In the latter half of the twentieth century, a print and a broadcast journalist collectively reported on the people and events in Savannah, Georgia, for more than 100 years. As exceptional as their record of longevity, however, was the way in which they went about their jobs. Newspaperman Tom Coffey and TV anchor Doug Weathers practiced "community journalism," not only reporting upon their audiences but forming a mutually beneficial relationship with them. It is an approach whose beginnings date to the earliest days of American journalism but whose practice is becoming increasingly rare today. This article explores how these two men defined their daily work in a distinctive manner and the impact their efforts had on the community as they worked with the people of Savannah rather than trying significantly to alter things.
Journalism historians traditionally have focused their research on national media outlets and their employees. Studies of men and women breaking stories at the New York Times or the Washington Post have been common while small-market print journalists, on the other hand, have received limited attention. "The common misconception is that the community paper is a small version of the big-city daily," observed Jock Lauterer in 2000.1 Metropolitan and small-market newspapers share a basic form, but the philosophy that has guided day-to-day activities in each is dissimilar. The same difference has been evident in local television news. "Little has been written about the history of local television, unless the station has had some national significance or a national personality attached to it," noted Michael Murray in 1997.2
Some of these oversights can be attributed to the assumptions that journalism in smaller markets has not made a significant impact or has not been well done. Both assumptions reflect an uninformed perspective. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, there were 9,698 newspapers in the United States, of which 9,451 (97 percent) could be classified "community newspapers." Those were papers with circulations of less than 50,000.3 Phyllis Kaniss pointed out in 1991 that "although long overshadowed by the national media, local news has always played an important role in the way a city and region understand its problems, its opportunities, and its sense of local identity."4 When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the U.S. in 1831-32, he was struck by how Americans in small towns participated in journalism: "They [local newspapers] permit many people to think the same thoughts and to feel the same feelings, simultaneously."5
This led practitioners of this segment of journalism to refer to themselves as "community journalists." One of America's more distinguished editors in the first half of the twentieth century, William Alen White of the Emporia (Kansas) Gazette, was a small-town journalist. He believed his job, in a community of less than 10,000, was to report "the sweet, intimate story of life."6 Lauterer, a former community journalist and now an academic, has labeled this level of activity "small j" journalism. It is where a local newspaper, or less commonly a broadcast station, has played an integral role in the livelihood of its community and where the citizens have reciprocated with a heightened level of connectedness and allegiance. Despite the size of the media in these markets, added Lauterer, "their impact [has been] large."7
Several books have dealt with community journalism, but they have largely been devoted to how to practice the craft. While the authors utilized historical examples of distinctive activities, a definitive history of community journalism has not been produced. This is not surprising, given the broad range of community journalism outlets that have existed and the diversity and limited lifespan of many of them. In 1961, Kenneth Byerly wrote apparently the first book on the topic; in 1996, the staff of the Hartford Connecticut) Courant produced a text that outlined the unique strategies for producing community journalism; and Lauterer adopted a similar approach in 2000.8 What none of these works did, however, was examine in-depth the career of a nationally unknown community journalist to determine how his or her work impacted a town or region over time. That is what this article strives to do.
Community journalists are so distinctive that Bruce DeSilva and John Mura referred to them in 1996 as "a different species." They observed that community journalists "celebrate the complex lives of readers, from their homes, gardens and workplaces to their churches, shopping malls and schools."9 In such settings, it has not been uncommon for a townsperson to tell the local publisher what he thought about how the newspaper was covering a local issue while they were having their hair trimmed in adjoining barber chairs. "It's the kind of newspaper that covers the town council, prints the school lunch menus, leads the sports page with the high school football games . . . [and] runs photos of proud gardeners holding oddly shaped vegetables," said Lauterer.10
Community journalists engrain themselves in the community not just by living there but by joining public service groups such as the PTA, volunteering on service projects, and leading efforts to improve local life. Instead of striving to remain objective, distanced reporters, they became advocates for and participants in a community. In Byerly's words: "Community newspapers have something that city dailies lack - nearness to people."11 Nelson Poynter, the Pulitzer-winning president of the St. Petersburg (Florida) Times, once called involvement in this level of journalism a "sacred calling."12
Large market journalists habitually have held a negative view of small-market journalism. They thought that people employed there were either just starting their careers and would move on as soon as a better opportunity presented itself or were not skilled enough to advance to a larger market. Industry statistics support this view. In a study by Craig Allen, he noted in 2001 that "of the roughly 2,000 principal local [TV] newscasters in place at the peak of the anchor explosion in 1975, only two hundred were still working in the same cities and fewer than one hundred for the same TV station twenty-five years later."13 It has not helped that over the years the number of media outlets where community journalism is practiced has declined. Byerly noted this trend as early as 1961, and the rate of decline has only increased in the years since then because of media consolidation and suburbanization.14
However, some journalists, sometimes quite skilled ones, have chosen to remain in small markets throughout their career. The salary might not have been as high or prominence as manifest, but they "put down roots." Journalists who stayed in such venues did so because they felt more comfortable raising a family there, enjoyed the people who they worked with and reported on, and thought they might be able to actually improve the community. In addition, they formed a relationship with members of their audience that, try as they might through various strategies, major market journalists have rarely been able to achieve. They became influential opinion leaders as well as authentic "citizen journalists."
They would not have had it any other way. State press and broadcast associations have long recognized their contributions to quality journalistic practice, and so have Pulitzer selection committees, which have regularly acknowledged excellence in small-market journalism.15 But although many small-town journalists have made lasting impressions upon their communities, their work has largely gone unnoticed outside their immediate venues. They may have never broken a major story or undertaken a groundbreaking investigative series. They just went about their jobs day after day, year after year, becoming so much a part of the fabric of the community that they were not considered extraordinary, even by local audience members. They simply came to think of them as trusted friends.
