The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

August 5, 2013

A sincere ‘thank you’ to my mentors

Commentary By Adam Smith
adam@athensnews-courier.com

— Did you have a mentor growing up? Do you have a mentor now?

Sometimes you don’t realize a person is a mentor — whether it is personally or professionally — until much later in your life.

I’ve been lucky in my journalism career because I’ve had not only great mentors, but also some great peers. And now, as I write my final column as an employee of The News Courier, I thought I’d talk about a couple of them.

Mr. Stallworth

In April of 1997, I stopped by my friend Dave Mathews’ apartment after class. (Not the famous Dave Mathews. He was always quick to say, “Just like the singer, but with one ‘T.’”) He was thumbing through a copy of the school paper and verbally ripping it to shreds.

He had the bright idea that we should volunteer our services. I didn’t have much else on the ball at the time, aside from a part-time job at a talk radio station in Anniston. So, his proposal seemed like a good idea to me.

It was announced a few weeks later that a planning session for the next year would be held, so my buddy Dave and I went. The handful of would-be journalists ate lunch together and met the paper’s new editor and the paper’s advisor, Clarke Stallworth.

Mr. Stallworth was a state journalism legend, but I didn’t know it at the time. While a reporter for the Birmingham Post-Herald in the 1950s, he was nearly killed by the Ku Klux Klan in an ambush. He also extensively covered the civil rights movement and the state National Guard’s takeover of Phenix City.

He had been through the war and achieved greatness, but he didn’t brag about it. Instead, he handed us all strips of paper, which contained the same typed phrase: “What does this story mean to the reader?”

Mr. Stallworth asked us all to tape those strips of paper to our outdated computer monitors.

“When you’re writing your story,” he’d say, “think about what it means to the reader. How can you convey this story to the man sitting at the red light in the beat up ol’ pickup truck or the girl studying at the library?”

Much of the staff at the student newspaper was too immature to care about those strips of paper. I now realize there’s nothing more important than ensuring a story — no matter how inconsequential it may be to the author — reaches the widest audience possible.

I would cross paths with Mr. Stallworth again a few years later after I left my first professional newspaper job at The Gadsden Times and went to work at the now-defunct Birmingham Post-Herald. He was working there at the time as a writing coach and editor of a page called “Y’all.”

When the paper’s owner, Scripps Howard, announced it was pulling the plug on the paper in September 2005, Mr. Stallworth wrote the paper’s eulogy in the form of a beautiful front-page story.

I never got the chance to thank Mr. Stallworth for that strip of paper. He passed away in 2008.

Mr. Dobyns

My dad spent much of his working life on the second or third shift at the Anniston Army Depot. That meant I didn’t see him much during the week growing up, except on weekends.

When I was two or three years old, however, I have the vague memory of him waking me up and getting me out of bed in the middle of the night. He basically wanted someone to eat ice cream and watch TV with.

His choice of program at the time was “NBC News Overnight,” featuring Linda Ellerbee and Lloyd Dobyns. I don’t remember much about the program itself because I wasn’t much older than a toddler.

As fate would have it, Mr. Dobyns began his second act as a journalism professor at JSU the same year I started my journalism career.

Mr. Dobyns was the last of the great curmudgeons. “I hate college kids,” he’d tell us. “But I like students.”

He liked the newspaper staff, however, because he got his start as a newspaper reporter. However, a fellow newspaper staffer and me were severely dismayed when Mr. Dobyns gave us both a “D” in the class. Not making a “C” or better meant we’d have to repeat the class again the next semester to stay in the communications program.

His reasoning for the “D” grade? “I liked having you both around,” he told us.

We were both miffed, but we liked being in his class as much as he liked having us around.

“What’s wrong with the lead on this story?” he’d ask me. I’d often be puzzled by his question.

“Well, keep rewriting it until you figure it out,” he’d say.

The correct answer was that my leads were too wordy; they didn’t sum up the crux of the story in one well-constructed opening sentence. Mr. Dobyns wasn’t necessarily a proponent of what journalism professors call the inverted pyramid — important information at the top, followed by supporting comments and background. Mr. Dobyns was simply a fan of tight, succinct writing.

I lost touch with Mr. Dobyns after I left JSU, but each time I write a lead now, I ask myself, “What would Dobyns think?”

Peers and mentors

This is the sixth and last (for the time being) newspaper I’ve worked for. Along the way, I’ve met a lot of colorful, talented and wonderful people. The same is true of the staff I’ve had here.

The newsroom staff of The News Courier is also comprised of the fewest workers I’ve ever worked with in a daily newspaper setting. The paper has no full-time photographer or page designer. With that being said, the staff of this paper wears many hats. But they wear those hats with purpose and drive to produce the best community newspaper possible.

I hope the community continues to support them. No one at this paper is in this business to get rich; they are here because they love what they do. And I sincerely believe they are the best small daily newspaper staff in the world.

I hope you’ll continue to support this newspaper for many years to come. I know I will.

As always, thanks for reading.

— Outgoing managing editor Adam Smith can still be reached at adam@athensnews-courier.com until Monday at 5 p.m.