At the Scene of the Crime


For nearly 20 years, reporter Carol Robinson has covered crime in the Magic City.

Written by Andy McWhorter

Photography by Beau Gustafson

 

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Carol Robinson does not match the stereotypical image of a grizzled crime reporter. She is slight and blonde and drives a BMW with a license plate that says “BYLINE.” She lives in Vestavia Hills, where she grew up as the daughter of a prominent UAB doctor. She doesn’t carry a gun and, by her own admission, isn’t a very good shot in any case.

But over the course of a 28-year-career with The Birmingham News and AL.com, Robinson has covered about 1,500 homicides, witnessed condemned criminals get executed by Alabama’s infamous electric chair, Yellow Mama, and written tens of thousands of articles and online posts about violent crime in Birmingham. At her desk in AL.com’s First Avenue office, she sits surrounded by five police scanners, which she uses to monitor at least 29 police agencies. Robinson even used to sleep with a scanner, at least until her daughter was born.

Since she became The Birmingham News’s public safety reporter in 1996, Robinson has written almost exclusively about heinous crimes, ironic twists of fate, and terrible human suffering in the city. She has written about a convicted murderer who became a Baptist preacher after his release, while one of his surviving victims remained paralyzed for life. She spent five years intermittently traveling to North Carolina from Alabama to search for Eric Rudolph after he bombed the New Women All Women abortion clinic, killing off-duty police officer Sandy Sanderson. In 2013, she interviewed a mother who, in a moment of fatal distraction, accidentally left her 11-month-old baby to die in a hot car.

But Robinson hasn’t always written about crime and punishment in the Magic City. When she first started working at the downtown offices of The Birmingham News, her beat was about as far from crime as possible. “I was a lifestyle writer,” Robinson says. “Everything from elevator etiquette to how to handle divorced families at Christmas.”

But Robinson was a born news junkie. Before moving to the Birmingham office, she had been a correspondent in Auburn, covering five counties in southeast Alabama. There, she wrote about anything and everything she could, from county government to education and, yes, crime. She wanted to transition back into that kind of work and approached the News’s city desk editor at the time. He was reluctant—after all, Robinson was little and blonde and wrote about elevator etiquette. But she got her chance. “He gave me a shot and assigned me to cover Fairfield, Midfield, and Hueytown, which are three cities in the western part of the county,” Robinson says. “That’s where crime came in.” Chuck Dean, a political reporter and 34-year veteran of The Birmingham News, covered the Fairfield, Midfield, and Hueytown beat before Robinson. Dean said the city officials Robinson was covering, who were mostly men, didn’t take her seriously at first. “They couldn’t have been more wrong,” he says. “Carol has a tenacity that hides behind her smile, and I think they quickly learned to dislike her as much as they did me.”

When a hat shop owner was stabbed to death in Hueytown, Robinson got her first experience with writing about crime in the Birmingham area. For her and her colleagues, it seemed like a natural fit. “She transitioned into cops, covering crime, and she never looked for anything else after that,” Dean says. “It was hand meets glove and chocolate chip cookie meets milk.”

John Archibald, a columnist for AL.com, started working for The Birmingham News at the same time as Robinson. Before Archibald became a columnist in 2004, he worked with Robinson covering crime in Birmingham. “I always thought I was one of those run-toward-the-gunfire guys, but I’ve got nothing on her,” Archibald says. “She saw these two guys with these big leather jackets; they were clearly gang members. She walked up to one of them, reached up, pulled his coat back, and said, ‘What are you packing?’ They were just shocked, but then they started laughing.”

Robinson says that despite the conditions of her work, she rarely feels like she is in danger. Instead, she’s usually focused on two things: getting the story and beating her competitors. “One time I was at a shooting at the Elyton Village projects, and the body was in the middle of the courtyard, and all of a sudden gunfire rang out again,” Robinson says. “I looked around and I saw the Fox 6 photographer running toward the gunfire, and I was like, ‘Well if he’s going toward the gunfire, I’m going toward the gunfire,’ and so I started running. Later I found out he owned a bulletproof vest, which I didn’t.”

Before The Birmingham News transitioned into a digital-first model with AL.com, the limitations of print meant that her stories only appeared once a day in the newspaper. She could be on the scene of the crime at the same time as, or even before, her competitors at Fox 6 or ABC 33/40, but the nature of the medium meant that she would almost always be beat to the punch. “As a crime reporter, throughout the years my frustration was always that I knew maybe more than my competitors, or at least as very much as, but I didn’t come out until the next day,” Robinson says.

The Internet has been a radically destabilizing force for many print journalists. All across the country, almost without exception, circulation is down, newsroom sizes are a fraction of what they once were, and newspapers everywhere are cutting publication days or shuttering their operations entirely. The Birmingham News has been no exception. In 2012, the News, along with two other newspapers in the state, reorganized into Alabama Media Group, reduced its publication frequency to three days a week, and decided to change their focus to digital-first.