Such was the case with Tom Coffey and Doug Weathers in Savannah, Georgia. Coffey spent the majority of his career in the newspaper business, and Weathers was in television. They became local icons. Coffey worked for the Savannah Morning News or Evening Press for fifty-eight years while Weathers spent forty-sevenand-a-half years in television, most if it with WTOC.16 Coffey retired in 1989 and Weathers in 2001.
Because of the uneven history of community journalism practitioners, it is impossible to determine if they set a record. There are numerous stories of journalists in other small or medium markets working for many years. However, in this case, two men collectively worked as journalists in the same town for more than 100 years. Of course, in and of itself, longevity is not a measure of quality, but the fact that they remained in their positions for so long indicates that they were doing something that readers and viewers appreciated. Audience members recognized that these men understood and cared about the place that they called home. They were not just "passing through" on their way to something bigger and better. Thus, Coffey and Weathers were selected for this study because it is exceptional when two journalists, one in print and the other in television, spend their entire careers in a single market. In addition, they both became so respected and exerted such influence that they had a significant and lasting impact on the people who read or viewed their work.
This project utilizes oral histories, newspaper archives, and previously published sources to tell the story of these two community journalists. Lauterer's work as well as the work of others is employed to create a context for these men's activities. Coffey and Weathers did not make national headlines, establish a new trend in journalism, or begin a noteworthy social movement. Instead, they went about their jobs in a way that made them representative of how many community journalists have characteristically functioned in the United States. As a result, the value of community journalism, as practiced by two types of journalists, is illuminated.
Part of the reason that they accomplished what they did was because of the distinctiveness of the place where they worked. Savannah was Georgia's first city; James Ogelthorpe founded and laid out its distinguishing squares in 1733.17 A medium-size municipality of architectural and natural charm, featuring mossdraped trees and antebellum houses, it was the last stop on General William T. Sherman's Civil War march to the ocean, but, unlike the destruction that Union troops inflicted upon Atlanta, they spared Savannah. Thanks to preservation efforts over the years, it has not succumbed to the inner-city blight that has devastated many American municipalities. Savannah includes the largest historic district in the nation and is sometimes called the Forest City because of its huge, old, mostly oak, trees. Its population has grown slowly, increasing from only 118,000 to 128,500 from 1970 and 2007.18 The slow growth has been because of the emphasis in Georgia on development around Atlanta along with community leaders' conservative views toward development.
Located approximately midway between Charleston, South Carolina, and Jacksonville, Florida, Savannah is smaller than both. Its visibility was heightened in 1994 after John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil became a best-selling book.19 One historian wrote of Savannah in 2004: "Nowhere else is to be found the old world atmosphere, the long-lived traditions, and the respect for that which is old."20 In 1994, Coffey noted "Savannah is not, like Boston, a 'state of mind,' but it's something close to that," adding that if the city had any kind of reputation, "it is that of a drinking place."21 This reputation has been perpetuated when the city annually has hosted the largest St. Patrick's Day Parade outside of New York City. But revelry aside, while many Georgia cities have developed, Savannah has stagnated. Coffey summed up the problem when he said that Savannah is a city that "cannot take 'yes' for an answer."22 Former Savannah TV news director Mike Sullivan stated it another way in 2004, referring to Savannah as "a bit down home . . . [and] parochial."23
These factors have worked together to make the Savannah media market an anomaly. Due to its location - 250 miles from Atlanta, 140 miles from Jacksonville, and 110 miles from Charleston - its population was isolated from external media until new technologies altered the situation in recent years. It is unique because its Nielsen TV market rank (currently ninety-seventh) and newspaper circulation (slightly more than 50,000) put it on the upper extreme of what is considered a small enough locale to be dubbed community journalism.24 And it has a long tradition of this type of journalism. Newspapers have been published in Savannah since 1763, and WTOC, the city's first TV station, signed on the air in 1954.
Over the years, the Associated Press and United Press International, the Georgia Press Association, and the Georgia Association of Broadcasters have honored Savannah's media and its personnel for superior work on numerous occasions.25 Jack Nelson and Theo Lippman, Jr. are among journalists who spent time in Savannah early in their careers. However, throughout history, Savannah's news outlets have been characterized by a lack of attention to "in-depth stories and exposes . . . the coverage confined mostly to straight news," according to Coffey.26 He attributed this to two reasons: some media owners "did not want to make waves" and "we didn't have the staff or talent."27 He said more than once when he got into a cab, the driver would recognize him, lean over the back of the front seat, and say, "Them lyin' papers . . . they never get off their ass and get the real news."28
Despite such criticism, both Coffey and Weathers felt they helped resolve significant issues during their careers. Coffey said one of the most important developments while he was a journalist was the conversion of city government from the mayor-council to the city manager form. Before the change, political bosses ran the city. Weathers also liked to think his reporting and activism (he served on Georgia's Penal Reform Commission) played a role in helping end the "chain gang" stitution in Georgia. Both men reported, too, on the civil rights movement. For the most part, Savannah, unlike many cities in the deep South, integrated peacefully, and Coffey and Weathers credited Mayor Malcolm McLean and postman-turnedNAACP activist W.W. Law for achieving this.29 For Weathers and Coffey, it was the most memorable series of stories that they reported during their careers.
