First journalism job was a labor of love

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Print this page By Robert Powell

I had a lot to learn in my first journalism job, which I started in July 1976.

My employer was The Blackshear Times, a weekly newspaper in rural Southeast Georgia where tobacco was the cash crop. I am a Georgia native but grew up 300 miles away in an industrial city that made cannons during the Civil War. I had summer jobs at a carpet mill and an aluminum plant, but I knew almost nothing about farming.

Less than two weeks after I arrived, a huge local tobacco warehouse, The Big Z, burned to the ground. Even though Blackshear was a small town (about 3,000 people), I didn’t know where the warehouse was.  Nonetheless, I got a crash course on tobacco economics that day, and the newspaper put out a special edition.

In 1976, The Blackshear Times had a tight-knit staff of six. Robert Williams, the publisher, editor and owner of the paper, was 26. The oldest person on the payroll probably was under 35.

The paper was regularly the top winner of state journalism awards in its circulation category. That was a big reason I came to Blackshear. The newspaper’s motto is “Liked by Many, Cussed by Some, Read by Them All.”

Despite its feisty reputation, The Times has a heart. One day, an elderly woman driving her husband to the doctor took a wrong turn. The husband was killed in the collision.  We took a dramatic photo of the wreck that I wanted to put on page one. Williams said no. This woman has been devastated by what happened, he explained, we are not going to add to her grief.

The Times exposed me to every aspect of newspaper operations, including printing and distribution. On production day, in addition to helping paste up pages, my job included making the trip back and forth to the  printer about 30 miles away. The entire press run fit nicely in the back of Williams’ Ford station wagon.

Most of the papers were mailed to subscribers. I delivered the rest to local stores. I often would be greeted by a group of men milling about the cashier’s counter waiting for the paper. They fussed at me if I was running late, but that didn’t bother me. I was thrilled that they were anxious to get their hands on the latest issue.

Blackshear is the seat of Pierce County, which had a population of about 10,000 in 1976. Everyone was on a first-name basis. Sometimes in local government meetings, I struggled to decipher cryptic discussions about longstanding disputes that were never explained. “When that guy came into the room and said, ‘You know why I’m here,’ what exactly was that about?” I asked a clerk after one meeting.

Being a reflection of a local community means that a weekly often publishes things a daily paper wouldn’t. These extras include “locals,” long streams of tidbits about the goings and comings of neighbors. Weeklies also publish photos of nearly every event in the community, from the installation of civic club officers to the big fish someone caught down at the river.

Blackshear had one type of photo I haven’t seen anywhere else: dead rattlesnakes. The prevailing custom was for the paper to take your photo if you killed a big snake. While I was in Blackshear, I took pictures of three men holding dead snakes and another (shot with a telephoto lens) of a fellow with a live snake in a trash can.  Williams ran a note in The Times, saying that while the paper was happy to publish photos of any snakes that readers caught, “please be sure they are dead first” before bringing them to the office.

I called Williams the other day to find out how much things have changed in 40 years. The tobacco industry there is very different today. There were more than 250 Pierce County tobacco farmers in 1976. Now there are seven. Their farms are large and produce a lot of
tobacco, but the auctions and warehouses that had been a big part of the local economy have disappeared. Pierce remains an agricultural county, but farmers have moved on to other crops including blueberries, cotton and peanuts.

The decline of the tobacco market, however, has not interfered with the county’s growth. Now with more than 20,000 people, Pierce has become an increasingly affluent bedroom community for Waycross, a regional commercial hub about nine miles from Blackshear. A big factor in this development, Williams says, has been the county’s focus on the quality of its schools, resulting in higher standardized test scores than many surrounding counties.

Williams’ business has changed as well. He now owns five weekly newspapers employing more than 20 people. Earlier this year, he celebrated 45 years as the owner of The Blackshear Times. During that period, he served as president of the Georgia Press Association at age 30 and became president of the National Newspaper Association in 2013-14.

A few weeks ago, the Georgia Press Association presented The Times with 12 journalism awards. Williams says that, after 45 years, he has run out of room to display all the plaques.

“It’s not like the way it used to be, but community newspapers are kind of in a niche that is going to be around for awhile,” he says.

Amen to that.

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