The Creative Loafing Birthday Issue 

Past and present staffers take a look back at 25 years of loafing creatively.

Resilient.

That was a word you heard a lot after the Boston Marathon bombings on Monday. “Boston’s a resilient city, we’re a resilient people — we’ll be back next year with a bigger and better Marathon.”

I believe them. I grew up in Massachusetts; I know what a tough city Boston is. America’s more resilient now, too — we’ve been through the hell of an attack before, so we know not to cave in to despair or strike back in fear.

I see resilience in the people I work with every day at Creative Loafing. Not that any of us have had to suffer the kind of horror experienced by the victims and survivors of 9/11 or 4/15. But it’s been a tough time around here lately — four in our small edit staff have suffered deaths or serious illness in our families in recent weeks, each week seeming to bring news of another loss.

But you wouldn’t know it. The dogged care and dedication of the CL staff is, if anything, more marked than ever, leading up to one of the biggest issues we’ve ever done.

CL Tampa is a profile in resilience, beginning with the man who launched it in 1988, Ben Eason. By now, the saga of how Ben lost the Creative Loafing chain — expanding to Washington and Chicago just before the bottom dropped out of the economy, getting outbid in a bankruptcy auction by his biggest creditor — is more familiar than how he built it. And that’s a shame, because there is no disputing that he created something worthy here in Tampa. The fact that it’s still alive and kicking is a credit not just to his resilience, but to his love of the business and of his adopted home town.

Ben was raised on Creative Loafing. His parents — Debby, a professional photographer, and Chick, a math professor — started the paper in Atlanta in 1972 using $20,000 in savings. They’d been publishing pocket guidebooks to the city, using her photography as illustration and printing them on a sheet-bed printing press in their basement, and those evolved into a monthly and then a weekly publication. According to family legend, Chick came up with the name: “He was trying to get out of doing some work,” Ben told me and current CL Publisher James Howard over dinner recently, “so he claimed he was creatively loafing.”

Born in 1964, Ben worked his first CL job at age 7, running around a boat show handing out papers. Later, he’d graduate to “jumper,” riding shotgun with the circ guys, then to inserter, stuffing the papers with Arby’s coupons. By the time he’d graduated from Yale (where he started a campus version of CL), the Atlanta paper had gotten successful enough for the company to expand; Ben launched in Charlotte in April of 1987 and exactly a year later in Tampa. He was 23 years old.

Tampa was a struggle at first, not helped by the fact that Atlanta’s comptroller was embezzling from the company and blaming the money drain on the two new Southern papers. Ben finally broke off from the mothership in 1994, buying the Tampa paper and renaming it the Weekly Planet. Many years later, in 2006, he would take over the whole chain from his parents and bring the Planet back to its original name.

The people whose recollections you’ll read in this anniversary edition hail from a wide range of eras, from the very first issue through the wild and wooly Planet years; from the Age of Sugg — the paper’s larger-than-life firebrand — to Ben’s controversial move in 2003 to fire the three news staffers that followed in Sugg’s wake because they didn’t have any of the “institutional knowledge” that Sugg had. (One of those writers, Trevor Aaronson, gives his version of the firings elsewhere in this issue.) I arrived on the scene in 2004, and am proud of the many great people I’ve worked with and brought into the fold. Many of them are represented in this issue, even a few who fell victim to the dire financial straits of 2008-2009 in the wake of the Chicago-Washington expansion. What ties these people and periods together is a zeal for what Ben calls “the fun of doing things good.”

We’re still having fun (and still making money, which seems to please our new owners, the Nashville-based publishing company Southcomm). Ben seems to be having fun, too. Now a digital advertising consultant, he’s still looking for the next wave, moving forward. Resilient.

I hope you have fun reading. And I hope to see a whole bunch of you — readers, staffers, alums and friends — at this weekend’s Birthday Bash at the Ritz.

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