Weathers said his presence in covering civil rights marchers became a sort of joke because he would often be the only white person, as well as the only reporter, there. Some of the leaders would remark,"Oh, Doug's here again." He said, however, that his presence paid off with African-Americans: "They saw I was there, trying to do a decent job as a newsman, not for or against civil rights but just reporting the facts. That helped my credibility tremendously with the black community."30 From the earliest days of civil rights activities in Savannah, noted Coffey, the Savannah newspapers "were in favor of what the blacks were trying to do. We didn't support them in everything they wanted to do, and we criticized them on some things, but we were mostly in favor."31
The movement touched both men in their professional and personal lives. Coffey recalled one night in the early 1960s when he took his wife to the theater, and a white friend, who was picketing outside, asked sarcastically, "Tom, you taking your wife in there with the niggers?" He replied, "No, I'm taking my wife to see this movie." The man shook his head in exasperation and walked away and did not speak to him for several years. The Savannah papers paid an economic price for such open support. "Less than 100 people cancelled their subscriptions," he said, "but the newspapers withstood the losses, and kept up the coverage."32
The current chair of the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum in Savannah, African-American Helen Johnson, was working at Weathers' station in 1962 or 1963 when he warned her that racist J.B. Stoner was going to be coming in. Gene Downs of the Savannah Morning News wrote in 2001 what occurred:
When he arrived, Johnson asked, "May I help you?" Stoner answered, "No nigger can help me do nothing." Johnson said, "Well, I can't help you, then." She called Weathers on the phone and told him about the exchange, and Weathers went to the lobby, where Stoner greeted him with effusive praise. Weathers let Stoner finish, then looked at him and said calmly, "If you need me, let Helen know and she'll get me." With that, he turned on his heel and went back to his office, and Stoner was forced to have Johnson call Weathers back to the lobby.33
While he was covering the civil rights movement, Weathers said he failed to fully appreciate the African-Americans' plight. "Being brought up in the South ... I did not understand what they were doing. It started out just as a story to me," he said. "Now I'm smarter. I can sympathize more with what they were doing and why. ... If I were black, I would have been right there in the front row marching."34
Although Coffey entered journalism a decade before Weathers, the two men's careers overlapped from the 1950s until the 1990s. When they were working as journalists, Savannah was steeped in the good 'ole boy traditions of the South, and they were called upon to cover events in a community that did not readily welcome change. Neither man was formally trained as a reporter. Fred Fedler's research on journalists who attained success during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries found that "many of the journalists who achieved their goals were unable to explain how they did it. They started at the bottom and, somehow, reached the top. Luck . . . helped, along with intelligence, determination, flexibility and sacrifice."35 Such sentiments describe the careers of Coffey and Weathers. Current Savannah Morning News Editorial Editor Tom Barton said of them: "They came up in an era when you had to bust your butt to make a living. You did everything; it wasn't glamorous. It was hard work for not a lot of money.
Coffey began his news career in 1935 as a schoolboy delivering papers, and journalism fascinated him. One of the reasons was because of the people with whom he worked. One of his earliest memories was of Walter Brogan, a middle-aged African-American, who was foreman of the circulation department:
If a white boy ever had a black father figure, mine was Mt. Brogan. He knew us paperboys by name and each day he would slip a couple of extra papers into our bundles, telling us to use them to get new subscribers. He knew if we could sell those extras at a nickel apiece, that would be all profit for us. Indeed, three papers at five cents equaled the price of a week's subscription - and we weren't chatged for those exttas! In later yeats he would walk into the editorial office to chat, telling me time and again how proud he was that one of his "boys" was making it up the ladder as an editor.37
Coffey did not attend college. He said he got his first "real job" in journalism "by luck" in 1940, immediately after graduating from high school, with the Evening Press.38 Because of the impending war, the National Guard called up one of the reporters, the copyboy was promoted to reporter, and Coffey became a copyboy. Within eight months, he, too, became a reporter, but in 1942 he was drafted and spent three years as a combat infantryman, rising to staff sergeant. While leading a patrol on the island of Luzon in June 1945, he stumbled upon a Japanese soldier. They both fired their rifles at point-blank range with Coffey sustaining a shoulder wound and the enemy soldier dying from being shot in the head. After receiving his "million dollar wound," he recovered and returned to his journalism job in Savannah.
As a fledgling reporter prior to the war, Coffey remembered a group of policemen "initiating" him on the third night of his career. He had stopped by the downtown precinct and, after asking if there was any breaking news, was told to look at the open blotter on the sergeant's desk. "I started reading the report," he said, "and my adrenaline began to run. By golly, this was one helluva story-all about a shootout on the west side which a policeman shot a bad guy in the leg to subdue him. Several backup units had been dispatched. I telephoned the office and started dictating as I read from the report: a young reporter's dream!" About that time, he heard policemen behind him laughing as well as his editor on the other end of the line doing the same, and he realized the police had made up a phony report. His face turned several shades of red. "That was how they initiated reporters, to see if they could 'take it.' From then on, the cops leveled with me on just about everything," he added.39
Eventually he became the only person to be managing editor for both the Evening Press and the Morning News. Upon concluding his career, during which he held practically every position at the two papers, Coffey's favorite memories were of being a reporter. He liked digging up facts and "enjoyed getting the jump [scoop] on other reporters."40 The Evening Press and the Morning News, although jointly owned during much of his career, maintained separate editorial staffs. In 1950, he was promoted to Morning News sports editor, a position he held until 1956. In that same year, he left the paper to become the first news and sports director at WSAV-TV, the second station in Savannah to receive a television license.
