closing the Future,” Minerva said. “We both decided that it was unacceptable and that the community needed something it could rely on. This is my first endeavor into journalism. There’s a lot to learn. I’m trying to pick it up as quickly as I can.”
Together, the two – along with help from a GoFundMe account – provided the upfront costs, including buying the domain name centralfloridafocus.com and registering as a limited liability corporation.
Smith also spent the fall semester as the publication’s Editor-in-Chief, a role she will hand over next semester to the Focus’ current Managing Editor Samantha Bequer.
“When I first heard that the Future was no longer on campus, I felt stuck,” said Bequer, a junior majoring in journalism and political science. “What do I do now? How do I move on?
“When Alissa approached me with the idea (of the Focus), it felt like a sense of relief. We could still get our voice out there.”
“We had the choice to blend in with outlets that we didn’t really have a part of,” she said. “To be able to make our own way is really special.”
Life without a newsroom, and with a staff working in different locations, has “actually been pretty easy,” Smith said. Still, it’s come with some predictable challenges.
“We had scattered shifts, so not everyone was in the newsroom at the same time,” she said. “But you are missing the camaraderie. Before, if you needed someone to look over a story, you could just ask. Now, you text the group chat and hope someone has time to get back to you. That’s the hard part.”
Moving forward, the biggest goal for the Focus is sustainability, namely finding a way to pay its staff of editors and contributors. Currently, all are working for free.
“That’s our biggest struggle right now,” Minerva said. “We somehow have to make enough money to break even and pay people who are working for us.”
“We were hoping to be able to pay people,” Smith added. “We haven’t been able to find funds for that, which is upsetting.”
The Focus is considering switching from a LLC to a nonprofit organization, with hopes that available grant money could help its cause. In addition, a companion print publication, feature investigative stories, has been discussed as an outlet to showcase staff member’s work and attract advertisers.
To help identify ways to bring in additional funding, the Focus brought in another recent UCF graduate, Kat Engelauf, to serve as Marketing Director. Engelauf had worked with Smith at an internship. Smith, in turn, introduced her to Minerva.
“I came on board later,” said Engelauf, who works for the Princeton Review in New York City. “I was providing suggestions here and there, and they offered me the position.
“My initial motivation really was seeing how upset Alissa was at the opportunity of the Central Florida Future being taken away from students. Seeing how much this meant to her was certainly the initial driving factor. The main thing now is seeing how excited these editors and contributors are with the work they are able to do. They really are the heart and soul of what we do.”
Minerva said the initial response from the Orlando business community has been supportive.
“People are similarly outraged by Gannett abandoning an integral part of a community,” she said. “They are all excited that we’re taking this into our own hands. It’s better to have a community-focused newspaper being run by the community that it’s focused on. There’s a silver lining to Gannett closing the paper.”