Even as Derek Dunn-Rankin approached his 90s, he kept true to certain rituals and routines. A big one: Every July Fourth he swam a mile across the Peace River.
Dunn-Rankin, say several people who knew him well, was faithfully consistent in many aspects of his life, particularly his devotion to his family and community journalism. The founder and chairman of the Charlotte County-based Sun Coast Media Group, a collection of daily, weekly and twice weekly newspapers, Dunn-Rankin died the weekend of April 16 at his home in Venice. He was 88.
“I can't imagine a Florida Press Association convention without Derek in his seersucker suit and bow tie,” says Matt Walsh, editor and CEO of the Observer Media Group, publisher of the Business Observer. “He was the dean of Florida newspaper entrepreneurs — and clearly looked and lived the part.”
Dunn-Rankin got his start in the business early, when he was a delivery boy for the Miami News at 11 years old, according to a Charlotte Sun story. He was editor of the student paper at Rollins College and in his senior year he was the sports editor of the Sanford Daily Herald.
Dunn-Rankin later worked for newspapers in North Carolina and Virginia. He returned to Florida and bought the Venice Gondolier in 1977, launching the Sun Coast Media Group in rented office space. The paper used subcontracted printers. A few weeks later the company bought some other publications, including the Advertiser in Venice and the Englewood Times. In 1979 the company bought the Charlotte Sun, and by 1995 it owned its buildings and printing presses in Venice and Port Charlotte. The Charlotte Sun started publishing a daily edition in 1987.
The latest expansion occurred during the recession, when Sun Coast Media Group bought several Polk County publications, including the Polk County Democrat, the Lake Wales News and the Fort Meade Leader. It was counterintuitive purchases like that, in a down market, which impressed Charlotte Sun Editor John Hackworth.
“I learned so much from him about what a community newspaper should be,” says Hackworth, who joined the company in 1995 after working for Knight Ridder, a onetime newspaper industry giant. “He was ahead of his time 20 years ago.”
Hackworth says Dunn-Rankin was one of the sharpest and shrewdest businessmen he ever met, but the gentlemanly publisher also had a lesser-known soft side. It was bittersweet, adds Hackworth, that Dunn-Rankin died a few days before the Charlotte Sun won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials that probed an inmate's death at the Charlotte Correctional Institute. “He really cared about his papers, his employees and his community,” Hackworth says.
Walsh agrees, calling Dunn-Rankin one of the “most likable, lovable, happy guys you'd ever meet” and an inspiration in community journalism.
“Early in the life of the Business Observer, we were partners with Derek and his company,” says Walsh. “I relished then whatever time I was able to sit with Derek and talk shop. To this day, I still share some of Derek's golden nuggets of wisdom with our staff.”
Dunn-Rankin is survived by his wife, four sons, a daughter and several grandchildren. No funeral or memorial service information was available at press time.