He spent only a year and a half at WSAV, largely because he constituted the entire news and sports staff. Except for the challenges of carrying heavy film cameras to shoot stories and writing briefer ones than he had at the newspaper, Coffey said his time in television was "fun" although he had "to be on top of the news twenry-four-seven. It wore me down." During his tenure at the station, he was proud that he introduced film coverage to TV news in Savannah. He contended with WTOC's Bob Noble to get stories on the air first. "I doubt today's television reporters enjoy the thrills that Bob and I had in competing, using primitive equipment and with cunning and guile trying to outwit and outflank each other," recalled Coffey.41
After his TV stint, he returned to the newspaper sports editorship and then was promoted to city editor of the Evening Press in 1960. During the 1960s and 1970s, Coffey left the Savannah papers twice to work as the assistant to Savannah's city manager and as the acting city manager for a total of five years. He returned to the newspaper for the last time as associate editor in 1974, and the publisher told him that it would be the last time he would be rehired. Morning News Executive Editor Wallace M. Davis, Jr. noted in a story the significance of rehiring Coffey: "The combination of Tom and Larry Powell will give us one of the finest teams of editorial writers in the Southeast."42
Coffey's years in city hall proved valuable when he returned to journalism. His time as a city official did not alter his journalistic views, he said, but it increased his respect for government because he understood it better "than if I had been on the editorial page" and it helped him "better comprehend why government did or didn't do certain things." He remained associate editor for the next fourteen years, and now that he was a member of the press former city government colleagues sometimes tried to stonewall him. "We had to push them to get news, but we always got it," he said with a grin.43
Coffey enjoyed a lifelong love affair with Savannah. Throughout his newspaper career he wrote columns, often as many as seven a week, first about sports and then about news and community life. The newspapers' management encouraged him to write columns because readers said they enjoyed them, and there were no "off-limit" topics. Some of the columns were controversial but most were not. Former Savannah TV news anchor Ralph Price said of him: "Tom's columns were received in a positive fashion. . . . They were easy to read. He had a downto-earth quality about him ... no pretensions and no airs. I would rank Tom tops in print journalism around here."44 Coffey said the editors "never bothered me about my columns. ... I never had any pressure to do anything but my job. Once and a while someone would ask me why I had written something, but that was it."45
His line, "a city that cannot take 'yes' for an answer," was repeated around town for years, especially when someone wanted to poke fun at conservative views. Coffey said that attitude held Savannah back from making progress like other Georgia communities, especially Atlanta. But for the most part the theme that ran through his columns was his upbeat view of the city. Over the years, he commented on practically everything, not only locally but nationally and internationally, with his words representing the common man's point of view. Topics ranged from education, politics, declining morality, Savannah's venerable trees, the value of Boy Scouts, risk taking, and the rising cost of postage stamps.
Instead of devoting a lot of space to public officials or business leaders, he enjoyed highlighting ordinary Savannahans and the bigger lessons that readers could learn from their lives. One column spoke about giving a second chance to a local attorney who had been disbarred for stealing money from clients after growing up a "good kid" in Savannah: "I'm pulling for him [Bubba Haupt]. So are many others who saw in him, years ago, that certain thing called character, something I'm betting he never lost but only shunted aside for a while."46 In another column, he addressed community dissent about the building of an exclusive gated neighborhood in Savannah: "Let's all give one another a break, not only in the matter of where one lives but in all other differences. After all, differences and the blending thereof are what have made this independent nation great. They can make our community great."47 Commenting on his writing, Barton said, "He didn't come across as the neighborhood scold - he suggested alternatives, or a better way of doing things. His legacy is that he . . . helped people see themselves through his columns."48
Coffey acknowledged the contributions of local institutions to the vitality of the community. He celebrated Father's Day and paid homage to the fortieth anniversary of the G.I. Bill and how it had improved life for many Americans.49 A devout Episcopalian, he also always wrote a heartfelt mas story. His columns were well written, thought-provoking, often dripping with irony and sage advice. Journalists at larger dailies would consider many of his subjects pedestrian, but Vicki Simons, editor of The (Hillsdale, New York) Independent, said they are the norm in such settings:
Community papers are chocked full of reports on the offsetting triumphs of life: There are profiles of courage, accomplishment or simply good heartedness. Much of the mainstream mass media turns its nose up this kind of coverage. By their lights it's not important enough to make the cut. But in terms of real effects on real peoples' lives, this [her emphasis] is where the action is. . . . This noseclose-to-the ground reporting gives community journalists an up-close-and-personal view of their communities.50
During the 1980s, three events accentuated Coffey's ability to provide historical context for readers. On the day after John Hinckley attempted to assassinate President Reagan in 1981, Coffey wrote it was "A Time for Anger:" "[Reagan] represents all loyal Americans. Yesterday's assailant stained America's escutcheon, trespassed on its health. Politics aside, it should make us all angry."51 In 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded, he called upon an old movie title, "Arise, My Love," to poignantly commemorate the loss of Christa McAuliffe and six other astronauts: "We all share the sadness. Undimmed, though, is confidence that other launchings will be successful. These astronauts are [Amelia] Earhart's and [Wiley] Post's; only their names are different."52
Coffey expressed pride as well as anger in several 1991 columns when Savannah native and personal friend Clarence Thomas underwent cross-examination for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. "I cannot picture him [Thomas], on whatever bench he might sit, dealing with any case except fairly," he wrote.53 As the confrontational hearings wound down, he wanted to celebrate Thomas' nomination, but he expressed exasperation instead: "Things became more mean-spirited as the days dragged on. Sarcasm, innuendo, outright accusations - so thick. . . . Motives were read into everything. . . . Paranoia prevailed, both sides." He concluded that his "exuberance was long drained off. Though happy at the outcome, my tears were the sad kind. . . . No job's worth it."54
Coffey persuaded Barton to take his current job and taught him how to become a "persuasive writer," like an attorney arguing a case. Barton said Coffey represented a "vanishing breed: "He could have worked anywhere he wanted to. He had all the tools to be first rate: he had worked in government, knew most people in town, and had a great sense of fairness. . . . He was not afraid to rock the boat when it needed it."55 Summing up his journalistic approach, Coffey said, "A journalist should never tailor his standards to the size of the community. The job of a journalist should be exactly as it should be on the New York Times, the Atlanta JournalConstitution, or the Podunk Herald!56 He continued to write two columns a week for nine years after "retiring" from the paper. A telling commentary on his journalistic influence was that even after he retired he encountered people for several years who said they read his column every day.57
Barton said the Morning News had a lot of staff turnover over the years, and young reporters would say of veterans like Coffey, whom some called a dinosaur or "has-been," "Where's your Pulitzers?" But, according to Barton, "After you work with guys like that for years, you understand that these people were great journalists. They had lots of information. . . . You could ask him about anyone or anything in town and he knew something that could help you. He meant a lot to the newspaper." He added that in this time of declining newspaper readership, employees like Coffey have the ability to "draw readers to the newspaper. . . . They're a valuable asset." In the final analysis, said Barton, he "personified the good in Savannah. He built bridges between the divergent working class and ethnic groups. He saw Savannah, warts and all, and wanted to make it a better place. He helped Savannah see itself. He truly believed this was a great place to live, and he helped make this town a better place."58
Whereas Coffey was the print "conscience" of Savannah, Weathers served as its highly-visible "personality" in a way that only a TV anchor can. Detroit News TV critic Mike Bass once observed that "[Detroiters] don't care about Chopin, Mozart. . . . But they do care about their television. It takes a lot for Detroiters to trust you." Yet, once they "accept a personality, they consider that celebrity as one of them [and] a seemingly unbreakable trust is built."59 To understand what he was talking about is to understand Weathers and his relationship with Savannah. Barton summed it up: "Doug was everybody's favorite uncle."60
Weathers began at WTOC-TV as a film editor in 1954. Originally from Florida, he had just finished serving in the army at Savannah's Hunter Army Airfield. When he had spare time from editing, he took telephone notes for stories from Noble and also began trying his own hand at writing, although anchor Dave Randle usually had to rewrite his stories because they were too wordy. Weathers remembered how excited he was when he first heard his own words on the air. At the time, WTOC was only doing a fifteen-minute news, weather, and sportscast at 6:15 p.m., which followed the CBS fifteen-minute evening newscast. He learned his soon-to-be lifelong profession on the job and within a short time started reporting from the field.
