by Rick Todd
(Rick Todd is the publisher of Watermark, based in Orlando, Fla. The following column appeared in the February 17, 2022, issue of the newspaper. It is reprinted here with permission.)
The end of February marked my 20 years of employment with Watermark. More than 40 percent of my life, and over 70 percent of the paper’s existence, I have spent as a Watermark employee. That sounds awfully strange to me.
I’ve been involved in roughly 522 issues, 75 specialty guides, 80 Pride celebrations and countless community events. It is a little overwhelming to step away from our two-week production cycle and look at 20 years in its totality. Prior to Watermark, my longest consecutive time logged in any position was a year and a half. If I knew on Feb. 28, 2002, that eventually I would be writing this column as the owner and publisher of Watermark, well I just wouldn’t have believed it.
I remember that day vividly. I walked into the office with bleach blond hair, eight piercings in my face and a wrinkled shirt — it was before I knew the importance of ironing. My appearance was a stark contrast from my interview in which I had dark brown hair and no visible metal. It was such a drastic change that Watermark founder, Tom Dyer, thought the business manager had hired the wrong administrative assistant. Luckily for me, they didn’t.
In my 20 years, I have been afforded the opportunity to experience such great joy. I’ve seen amazing works of art, listened to inspiring leaders and shared in the stories that have shaped our community. The company itself has been an amazing place to be. It will never be lost on me, the value of working somewhere you can be your true and honest self. This was rare in 2002.
The joys of the past two decades have been met by equal sorrow. Most notably are the losses of staff members and friends of the paper we held so dear. Every one of them has played an important role in what this organization is today, and who I have become. Watermark has seen some setbacks with recessions and the housing crisis of the late 2000s, and most recently with COVID-19.
We have also created a few dark times of our own, dropping the ball on occasion. I’m looking at you Stratosphere and Fire and Ice parties. We have had a few editorial stumbles along the way as well. They were hard lessons to learn, but we listened and took measures to correct them.
My personal journey over the past 20 years has mirrored the ups and downs of the company. I’ve made some egregious errors from which I have grown, I have lost some people very close to me and I have experienced all the good that happiness can bring.
There are snapshots of my time here that I think of fondly. For example, hiding under a tent at Lake Eola during a terrible afternoon thunderstorm. I had locked myself out of my car while working a booth space for a Center picnic one year. My roommate and I were trapped under the Watermark tent for an hour, alone and playing cards while hoping not to be struck by lightning. Jen and I worked every event, all day, rain or shine or thunderstorm.
I remember soaking people with water guns at the Wet Party in Tampa in my early days and I remember Pat Benatar at Tampa Pride. I remember my first Typhoon Lagoon night party.
Back then it was called Beach Ball and it was one of Watermark’s successful event creations. The impact of being around so many LGBTQ people in one space is a feeling I will always remember.
My favorite memory is sitting in the conference room with the staff while President Obama congratulated our community on marriage equality. A moment no one in that room thought they would live to see.
So much has changed in the past 20 years. With the rise of the internet and social media, we have had to adjust how we report the news. With the growth of our community it has become increasingly difficult to be everywhere all the time. I am beyond proud of this staff and what they are able to accomplish.
I am most proud, though, of the work we do with our local community organizations. In my tenure, Watermark had donated over $4 million in advertising to nonprofits and businesses in need. I am often criticized for how local my brain works, but local regional news is why we are here. We tell the stories of our community by our community. Central Florida and Tampa Bay are my home and that’s the community I want to focus on.
My hope is that our readers feel as much a part of this newspaper as I do. I hope reading this paper keeps you engaged in our local community and inspired by those in it. I feel lucky to be here and I am honored to get to do the work that I do. Here’s to 20 more years!