You can be a tell-it-like-it-is newspaperman or you can live a fruitful life in a small town.
It’s next to impossible to do both.
Joel Smith was one of the few people I knew who could. Smith, 80, died last week.
He was the editor and publisher of The Eufaula Tribune for nearly 50 years, and twice a week his newspaper told the truth as he and a couple of reporters understood it.
He was Eufaula’s biggest cheerleader. He fought for what was right. He was on the front lines of the fight for historic preservation in a town that is now known nationally for it.
He told the truth because he dearly loved his adopted hometown and the people to whom he delivered the news.
At times, the truth was not what people in a small town wanted to see on the front page of their paper. When one of his wife’s best friends was killed by her husband, the newspaper covered the case with the vigor of a big-city daily going after the crime story of the century.
When his attorney’s son got in trouble with the law, his newspaper didn’t sugarcoat it.
He intently watched the events happening in his community of 17,000 people, took notes, then told the truth.
He was as sturdy as the precious antebellum homes that line North Eufaula Avenue.
Growing up there, I watched Mr. Joel while he was watching everything else.
The man fascinated me. Even after I left to pursue my own newspaper career, I would always pick up a copy of “The Trib.” The first thing I would read was his column, “Candid Comments.”
My first byline, as a high school kid, was in that paper.
I watched as The Tribune reported things some influential people didn’t want published. But many of those same folks who would grumble about a front-page story, or cuss him behind his back, would make sure that Joel and his wife, Ann, had an invitation to their daughter’s wedding. They wanted to make sure the good news — the really important stuff like small-town nuptials — got proper play in Ann’s society column.
All of that was not lost on his son Jack Smith, either.
“It hurt him to write stories that hurt his friends,” Jack said. “But he did it anyway, because that’s what he had to do.”
He did it with dignity, integrity, intellectual curiosity and mental toughness. That’s the right mix when you have access to barrels of ink and tons of paper.
“I tell you, he was tough as nails,” Jack said. “But he was a gentle soul.”
Sometimes the truth hurt. Jack remembers one story in particular.
In the 1970s, Smith was at a Rotary Club meeting where the police chief told the group that there was a drug problem at Eufaula High School.
The newspaperman had the audacity to put it on the front page with a big headline.
“All hell broke loose,” Jack said.
He was censured by the teachers at the school. His house was egged, his car tires were slashed and a string of firecrackers was lit on the front porch of his home, right on the city’s tree-lined main drag a block from downtown.
Nothing can get a newspaperman in trouble quicker than the truth.
A small town newspaper publisher is also a businessman, who depends heavily on advertising revenue from the same people that make news.
In this time when newspapers are struggling, Joel Smith could serve as an example. He never laid off workers or cut their pay when times got rough.
He told his folks to continue to publish an excellent newspaper, and the rest would take care of itself.
And it did. The Tribune office is full of awards from the Alabama Press Association. Joel and Ann Smith were honored a few years ago by the APA for a lifetime of achievement.
After spending four decades as editor, Smith gave his son the job in 1999. He remained publisher until the Smiths sold the paper to Media General in 2006. They sold out right before the bottom fell out of the newspaper market.
Good businessmen can time the market.
Smith didn’t need a consultant to tell him local news sold local newspapers.
“Hyperlocal is a new phenomenon,” Jack said. “He insisted everything we do be about Eufaula, Barbour County or Quitman County. He knew that 50 years ago.”
Not only did he tell it like it was, he told it every week. His column ran weekly for 51 years.
That’s 2,652 opportunities for candid comment.
That’s consistency. It also sent a message: The newspaperman, no matter how bad the news, wasn’t going away — not even when he had open-heart surgery in 1995.
Not long after they cracked open his chest, he wrote a column.
“Praise God and Dr. Pacifico,” he wrote.
Last weekend, the Methodist church in Eufaula was packed. Colleagues and friends came to say goodbye to the newspaperman.
Many times, Smith used his column to eulogize a friend. From time to time, it was someone who over the years had taken exception to something Smith’s newspaper had published.
“He had a unbelievable capacity to forgive people,” Jack said.
But Joel Smith always knew a good newspaperman gets the last word.