The two biggest developments that Weathers witnessed in his early years in TV news were the move to film (and later soundfilm coverage) and the expansion of the 6:15 newscast to thirty minutes at 6, followed by the network's expanded thirty-minute news show at 6:30. He recalled that doing TV news then was much more difficult than now. He particularly marveled at the introduction of videotape in the 1960s, which allowed for instantaneous playback, calling it an "amazing development." During the 1950s and 1960s, he added, there was a "pecking order" of news coverage in Savannah; the newspapers had most stories in print before the TV stations aired them, and the stations only got stories first if they broke at night. After a few years, this changed because of improved technology and larger staffs, and the public turned to TV as its more immediate news sources.
As Weathers gained experience and his mentors moved on, he advanced to anchor of the evening news and then news director in 1961. The most appropriate phrase to describe him, according to former news director Sullivan, was "'home cooking.' Savannah viewers demonstrated they didn't want 'slick;' they wanted 'real.'"61 Weathers was ing and humorous not only on the air but in person, and his brand of humor was best demonstrated by one of his favorite jokes. He would ask people "if they had heard of students who had graduated college Summa Cum Laude." When they said they had, he loved to respond, "Well, I graduated, "Thank the Laude.'"62
As time passed, however, Weathers also became the target of viewer jokes for a number of reasons. One was because of his practice of spending time during newscasts featuring homespun stories about unusually large farm produce. He said this began when he happened to notice a farmer who had driven nearly 100 miles from Vidalia, Georgia, to Savannah to show off a huge cabbage that he had grown. Weathers took a picture of the man with the vegetable and talked with him admiringly on camera about it. Another farmer soon brought him a 150-pound watermelon, and other farmers and more extraordinary vegetables followed over the years. "It got to be so big [showing the items on the newscast] that it happened all the time," he said.63 Other TV journalists in Savannah made fun of him for running non-newsworthy items, but he felt the strategy paid off:
All the time they were making fun I was developing contacts. When something of news value would happen, those people would call. . . . The phones would ting off the wall at WTOC. They didn't ring at the other stations. We had people who wanted us to have that story, and that was the biggest difference in the stations. We got it first.64
Weathers also became infamous for his share of on-air mistakes. He occasionally mispronounced words, placed vocal emphasis on the wrong syllables, and sometimes was overly melodramatic. In 1976, when Ed Asner (who played the fictitious TV news director Lou Grant on the Mary Tyler Moore Show) was in Savannah shooting scenes for his role in the TV miniseries Roots, he saw Weathers on his hotel room TV and shouted: "Ted Baxter lives." Conversely, many townspeople perceived him as "Savannah's Walter Cronkite."65 He had earned their respect for getting stories first and for getting the facts right. But regardless of how he was viewed, his newscasts were ratings' successes, continually outdistancing the other two local stations by a three-to-one margin.66
Beginning in 1980 and continuing until 2008, WTOC's newscasts have been rated number one in Savannah and often have been among the top local audience share newscasts in the United States.67 That was the result of several factors, mostly related to Weathers' influence. In addition to his on-air personality, he assembled a solid news team while the other local stations did a pedestrian job of competing. In 1994, Coffey said the key to Weathers' success was that he "knew what news was, exercised sound news judgment, was keen to the public's tastes, and kept his newscasts in proper taste."68 In 2001, the Morning News chronicled the long line of anchors that WJCL and WSAV had brought to Savannah in an effort to unseat Weathers as the king of local television news. The story called them '"Doug Killers'-broadcast journalism's equivalent of mob hit men hired to take out the Godfather." None of them were able to do it.69
Except for a six-year period in the 1970s when Weathers moved to WJCL as anchor, he spent his entire career with WTOC. He had opportunities to relocate to larger markets in Philadelphia, Tampa, Los Angeles, and Atlanta, and two networks called, but he turned them down because "I was a big fish in a little pond." He does not regret staying in Savannah: "I don't know that there's that much difference between what we do here and what they do in New York. The job is the job."70 Reflecting on the possibility of him relocating, Coffey said, "I wonder if he would've made it in another market. ... I don't know if he would have been this successful."71 Savannah radio personality John Garber said he "was one of those rare types that by character alone epitomized an entire city and its people."72
For the majority of Savannah viewers, Weathers was the quintessential news anchor. "I always felt like he was talking to me personally," observed one, and another said, "He was never biased or negative about anything he reported."73 A third person commented: "He was a real person and participant in many community projects. Doug never said 'no' to reading to children. . . . He brought a cameraman and gave us the good publicity the public schools do not always receive."74
Sullivan had worked in TV news for several years before arriving in Savannah in 1992. What first struck him was how "hokey" the station's newscasts were, but there was no arguing with WTOOs position as an audience juggernaut. He said the Savannah market was an anomaly. "What Doug had was more common [in local TV] in the 1960s and '70s, but by the time the '90s rolled around most of those situations had disappeared." he said. "The whole persona [of Weathers] was amazing. He was so honest. What you saw on the air was what you got. . . . He was an icon, perhaps the [emphasis his] most popular person in town." When they would go to lunch together at a local restaurant, it would take nearly thirty minutes to get from the front door to a table because everyone wanted to talk with Weathers. Sullivan said he "dominated the station's culture, both internally and culturally."75
Richard Rogers, now a veteran of more than twenty years in television news and currently an anchor in Augusta, Georgia, got his start in TV when Weathers hired him as a reporter. "He was willing to give green kids a chance," he said. "Then, he would shape them into good reporters."76 Weathers enjoyed developing new talent and told reporters that when they were ready to move on to another station to come see him because he knew a lot of people in the business. Rogers called him a "hands-on manager:"
I'll always remember the atmosphere in the newsroom. If you were done with your stories, we'd all sit around and talk about the day. . . . That was what Doug was all about . . . getting to know his reporters so they would trust him and his judgment on news stories . . . which was always righr on. In later years, I've come to understand the value in that kind of management.77
He frequently invited the staff to his house for cookouts after a week's work (featuring his specialty, fried baloney). It was another way he formed them into a team.
