HALL COLUMN: At least he called me by my name

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Shortly after I arrived in Demopolis, Tom Jones came to visit me. We talked for a while about the newspaper business. We even shared a few stories about our various experiences in newspapers.

I thought him an affable gentleman who seemed to be on the outs with a few people, thus the little newspaper he was printing out of his home at the time. (The name escapes me, as it lasted but a few editions.)

What sticks out about his visit was the encouragement he gave. He was duly impressed with what we were doing here, he said. I took him at his word. It was a brief discussion, but it was still memorable.

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The meeting reminded me of a couple more that I’ve had when after just a few weeks arriving in a new place someone with editorial ties sought me out.

In Houston, Miss., it was the former chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court, Armis Hawkins. He gave me a book signed by the original owner of The Times-Post, the weekly newspaper in Houston. The book sits prominently on my office shelf at home.

In Forest, it was Sid Salter &045; one of Mississippi’s premier political columnists &045; and then Bubby Johnston, a former editor and the son of the longtime owner of the newspaper, Erle Johnston.

Sid and I became fast friends, seeing as how we already knew one another somewhat prior to that. I count Sid as one of my greatest mentors in this business.

Bubby and I went to church together, and he became an easy source of information in the town. We remained friends until I left.

There is a great distinction between Mr. Jones and the men I met at previous newspapers. Hawkins, Salter and Johnston were all giant gentlemen in their professions who value competition, decency and fellow compatriots &045; whether they were a journalist or a retired judge or a former journalist now working at a local college. Mr. Jones is none of these things, and that’s OK. I won’t come &8220;unglued&8221; about it like he said, nor will I lose any sleep over it.

And in this column, I will not call him names, as he has done me, and I won’t disparage the newspaper for which he writes, like he has done to this one.

I learned many years ago &045; some 12 years when I first started writing for newspapers &045; that hateful criticism comes from ignorance and jealousy while constructive criticism comes from a desire to help one improve.

With that in mind, perhaps this is a good time to share with not only Mr. Jones but with our readership at large a little bit about the editorial people who work at this newspaper and some of the things we are doing.

First off, I’m sure Mr. Jones may have had a distinguished career at one time. I’m sure he taught students who went on to distinguished careers themselves. And for sure, a man semi-retired at his age has more experience than I do.

That said, inexperienced, as he claims, I am not. My career to date has been a blessed one. I’ve been given opportunities that I would not have had were it not for God’s good grace and the faith some pretty damned good newspapermen had in my potential at the time. The men and women with whom I’ve worked have made me a better journalist. (And one of them has kept me from going off half-cocked and telling Mr. Jones what I really think about his column, his ability and the newspaper for which he writes.)

That was Gennie Phillips, our managing editor, who has been doing this professionally for seven years. She received her journalism degree from the University of Southern Mississippi. Us meeting in Forest at The Scott County Times was serendipitous. She has a natural understanding for producing community newspapers, managing staff and being responsible to both readers and advertisers. It’s a complete package in her abilities, and that has been a blessing to me.

God willing, one day down the road, Gennie will move on, either as an editor in a larger market or as a publisher somewhere. I’ll miss working with her, but I won’t begrudge her the success she deserves in life. And if I did not believe in her abilities, then I would not have brought her here to work with us. This is a terrific market, a great place to publish a newspaper, and I knew she would be a natural fit.

Brandon Glover, comparatively speaking, is less experienced. He’s just two years out of the journalism program at the University of Alabama. He’s also one of the most well-read people I know. He is a gifted writer who continues to hone his skills, which in my opinion are far more advanced than most journalists at this stage in their careers.

Our sports editor is a retired fire fighter who is working on his second career. He started out stringing for our sister newspaper, The Selma Times-Journal. He has family roots here, and has developed a lot of relationships with our area coaches. He’s starting to broaden our sports coverage to include as many of the school athletics as possible.

As for those who came before us, this newspaper has been blessed with great talent. Unfortunately, in the months preceding our arrival, much of that talent was gone or transitioning out. It left a void, and our news product suffered greatly. This is no secret, and it is nothing with which people like Danny Smith and Jan McDonald &045; exceptional editorial leaders who remain in our community &045; would disagree.

Going forward, we have made the calculated decision to reign in our coverage area. We want to focus on our core market, which is Demopolis, Linden and Marengo County. This is our home, our audience, and we will serve them best. We will also continue to cover regional issues that affect not only our core market but the Blackbelt Region as a whole.

And as to this ongoing, petty feud over design techniques, I respectfully disagree with Mr. Jones’ assessment. Design techniques &045; and their uses &045; are evolving rapidly. We’ll continue to evolve our design, and it will be &045; as it has always been &045; appropriate.

So, go ahead and take your shots. My skin is plenty thick enough. I’ve faced worse from governors, senators, lobbyists and fathers of baseball teams whose picture was not in the newspaper.

I have said all I plan to say on this. Our work will speak for itself, and I hope Mr. Jones continues to read it.

Sam R. Hall is editor and publisher of The Times. He can be reached by e-mail to sam.hall@demopolistimes.com.