Sunbelt managing editor’s note: As a rule, journalists are trained to never become the story. David Nicholson is no exception to that rule. However, Dave’s career milestone needed celebrating, and we here at The Tampa Tribune and the Plant City Courier hope that readers take the time to congratulate him on his achievement. I am proud to have Dave Nicholson, one of the finest journalists I have ever worked with, cover Plant City – and you should be as well. Jack Cormier
On both the towns he has covered, and for the profession that has given him his livelihood, Dave Nicholson has left his mark, celebrating a milestone that in today’s environment is nothing short of remarkable given the extensive cutbacks and closings in the news industry.
Nicholson in June celebrated his 35th anniversary with The Tampa Tribune, an achievement that at one time, even for Nicholson, seemed unattainable. He was laid off Dec. 12, 2011, along with many other long-timers.
“When I got laid off I thought I would never be in journalism again, except for freelancing here and there,” Nicholson said. “I knew it was happening all over the world. I thought the chances of ever writing full-time again were zero.”
For Nicholson, the layoff was short-lived; he was hired back months later to resume his post as editor of the Plant City Courier.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “It was like being brought back from the dead. You don’t get second chances like that, especially given the situation the industry faces. Needless to say, I was doing cartwheels.”
What it meant, too, is that the identification card Nicholson carries in his wallet — and that he has carried since his first week on the job— remains valid, showing a bespectacled, brown-haired Nicholson. The press card was issued June 14, 1979.
“Dave, over the past 35 years you have evolved into significantly more than a designated street reporter,” reads a Facebook comment posted June 18 by Jerry Lofstrom, owner of the Whistle Stop Gourmet Coffee & Eatery in downtown Plant City. “You have become a part of the Plant City community. Your love for your town and commitment to your work are a testimony of your dedication. Congratulations and thank you for your friendship.”
In an interview, Lofstrom elaborated.
“Plant City, sometimes, is an unforgiving place, but when you come in to town and you commit to your town, they embrace you,” Lofstrom said. “David came in as a real gentleman. He doesn’t have any enemies. His writing has been fair and balanced and the town has embraced him for that.”
Nicholson didn’t set out to become a journalist, although he had acquired a taste for writing, thanks to his English teacher, Mr. Richardson.
“He would have us write a lot and he always praised me for what I had written,” Nicholson said.
A devoted Gator fan, Nicholson entered the University of Florida with thoughts of pursuing a career in accounting, or mortuary science, or even aviation, “but I developed a fear of flying,” he said. His brother was studying journalism, so Nicholson took a shot at it and embraced what it entailed.
“Being the first to know everything and being able to tell the world, I liked that,” Nicholson said. “You feel like you right some wrongs and you help people who need to raise money for a good cause.”
With his decades-long experience, Nicholson can attest to what it takes to be a good journalist. “You’ve got to have curiosity, of course, and a sense of right and wrong,” he said. “You have to be able to do things that might make you feel uncomfortable, or make other people uncomfortable. Especially in a small town, you have to write about people you know, and know well, and it might not put them in the best light. You hope at the end of the day they know you did your job well and they understand it had to be done.”
Nicholson credits one-time entertainment writer Walt Belcher for getting him his first job with The Tampa Tribune. Belcher was leaving the Sebring bureau, to run the bureau in Lakeland, when he recommended Nicholson for the Sebring job.
Nicholson at the time was working for the Sebring News; Belcher recalled telling his bosses, “You should give him a shot.”
“Dave was a dedicated deadline reporter, quiet, steady, thorough,” who “cared about the stories he wrote and the people he covered,” Belcher said.
“He was a real, dependable guy,” he added. “He’d keep going until he got the story and he didn’t take any shortcuts. He stuck with it. You didn’t have to rewrite him and you didn’t have to light a fire under him.”
Small town journalism appeals to Nicholson, who said he “gets to see the same people” and that “we can do the slice-of-life stuff that in a bigger city would never make print.”
His favorite assignment each year is coverage of Plant City’s world-renowned Florida Strawberry Festival.
“For one thing, I love strawberries, and I love strawberry shortcake,” Nicholson said. “I’m always amazed how far people will travel to go the Strawberry Festival and how many years they’ve been coming back to it.”
As for the press pass he carries in his wallet, Nicholson said that’s a story unto itself.
“I lost it twice,” he said. “Once I lost it at the night parade in Ybor City. I thought it was gone forever. About a year later somebody mailed it back to The Tampa Tribune. It just showed up in an envelope one day.”
The card gives testament to Nicholson’s resiliency.
“I don’t see there’s any rhyme or reason for why someone gets laid off and somebody else doesn’t,” Nicholson said. “Years ago I decided I was here for the duration and I tried to get as far into the community as I could. Somebody, an old-timer, once told me I got as far into this community as anybody can who wasn’t born here. I hope to hang on here for at least two more years, eventually get the gold watch and retire, and then really get to know my grandchildren.”
Meanwhile, Kevin Brady, a former colleague who worked beside Nicholson in Plant City, said he has no doubt Nicholson has what it takes to finish out his career on his terms.
“Dave is one of the best editors and, more importantly, one of the nicest people I’ve ever met in my career in journalism,” Brady said. “It’s a testament to his skill that he has lasted so long in this profession, especially in these difficult times. He combines a deft touch with copy along with a great personality. Honestly, I have never met anyone who had anything negative to say about Dave Nicholson.”