Sullivan added that Weathers was not just "a suit" on the set; he was a journalist, too, with "the biggest Rolodex I've ever seen." Because of the trust and familiarity that he cultivated in Savannah he had lots of contacts, and they shared news with him. Sullivan recalled walking into Weathers' office five minutes before a newscast on more than one occasion and telling him that he or a reporter was having difficulty nailing down information about a story. Weathers would reply:
"Hang on, let me find out." He would find a name in the Rolodex and call them: "John, this is Doug. I undersrand you've got a couple of people over there in a holding cell, and I need to know what's going on with them." He would turn back to me with a piece of paper and say, "Here are their names, where they're from, and what they're gonna be charged with." Sources knew who he was and they trusted him.78
Sullivan said that even after Weathers had aged into his late-sixties, he had more energy than most reporters in their twenties. "He was not above grabbing a camcorder and driving off to shoot a traffic accident or robbery scene. He never gave up on the excitement of covering breaking news." Sullivan said the station did not do a lot of investigative work, but Weathers could do "tough" stories when needed.79
Former competitor Price said of Weathers: "You have a lot of people [in TV news] who can either write well or look good on camera, but who couldn't care less about their audience. They are more worried about if their hair is right."80 Following her muchpublicized gender lawsuit in Kansas Ciry in 1983-84, Christine Craft noted, "There is no way I'd ever [again] want to be a local news anchor. It's an occupation without a soul."81 Such was clearly not the case in Savannah with Weathers. His news philosophy was grounded in "being an advocate for the viewer. ... I tried to do what I could to help the community ... to improve situations, to do stories that would bring out the needs for improvement in the community."82 He said it was important to be himself so he could talk to anybody, whether it was a U.S. president or a garbage collector (he interviewed several in both categories). He said he cared about being respected, not just as an anchor but as a person:
I always tried not to be a person who said one rhing and did another. When you're highly visible you have to be careful. You conduct yourself a step above. 1 didn't want a drunk driver ro poinr at me and say, "Look at Weathers. He's a drunk driver, but he just hasn't been caught." You can't buy respect. When you're delivering news that could have an effect on thousands of people, you've got to be able to do that with respect and dignity.83
Both Weathers and Coffey volunteered in so many community activities that it is impossible to list all of them. They spoke at civic clubs and schools, appeared at church rallies, and held positions on the United Way, YMCA, and numerous boards of directors. Barton, who had the opportunity to observe both men in the final years of their careers, observed:
They were cut from the same cloth. They were very competitive, but they were also good friends. What's interesting about a lot of the older journalists was that . . . they would step over rheir own grandmother to get a story before rhe orher guy. But after the day was over and you filed your stoty, they would go out and have a beer and pal around. They knew what news was, and they also had a feeling for what people in Savannah expected. They both did it for a love of journalism. A combined 100 years is pretty amazing.84
Every news organization has constructed some type of relationship with its community over years of covering it. Many metropolitan media define themselves as "remote, critical, aloof . . . [even] elitist," noted Tom Rosenstiel in 2006, because they have not promoted the personal rapport that smaller market journalists have formed with their audiences. This is unfortunate, he added, because connectedness has historically provided a means for media to fight the audience erosion that has become a dilemma. Thus, what Weathers and Coffey built and nurtured in Savannah has become increasingly rare.85
Longevity and working closely with members of their audience made it possible for them to better understand the concerns, goals, and vision for the city held by Savannahans. They established a mutually beneficial association, perpetuated through familiarity, noteworthy work, and trust, and it became a partnership. Weathers and Coffey did nor set out to specifically do community journalism, but they understood what former journalist Lauterer has called its first law: "[T] here exists a fundamental and reciprocal relationship between the paper [or station] and its town."86 They simply did their jobs in a way that they perceived appropriate for the market in which they operated, and this paid off for their careers, their media outlets, and their community. In the words of one small-market journalist: "[Our] fundamental job is not reporting or editorializing, it is bringing people together."87
Coffey and Weathers formed a trusteeship with Savannahans, building it in a market size that was on the upper end of where community journalism can function. Such a linkage can be more demanding than the ones that big-city media outlets have with their audience. Theirs was a rapport that went beyond TV newscasters who proclaim: "We're on Your Side," by doing consumer report segments, or newspapers that publish Vox Populi columns. "[Community journalists'] thresholds for accuracy and responsible reporting are greater because we are a part of the community we cover, not outside it," noted Simons.88 Because Weathers and Coffey became trusted friends with their audiences, they had to be especially conscientious about how they did their jobs. The community journalist must walk the line between reporting in a fair (sometimes tough) manner while nurturing his or her link with the audience. "You think of your reader [or viewer] as . . . someone you would never knowingly deceive," said Lauterer.89
There can be drawbacks to such a scenario. During these men's tenure in Savannah, several issues went unresolved because a journalist can accomplish only so much, especially in an atmosphere where change is unwelcome. Among the unresolved problems were: Savannah failed to lower a crime rate that in 1985 ranked fourth highest in the nation among cities of its size; public school performance lagged behind that of other Georgia systems; the city and county governments were slow to adopt merger plans that would have made them more efficient and saved taxpayers dollars; and the dumping of untreated sewage into the Savannah River ceased only after federal and state environmental officials took the city to court. Local media attempts to address the issues while these men were employed there were rebuffed by local officials and disregarded by the population.90 Thus, the positive relationship that Coffey and Weathers enjoyed with Savannahans did not allow them to overcome the community's malaise on some issues.