Today, Birmingham is the largest city in the United States without a daily local newspaper. But unlike many of her colleagues, Robinson’s audience has not shrunk in proportion to the newspaper. If anything, more people read her work than ever before. “So many people have had trouble adjusting to the change when we went digital-first, and for me, I love it,” she says. “It’s just rejuvenated me.” Since she first started posting some of her articles online in 2007, Robinson has written more than 10,500 posts for AL.com. With Alabama Media Group’s emphasis on getting their stories online as quickly and as frequently as possible, it is not atypical for Robinson to post three to eight articles per day. “In the new world, where we’ve made the digital-first transition, she gets it, she tweets it, and she posts it,” says Jeremy Grey, a managing producer at AL.com. “Get it right, get it first, get it out.”

With the new tools that the Internet offers journalists, Robinson often reports from the scene of the crime, tweeting, taking photos, and posting articles, all from her Droid phone. These days, Robinson isn’t beaten to the scoop by her competitors very often. “We can kick TV ass all day,” Grey says. But along with the ability to post information as soon as it comes, so too is there an expectation for quick, up-to-the-minute news. “You just never really completely relax,” Robinson explains. “My daughter’s at college, I’m not married, so it’s not interrupting a lot right now.” Robinson attended the Iron Bowl in Auburn last fall. She was an Auburn graduate, and it was her first time back in Jordan-Hare Stadium since she graduated, though she returned as an Alabama fan. She got back to Birmingham later that night, tired from the day’s excitement. But as soon as she got home, she found out there had been a shooting at an Iron Bowl party and went right back to work. “You can’t miss an Iron Bowl party shooting in this state,” she says. “It’s huge, you just can’t miss it.”

Just as news media and Robinson’s role have changed, so too has the nature of crime in Birmingham. There are far fewer homicides than there were during the crack epidemic of the late ’80s and early ’90s, when Robinson first started writing about crime. Better health care and a zero-tolerance approach from police agencies have also helped keep people from dying. But throughout those changes, Robinson has approached her work with the same level of diligence.

“I think the nature of crime has less to do with changing what Carol does than the nature of the media, our media, and the way we have approached it,” Archibald says. The emphasis given to crime in the pages of The Birmingham News has ebbed and flowed over time. Some years, a story on someone getting shot in the leg would make the front page. Others, even a murder would be relegated to the inside.

With the new digital emphasis, Robinson’s work is routinely some of the most widely read on AL.com. She receives millions of page views per month, hundreds of people comment on her work, and there is no longer any question about how much readers want to know about crime in their community. But however many views her work gets, whatever page her articles appear on in the paper, it doesn’t affect the way Robinson approaches her subjects. Ultimately, telling people’s stories is what motivates her. “I find that people more often than not want to tell their side of the story, whether their loved one has been a victim or sometimes a suspect,” Robinson says. “I feel like I’ve always approached them with compassion. I just go up and say ‘I’m Carol Robinson with Birmingham News or AL.com (or whoever it is at that moment) and I just want to know more about your person.’”

That tenderness must be balanced with toughness as well, though. It’s easy to imagine someone becoming jaded after writing about violent crime for years on end, and Robinson has been covering crime in Alabama for nearly two decades. “You develop a thick skin when you see blood and bodies and you meet grieving mothers and grieving widows…but there’s nothing callous about her,” Grey says. “She does care about the people she writes about; she does care about her sources.”

On a Wednesday afternoon in late July, Robinson went out to a house in Brighton, Alabama, where someone had been shot and killed the night before. Next to the house, neighbors sat out on their patio with a little girl and a relative of the victim idled nearby in his car. As soon as she pulled up to the house, she got out and walked up to the group. They seemed reluctant to talk at first, but Robinson made it clear that it was up to them how much they told her. “I don’t force someone to talk to me,” she says. “I don’t have subpoena power.” Before long, the neighbors were talking about the victim and their relationship with him. Robinson listened closely, but she had questions of her own. Before driving out to the scene, she had looked up the victim’s criminal record. It turned out he had been convicted of murder years earlier. “I try to have enough information going in, and I’m not going to let them say all these great things and then blindside them when the article comes out later,” Robinson says. “I always try to arm myself with as many facts as possible.”

One of the neighbors got up to go ask the victim’s family member if he would talk to Robinson. While she waited, Robinson chatted with the little girl, complimenting her hair and touching one of her thick, black braids. The girl in turn reached out and examined Robinson’s straight, blonde hair. They smiled at one another. The family member was ready to talk and Robinson walked up to ask him a few questions about his slain relative. She stood in the midst of the victim’s family and friends, listening carefully and taking notes. “There’s a right way and a wrong way to talk to people,” she says. “They deserve respect.”

3 Responses to “At the Scene of the Crime”

  1. Tommy Wright says:

    Good job ! U make us proud and keep us informed !

  2. illusion71 says:

    Go Carol!!!

  3. Ralph Daily says:

    You’re great. Following you on twitter is how I know what’s going on.

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