On September 11, 2001, publisher and editor Brenda Knowles called in a “stop the presses.” The Observer News, already on the way to print, would be changed at the last minute to reflect the breaking news of a national tragedy. The next day, the newspapers landed on driveways across South Hillsborough County, and were among very few weekly papers to provide up-to-date coverage of the terrorist attacks. The Observer News would go on to win a national award for that coverage.
Millions of lives changed that day. Brenda Knowles’ life was certainly among them. One daughter lived in Washington, DC, her son was in the U.S. Navy, and she had every reason to be worried about both her nation and her family. But on that day, despite her own concerns, she changed the course of a community newspaper, she began a process that helped communities heal and prosper through her relentless focus on sharing good news — and she built a business that has, even to this day, only increased in success, even while other newspapers have struggled and faltered.
Through her commitment to the communities she served, she helped to showcase and accentuate the positives of the communities, while helping businesses reach a growing number of residents and visitors. The success of the newspapers has been a direct reflection of the attitude and outlook of the person who was in charge.
Brenda Knowles, the longtime publisher and editor of the Observer News Publications, has announced plans to retire. The mark she has left, however, is indelible and her vision for the future remains on course.
Her imagination is boundless and she has used that unparalleled quality to serve both readers and advertisers. She often asked, “What if…” or “I wonder what…” and then provided the leadership to see those questions become award-winning articles or impactful advertising campaigns that invariably had positive results for both the readers and the finances of area businesses.
“I came to M&M Printing [parent company of The Observer News] eight years ago and she greeted me with the biggest smile,” said M&M Printing CEO Wes Mullins. “She has always been positive. She always liked to be the ‘good news’ newspaper. Anytime something negative would come in, if it was for the better of the community, she would print it but it would just turn her inside out.”
Mullins went on to say that as the head of the company, he never had to worry about the newspaper division. “She took care of all aspects of it. Her vision of where the paper was, where it was going, was always right.”
During her tenure, The Observer News, The SCC Observer and The Current newspapers have won hundreds of awards for editorial and advertising excellence from the Community Papers of Florida (CPF), an organization that represents newspapers serving nearly nine million people.
“CPF has known Brenda Knowles for a number of years,” said Dave Neuharth, CPF Board Secretary. “She has been a strong supporter of the association and participated in the CPF classified network that provides the funds that has made this association a success. We thank her. Without a doubt, as a publisher that led a small group of publications, the papers excelled under her leadership. The newspapers won top awards in the annual “Best of the Best” awards contests and she can be proud of the excellence her staff added to this annual event.”
“I haven’t said thank you enough over the years,” said M&M Printing owner Mickey Mixon. “And those awards and that recognition were a good pat on the back. She could take a lot of pride in what she was doing. So many newspapers today have lost sight of that, sacrificing quality. Brenda didn’t lose sight of that.”
Through her personality and vision, Knowles had a knack for attracting and retaining talented people in all aspects of the newspaper, from sales to creative to editorial. She provided the direction and then allowed those people the freedom to fulfill the vision she had.
“Brenda was a company girl,” Mixon continued. “It was never about ‘me’, it was always about ‘us’. She did the best she could to hire the best people she could get. And then when she got them, she gave them a task and got out of the way.”
Mixon and Knowles first met in 1969 when Mixon and his wife invited Knowles and her husband over for grilled hot dogs and hamburgers. A friendship was forged and nearly 20 years later, in 1988, Knowles joined M&M Printing as a sales person for classified advertising. Her drive, optimism and success paved the way for her rapid rise to editor and then to publisher.
“Just a week or so ago I was talking to her,” Mixon said. “I told her, ‘you know, Brenda, we’re lucky. For the past 20 some years, we’ve both been able to do what we wanted to do. We didn’t get rich, but we played a role. We kept 18 to 25 families alive for a long time.’ Brenda is a really big part of the community and she has played a big role in the community.”
“The Observer News has grown consistently over my years here,” Mullins said. “And that was solely due to Brenda and the team she put together. Even during the recession, Brenda did not skip a beat — the papers continued to grow. Her vision has been impressed upon her team and has developed over the years to make The Observer News the good news newspaper.”
The many nonprofit organizations serving those in need in South Hillsborough always knew they could count on Knowles to help them help others by reaching the ever-growing population of the area. But as dedicated as she was to the communities, she was, perhaps, even more dedicated to her staff. That was not unrequited. Her good heart and commitment has been the foundation of her success and much more. She is and remains a boss who is dearly loved by all those who work for and with her.
“I have worked for seven newspapers in Hillsborough County since 1982, and I have to say working with Brenda has been the best experience of all,” said Observer News freelance writer Penny Fletcher. “She lets me use my creativity and go ‘outside the box’ if a story calls for something special. She has allowed me to use my talent in ways I could not do at other area media. But she isn’t just a great boss; she’s a really good person. I hadn’t worked for her two weeks when I had to go into Tampa General Hospital for a week and when I came home she brought food to my house and stayed and talked like she had all the time in the world, when I knew she was busy. I knew right then what kind of a person she was.”
Brenda Knowles is a woman who chose to serve her readers, communities and advertisers on a fateful day in September twelve years ago and on every day. She chose a path not of exploitation but of healing, of service, of accentuating the positive. She forged that path well before 9/11 and continued it long after. Her heart was, and continues to be, in the right place and with that success came naturally.
“Her children are all successful,” Mixon said. “Not only is she a great editor, but she’s also a great mom. How could I ask for more than that?”
While those in the newsroom will feel her absence acutely, her presence will remain firmly in place. She genuinely loved her communities, her newspapers and her staff and that love is returned. Brenda Knowles helped to make the communities and those who work for her better in so many ways. She forged the good path.
M&M Printing CEO Wes Mullins has assumed the role of Publisher. Creative Director Chere Simmons, who, like Knowles, first joined The Observer News in 1988, will assume the duties of editor for the publications.