In the final analysis, however, journalists who dedicate their lives to a small market gain a stature that allows them to impact their locales. While Coffey and Weathers helped their neighbors understand the dynamics and character of their community and take pride in it, they did not attempt to alter it significantly because an effort to practice hard-hitting investigative journalism would have been out of character for them and Savannah. They believed their journalistic calling was to "work with" local people, and Savannahans embraced their efforts. Their careers were like those of many other largely unknown community journalists. But that does not mean that what they did was not of lasting value.
"Although Coffey entered journalism a decade before Weathers, the two men's careers overlapped from the 1950s until the 1990s. When they were working as journalists, Savannah was steeped in the good 'ole boy traditions of the South, and they were called upon to cover events in a community that did not readily welcome change."
"Coffey enjoyed a lifelong love affair with Savannah. Throughout his newspaper career he wrote columns, often as many as seven a week, first about sports and then about news and community life, The newspapers' management encouraged him to write columns because readers said they enjoyed them, and there were no 'off-limit' topics."
" Whereas Coffey was the print 'conscience' of Savannah, Weathers served as its highly-visible 'personality in a way that only a TV anchor can."
"Except for a six-year period in the 1970s when Weathers moved to WJCL as anchor, he spent his entire career with WTOC. He had opportunities to relocate to larger markets in Philadelphia, Tampa, Los Angeles, and Atlanta, and two networks called, but he turned them down because 'I was a big fish in a little pond.'"
"Every news organization has constructed some type of refotionship with its community over years of covering it. Many metropolitan media define themselves as 'remote, critical, aloof. . . [even] elitist,' noted Tom Rosenstiel in 2006, because they have not promoted the personal rapport that smaller market journalists have formed with their audiences."
1 Jock Lauterer, Community Journalism: A Personal Approach, 2nd ed. (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 2000), xiv.
2 Michael Murray, Television in America: Local Station History from Across the Nation (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1997), ix.
3 Laurerer, Community Journalism, xiv, xxii.
4 Phyllis Kaniss, Making Local News (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 2.
5 Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, J.P. Mayer, ed. (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1969), 518-20. It was cited in David Paul Nord, Communities of Journalism: A History of American Newspapers and Their Readers (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 278.
6 Bruce DeSilva and John Mura, eds., The Straight Scoop: An Expert Guide to Great Community Journalism (Hartford, Conn.: Hartford Couranr, 1996), ix.
7 Lauterer, Community Journalism, xiv.
8 See Kenneth R. Byerly, Community Journalism (Philadelphia: Chilton Co., 1961); DeSilva & Mura, The Straight Scoop; and Lauterer, Community Journalism.
9 DeSilva & Mura, The Straight Scoop, ix.
10 Lauterer, Community Journalism, xiv.
11 Byerly, Community Journalism, 25.
12 Laurerer, Community Journalism, xiv-xv.
13 See Craig Allen, News Is People: The Rise of Local TV News and the Fall of News from New York (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 2001), 205.
14 Byerly, Community Journalism, 10.
15 Pulitzer Prize categories for which community newspapers qualify include: local general or spot news reporting, local investigative specialized reporting, and local reporting. See http://www.pulitzer.org/index.hrml.
16 The Savannah Evening Press published its last edition in 1992, a victim of the increased popularity of local television news. It was owned and published by the same company, Morris Communicarions, as the Morning News and was in the same building during its final years. The two papers had separate reporting and editorial staffs.
17 Millard B. Grimes, The Last Linotype: The Story of Georgia and Its Newspapers Since World War II (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1985), 17, 171.
18 However, the suburbs and subdivisions have sprouted and grown around Savannah at a more significant rate. For full statistics and further analysis, see http:// www.gadata.org/information_services/ga_census_results_links.html, and http:// quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/13/1369000.html.
19 See http://www.randomhouse.com/features/midnight (accessed on March 12,2006).
20 Sumner Holman, "'Sitting-Down' to Gain Racial Rights in Savannah," Spring 2004, http://mgagnon.myweb.uga.edu/studenrs/3090/04SP3090-Holman. htm (accessed on Oct. 19, 2006).
21 Tom Coffey, Only in Savannah: Stories and Insights on Georgia's Mother City (Savannah, Ga.: Frederic C. Beil, 1994), 1.
22 Inrerview, Tom Coffey, June 10, 2003.
23 Interview, Michael Sullivan, July 27, 2004.
24 See Lauterer's definition of the amount of circulation to qualify as a community journalism community. The Savannah Morning News citculation was slightly over that, at 55,000, accotding to 2003 ownership statistics. The Nielsen Ratings Company tanks the Savannah TV market as the ninety-seventh largest today (103rd in 1985). This elevation in tank can be attributed to the growth of small towns and suburbs rhat now surround Savannah. See Lauterer, Community Journalism, xiv; Morris Communications Corporation 2003 Annual Report, http://sec.edgaronlin.com/2004/05/ll/000H93l25-04-083906/section 6.asp (accessed on Aug. 5, 2005); and interview, David German, Operations Manager, WJCL-TV, Oct. 23, 2006.
