News & Politics

How a Tiny Florida Newspaper Became a Must-Read in the Trump Era

The Washington-based media doesn’t fit in so naturally in Palm Beach. That's why out-of-town reporters devour the Palm Beach Daily News.

Mar-a-Lago, seen from the window of Air Force One. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The dinner services at Mar-a-Lago on a recent April weekend were a groaning table of potential news items: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was in attendance, as were New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and Marvel Entertainment Chief Executive Ike Perlmutter. The President of the United States greeted them all on his customary dinnertime strolls, and even stopped by the table of billionaire David Koch, who spurned him during the election.

But perhaps the most surprising news of all at President Trump’s estate and private club in Palm Beach, Florida, was a result of another high-profile guest: Chinese President Xi Jinpin, whose presence required the Secret Service to shut down the traditional prime-rib buffet.

That nugget came not from one of the White House reporters assigned to pool duty that weekend, but from the Palm Beach Daily News, a 120-year-old beach-town paper.

“On Thursday night, the place was secured tighter than a miser’s strongbox, mostly at the request of the Chinese government for the protection of its president,” its story reads. “There was a no-cellphone policy that resulted in at least one confiscation… what seemed like a larger than usual Secret Service presence; the absence of the usual prime rib buffet ‘to keep movement to a minimum,’ a Secret Service agent told us.” (The table where a phone got nabbed belonged to Boston Celtics great John Havlicek, who was celebrating his birthday.)

The Daily News—or “Shiny Sheet,” as its known to locals for the higher-than-usual-quality paper it prints on—typically covers events at Palm Beach’s charity galas, local real-estate transactions, and goings-on in town government. It’s only got about 5,000 subscribers, but it’s become required reading for a Washington that is still struggling to make sense of the 45th President.

That’s because since one of the Daily News’s regular characters—which Trump has been since he bought Mar-a-Lago in 1985—is President of the United States, the paper’s dozen or so staffers now find themselves with a surprising amount of access. The Shiny Sheet doesn’t score the big national-security or palace-intrigue scoops that deep-pocketed news organizations like the Washington Post and New York Times do, but its role as a chronicler of South Florida’s swells has allowed it to break its share of presidential news. The paper’s society editor, Shannon Donnelly, was first to report that Patrick Park, a concert pianist and Trump pal, is in line to be nominated as the next US ambassador to Austria. (Among his credentials: He claims to have seen The Sound of Music 75 times.) Donnelly was also inside Mar-a-Lago on February 11 when Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paused their meal for an impromptu briefing on a North Korean missile test in front of a packed dining room, and posted a photo on Twitter well before CNN put a similar snapshot on air.

The same weekend she broke the news about the prime rib buffet, Donnelly got the drop that Trump would come back to Palm Beach the following weekend, his seventh visit there since taking office.

“Not that we’re counting,” says Elizabeth Clarke, the Daily News’s editor since 2013. Although Clarke arrived at the paper decades after Trump became a Palm Beach regular, when she started, he was just one of the players on an island of the obscenely wealthy, albeit one who occasionally spouted off baseless claims about the incumbent president.

“He had become a part of the fabric of the town,” Clarke says. “More prominent than some. He didn’t get any particularly special treatment. Things changed when he got in the race.”

The Daily News’s coverage of Trump picked up in the early 1990s when he started fighting with the town of Palm Beach to convert Marjorie Merriweather Post’s old estate into the community’s newest high-gloss private club. After the town council finally voted in 1995 to let him open the club (after a $50 million lawsuit from Trump), Mar-a-Lago became another stop on the high-society circuit.

Clarke says the Daily News still aims to cover as many angles of Palm Beach’s business and culture. But it’s becoming a challenge to fit that into a news budget that also now includes near-weekly appearances by a sitting President, who brings with him not just the trappings of the White House, but also road closures, law-enforcement activities, and protests that shoppers on tony Worth Avenue aren’t used to seeing.

Most residents of and visitors to South Florida might be more familiar with the Palm Beach Post. But that’s a full-service, general-audience daily based in West Palm Beach, a bustling city of 110,000. And even though both papers are owned by Cox Media Group, what makes the Daily News special isn’t just that it covers Palm Beach, but that it’s of Palm Beach.