25 See Ann Marshall Daniels, "Weathers Resigns At WJCL," Savannah Morning News, Sept. 12, 1979; "News-Press Gets 13 Awards [among these, Coffey won first place for "Best Column" and "Best Religious" column]," Savannah News-Press, June 21, 1980; "Savannah News-Press Captures Seven Associated Press Awards," Savannah News-Press, May 22, 1983; "Savannah News-Press Wins 4 UPI Awards," Savannah Morning News, July 27, 1983; and Gene Downs, "Here's THE News-Doug Weathers to Retire," Savannah Morning News, April 26, 2001.
26 Coffey, Only in Savannah, 42-43.
27 Telephone interview, Tom Coffey, July 21, 2006.
28 Coffey, Only in Savannah, 42-43.
29 See Holman, "'Sitting-Down' to Gain Racial Rights in Savannah," for a more thorough explanation for the relarively peaceful civil rights era in Savannah.
30 Interview, Doug Weathers, July 27, 2003.
31 Inrerview, Coffey, June 10, 2003.
33 Downs, "Here's THE News - Doug Weathers to Retire."
34 Interview, Weathers, July 27, 2003.
35 Fred Fedler, Lessons from the Past: Journalists' Lives and Work, i850-1950 (Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 2000), 212.
36 Interview, Tom Barton, July 26, 2004.
37 Coffey, Only in Savannah, 179.
38 Interview, Coffey, June 10, 2003.
39 Coffey, Only in Savannah, 126.
40 Interview, Coffey, June 10, 2003.
41 Coffey, Only in Savannah, 74-75.
42 "Coffey to Quit Post, Rejoin News-Press,' Savannah Morning News, Sept. 25, 1974.
43 Interview, Coffey, June 10, 2003.
44 Telephone intetview, Ralph Price, July 20, 2006.
45 Telephone interview, Coffey, July 21, 2006.
46 Coffey, "Pulling Hard for Young Bubba," Savannah Morning News, Jan. 14, 1986.
47 Coffey, "We're All in This Thing Together," Savannah Morning News, July 22, 1984.
48 Interview, Barton, July 26, 2004.
49 See Tom Coffey, "Another 'Fortieth': The G.I. Bill," Savannah Morning News, June 20, 1984; and "A Boy's Fitst Bitthday Away," Savannah Morning News, June 17, 1984.
50 Vicki Simons, introductory remarks at the teleconference on community journalism at the Centet for Community Journalism at Oswego State University in New York, 1998, as cited in Lauteret, Community Journalism, 7.
51 Tom Coffey, "A Time fot Anget," Savannah Morning News, March 31, 1981.
52 Tom Coffey, "Confidence Amid the Sadness," Savannah Morning News, Jan. 30, 1986. Both Earhart and Post were renowned pilots who died in ait ctashes. Post was killed in 1935 in Alaska with his famous passenget, humorist Will Rogers. Earhart disappeared in the South Pacific in 1937, and was presumed dead, while attempting an atound-the-world flight.
53 Tom Coffey, "Fairness Is a Thomas Hallmark," Savannah Morning News, July 7, 1991.
34 Tom Coffey, "No Joy When There Should Be Much," Savannah Morning News, Oct. 20, 1991.
55 Interview, Barton, July 26, 2004.
56 Interview, Coffey, June 10, 2003.
57 Telephone interview, Coffey, July 21, 2006.
58 Interview, Barton, July 26, 2004.
59 Allen, News Is People, 276.
60 Interview, Barton, July 26, 2004.
61 Tom Barton, "Doug Killers," Savannah Morning News, May 3, 2001.
63 Interview, Weathers, July 27, 2003.
65 Tony Brown, "Doug and the News: Savannah Success," Savannah Morning News, Aptil 3, 1983.
67 See Bill Cathcart, "Editorial Salute to Doug Weathets," WTOC-TV, May 23, 2001, Doug Weathers' personal papers; and interview, Sullivan, July 27, 2004.
68 Coffey, Only in Savannah, 75.
69 Barton, "Doug Killers."
70 Interview, Weathers, July 27, 2003.
71 Downs, "Here's THE News-Doug Weathets to Retire."
73 "Letter to the Editot," Savannah Morning News, May 10, 2001.
74 "Lettet to the Editor," Savannah Morning News, May 5, 2001.
75 Interview, Sullivan, July 27, 2004.
76 Email interviews, Richard Rogers, Jan. 18 and 25, 2006.
78 Interview, Sullivan, July 27, 2004.
80 Telephone interview, Price, July 20, 2006.
81 Allen, News is People, 202.
82 Intetview, Weathers, July 27, 2003.
84 Interview, Barton, July 26, 2004.
85 Tom Rosenstiel, "The Future of News: Sense-Making and Other Strategies fot Survival," Poyntet Online, May 22, 2006, at http://www.poynter.org/column. asp?id=34&aid=102671 (accessed on May 22, 2006).
86 Lauterer, Community Journalism, 229.
87 That comment by Mike Phillips in ihe (Bremetton, Wash.) Sun on Oct. 6, 1991, was cited in Barbara Zang, "A Possible Press: Participatoty Journalism and the Case of the Sun" (Ph.D. diss., Indiana University, 1997).
88 Lauterer, Community Journalism, 7.
89 Ibid., 229.
90 See Charles Craig, "Mayor Continues Attack on Paper for Reporting on Homicide Rate," Savannah Morning News, Oct. 12, 1985; and Scott, M. Larson, "Mayor Names 40 People to Crime Task Force," Savannah Morning News, Sept. 30, 2006.
REED SMITH is a professor and the broadcast sequence coordinator in the Department of Communication Arts at Georgia Southern University. He would like to express his appreciation to the individuals cited in this article who helped make it possible by participating in oral history interviews.…