Henry Flagler, the 19th-century railroad baron who first developed Palm Beach, founded the paper in 1897 as the Daily Lake Worth News, named for the portion of the Intracoastal Waterway separating Palm Beach from the mainland. In its first edition, it proclaimed itself “a journal devoted to the society happenings and events of interest at the Palm Beach hotels and Lake Worth cottages.” But as this was for the wealthiest of readers, the paper took care to print on glossy stock that wouldn’t smudge the linens, earning it the “Shiny Sheet” nickname.

For most of the past three decades, the society happenings have been Shannon Donnelly’s domain, though she is far from the manor-born. Donnelly, the daughter of a Newport, Rhode Island cop, first came to Palm Beach in the 1970s as a proofreader at the Post before being taking as a copy editor at the Daily News. That was also around the time the Shiny Sheet dropped the last bits of coverage from other parts of Florida and started focusing exclusively on the island and its wealthy habitants, according to Laurence Leamer, whose 2009 book, Madness Under the Royal Palms, is a damning profile of the community.

After a few years back north, Donnelly returned to the Daily News as its society editor, a role she’s held since. Over that period, she’s become such a mainstay on the party beat that she’s been known to declare herself “the queen” of Palm Beach. And that’s led to sniping from other South Florida gossips, who get irked by Donnelly’s dominance of the scene, and what Leamer calls the Daily News’s “total fantasy” of how Palm Beach really works. (Donnelly did not respond to an interview request.)

“I have friends who months ago went out to dinner,” says Leamer, who splits his time between Washington and Palm Beach. “Their house had been broken into; $1.5 million worth of jewelry stolen. When they called 911 they were told nine other crimes like that had happened, but they didn’t make the paper.”

The heist was reported by Jose Lambiet, who runs the website and also writes a gossip column for the Miami Herald. It never made the Daily News. Lambiet also beat the Shiny Sheet by more than six months in reporting that former Fox News boss Roger Ailes is the new owner of a $36 million modernist, beachfront mansion.

“They still didn’t acknowledge it until last week when they saw some sheet of paper with Ailes’s name on it,” Lambiet says. “Their avowed goal is to make Palm Beach look good. Like it needs it.”

No matter Palm Beach’s portrayal, Trump was always a crucial source for those who chronicle the island’s elites. Just as he used to call reporters at the New York Post and New York Daily News hoping to buff up tales of his latest real-estate ventures, golf rounds, or sexual exploits, the future president also had the Florida wags on speed-dial. Lambiet says he spoke with Trump regularly until the campaign started in June 2015. “It was easy to get ahold of him at that point,” Lambiet says. “Anybody could, and he probably spent two hours a day talking to reporters.”

Sure enough, Lambiet’s pre-campaign stories about Trump’s Florida transactions are peppered with direct quotes from the Donald himself. In 2013, when Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev decided to knock down a 33,000-square-foot Palm Beach spread he had purchased from Trump for $95 million in 2008 (a transaction that has since become a minor obsession in investigations into links between the President and Russia), Trump didn’t mind sharing his nonchalance with GossipExtra—because he had something to brag about.

“I bought it for $41 million, put in $3 worth of paint and gave it a good cleaning—and I sold it for the highest price ever for a single family home,” he told Lambiet.

Trump’s had a more robust relationship with the Palm Beach Daily News and Donnelly. In a 2013 New York Times story about unproven whispers that Donnelly was on the take from the muckety-mucks she covers, Trump jumped to her defense, in his self-aggrandizing way. “She’s never tried to get anything from me,” he told the Times. “And people do it all the time.”

Trump also described Donnelly as a “good writer” who’s “tough and fair” and the Shiny Sheet as “sort of a bible” for Palm Beach.

Of course, any relationship with Trump is transactional. Back in 1996, when Trump and Palm Beach officials were getting into it again—because Trump wanted to build a marina—Donnelly fired off a column asking “Who on earth beat Donald Trump with the stupid stick?” Trump responded with one of the many nasty letters he’s sent critical journalists over the years; Donnelly dug hers up for an Election Day column:

Dear Shannon:

As someone who has succeeded in getting zoning, etc., all of his life, I do not need you to tell me how the process works or that it will be necessary to deal with the Town Council (which is obvious to all). Additionally, over the years I have been called many things — but “stupid” was never one of them.

But let’s make a deal; if you promise not to get “personal” with me, I will promise not to show you as the crude, fat and obnoxious slob which everyone knows you are. Sincerely, Donald J. Trump.

The Trump that occupies the White House hasn’t been too different with the political reporters who cover him. He bashes them on Twitter and at rallies, but he’s always eager to go on the record with his most dogged chroniclers. The difference is that he’s swapped the Shiny Sheet and Page Six for the likes of the New York Times’s Maggie Haberman and the Washington Post’s Robert Costa.

But the Palm Beach Daily News still has a piece of the Trump ecosystem where Washington-based media doesn’t fit naturally. The Shiny Sheet’s prose can be mellifluous, but it lingers inside the Mar-a-Lago ballroom while the traveling press corps sits outside, waiting for the next pool update.

“Local papers always deserve their credit,” says one member of the White House pool. “The Palm Beach Post is holding its own pretty well… but they’re better for coverage of the town. The Daily News so far has the ‘in’ on Mar-a-Lago.”

The novelty of a small-batch, society-focused paper has also caught on with the legacy media types who make up the White House press corps. “At first I thought I had the Palm Beach Post and was confused, because it’s a lot thinner and published on smoother newsprint than a conventional daily,” says USA Today White House correspondent Gregory Korte, who was on pool duty last Saturday when Trump played a round of golf on his course in West Palm Beach. “It kind of blows my mind that there’s a market for a daily society paper.”

Korte says he was drawn in by the headline “Mar-a-Lago amps up security with Xi, Syria.” While it read like hard news, it was actually the title for Donnelly’s column about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit, including a tidbit when Trump walked by her table and muttered, “Big night, Shannon.” (He had just ordered a missile strike on Syria.)

“I thought it captured the weird confluence of global diplomacy, Trump’s business interests, and Palm Beach society going on at Mar-a-Lago,” Korte says.

Since Trump’s election, though, what happens in Palm Beach is no longer just for gossip hounds. Even the most mundane Mar-a-Lago story has the potential to intersect with national security, government appointments, or how Trump represents the country.

“You go to Mar-a-Lago, the food is fucking disgusting,” Lambiet says during a phone call. A few days later, he broke the news in his Miami Herald column that the club had flunked a restaurant inspection days before Japan’s Abe visited, with inspectors finding meat stored at temperatures as high as 57 degrees. Were Trump not president, Lambiet’s scoop might have still found its way to the large audience that loathed Trump when he was just a crude New York developer. But because Trump is in the White House, it circulates around the world, waiting to be aggregated by every writer who can come up with a one-liner about unsanitary food. (The Shiny Sheet’s website ran with the Palm Beach Post’s write-up.)

Elizabeth Clarke insists the Daily News is trying to be more than just the Mar-a-Lago blotter, but the paper is stretched when the President is in town. While Donnelly gets dispatches from inside, other reporters are busy filing on the road closures or the Marine One-size helipad Trump installed on his property, a modification that had to be approved by local authorities.

“I assume we’d do the same thing if some other resident had been trying to put in a helipad,” Clarke says. “Because he is the President there’s a little bit more urgency.”

The job should ease up if Trump follows the traditional social calendar. Gala season runs from October to April, and when the moneyed snowbirds leave, the paper goes to a twice-a-week printing schedule, covering the town in its sleepier summer months. (Donnelly sometimes files the society column from Cape Cod, Saratoga Springs, or other ritzy points north.) Clarke doesn’t expect that to change now just because a Shiny Sheet mainstay is the commander-in-chief.

“Local news, society news, real-estate news: that is our core thing,” Clarke says. “For us it comes back to the fact that we’re still serving our core readers. If the rest of the country’s looking and it’s newsworthy, that’s fine. We’ve got tons of work to do.”

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.