Spotlight


shutterstock_218939056Journalism in Birmingham. 

By Joey Kennedy

The movie Spotlight focuses on an investigative reporter team from The Boston Globe that exposed the Catholic Church’s priests who preyed on young children, boys and girls, throughout the early 1980s and 1990s. The team from The Globe published their findings in 2002. Many priests in Boston had sexually abused hundreds of children. The movie is amazing and nostalgic. This is what we, journalists, are all about, I thought, as I watched the big screen; this is what we used to do. What we used to be. Before today. Before now. Before money, not stories, got in the way.

The Boston Globe team uncovered a scandal in the Catholic Church that may never have seen light if not for these brave reporters’ work. Journalism on that level is a hard day. If you’re in Boston going after the Catholic Church, it’s going to be a hard day. The investigative team that focused on the Church had to use devices we use all the time in good journalism. They threatened. They became personally involved.

A year ago this month, I was fired after more than 33 years at The Birmingham News (now Alabama Media Group).

What has happened to journalism? In Birmingham, at least, what has happened is that journalism is dead. It died when Alabama Media Group took over. There are no real journalists in charge there anymore. And my firing, last Feb. 20, underscores that.

I was fired for “threatening” my sources and for becoming “too personally involved” with my stories. That’s nothing new. I always “threatened” my sources, throughout my 40-plus years as a journalist. If you were working on a story and a source wouldn’t respond, you’d always tell him that the story was going to be written, with or without his response. That’s a “threat.” Or maybe, as in my case, you had a source who was going to put out a different and inaccurate view of a subject on social media, and you might “threaten” to tell the real story if she did so.

As far as being “too personally involved,” that’s what we do. As an advocacy journalist, one who writes what he believes as a matter of course, yes, we become “too personally involved,” because that’s what a story calls for.

We are not robots. We are people. People who care, people who live in the communities we cover. People who know they are alive and living in a real place. Objective journalism? It does not exist, no matter what someone tries to tell you.

The problem for me at the News was that management was divorced from journalism and what that means. I am not objective and have never pretended to be so. I am personally involved in the issues I write about. And I will “threaten” a source with what I know, if that source is not going to cooperate with my journalism. In days past, that was good journalism. In today’s world, it’s a reason to fire an exemplary employee who is doing his job in an exemplary way.

When did the rules change? I think they changed when companies like Alabama Media Group needed to cut salaries. When AMG, for whatever reason, felt it needed to destroy journalism in Birmingham. It started by laying off 60 percent of the journalists at the News in 2012. These were the best journalists in Alabama. And AMG continued, year after year, by laying off (“firing”) journalists. And then pretended they were doing it for “better journalism.” What hogwash.

I had some awful, dark days after I was fired by AMG. I mean: Really. Dark. Days. I wasn’t given a sweetheart package to tide me over. I was initially fired without any severance. I protested and was given a paltry severance. I quickly got my personal home defense weapon (gun) out of our house. I went into a deep depression and into therapy. My identity, though I didn’t want it to be, revolved around the News. I was devastated. The great portion of my professional career was tied to the News. The paper promised to take care of me if I did my job. Then broke that promise when I’d already dedicated my life to the paper.

Frankly, I was scammed, as was my wife (laid off—fired—after 27 years). Friends, including Joe O’Donnell, the publisher of this magazine, surrounded me with encouragement and support. I wanted to be dead, but they saved my life.

I know now that The Birmingham News, what it has become, is not my identity. I am my identity. I am free. That the newspaper, after it fired me, used me to sell subscriptions in an unscrupulous manner, or that the newspaper republished my team’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series without credit a week after it fired me, or that the company’s magazine wanted to use my material for its own benefit later, was just an indication of how the “new” journalism works. Or, better, doesn’t work.

It’s cruel. And unforgiving. And stupid.

My best memories from my long career are from The Birmingham News. My worst memories are from my two years with Alabama Media Group. Those two years were horrible, mixed daily with wondering who was going to be fired next. Eventually, it gets to you. And it did. And it will. For “threatening” sources, and for becoming “too personally involved” in your stories. For whatever reason they can trump up. Mostly, for not enough “clicks.” Unlike the Spotlight team at The Boston Globe that spent months—hell, more than a year—tracking down a story that remains important to this day.

I came close to tears as I watched Spotlight. This is what we used to do, what we used to be, I thought. This is what journalism is about. This is how the News editorial board won a Pulitzer Prize and was a finalist for two more.

Today, as I watch what’s not being covered by the print (and online) media in Birmingham, I mourn. There is a vacuum. It can’t be filled. As much as Weld and BirminghamWatch and others try to do it, it can’t be filled. The brand for Birmingham was The Birmingham News. That brand, sadly, is dead.

Ask your neighbors if they think Alabama Media Group is doing good journalism. You’ll get the same answer I get: No! Nobody I’ve talked to outside Alabama Media Group believes that what it’s doing is good for journalism in the city. Nobody. Not one person. There’s no spotlight there, but there should be.

I was fired a year ago this month. Because I “threatened” sources and I was “too personally involved” with my stories. But that’s how real journalism works. You threaten. You care.

And I’m not going to apologize for that. Ever.

17 Responses to “Spotlight”

  1. Joey Kennedy says:

    I’d be remiss if I didn’t say there are still fine journalists at AMG. But they aren’t in charge.

  2. Margaret Marston says:

    Sad, true commentary. Money as the driver, be-all-end-all is corrupting one profession, one company after another. We need to recalculate our trajectory. Quick. Quick.

  3. Ok I'll say it says:

    Joey, you can never get so full of yourself that you think it’s ok to threaten other people. It’s not.

    Randy Henderson would have told you that. Any of your friends should have told you that.

    You got tunnel vision, no doubt probably because there were no strong editors left, but partly because of your own hubris.

    You went from writing about people and issues that matter, to writing about why dogs sniff each other’s butts. You became myopic in focus. In some ways, you squandered your talent.

    You became angry and belittled those who were not of your liberal persuasion. You changed Joey.

    That having been said, yes, Alabama Media Group sucks and they destroyed the paper. They gave you a raw deal. But it would be better for you to let it go and go on and do better and bigger things. Because you are capable of doing great things.

    The Alabama Media Group is not.

    • Joey Kennedy says:

      I notice you did what all trolls do: Insult anonymously. Very brave (not) of you

      • Ok I'll Say It says:

        Joey, I said that from my heart, I’m not trolling you. But I’m not signing my name because I’d like to keep my job.

    • Mike Huebner says:

      Ok, you misunderstood how Joey characterized a “threat.” I see nothing wrong with threatening a source to tell the truth. If a reporter already knows the truth (i.e., the facts), a “threat” is a courtesy — an opportunity to come clean. Are you suggesting that If the source chooses not to acknowledge the truth, a reporter should leave it at that and precipitate a lie?

      • Ok I'll Say It says:

        No, I’m not for a lie. But if all he did was tell a source that he was going with the story as he knew it, then that’s not a firing offense.

        All he had to do was write the story. You can’t force or threaten anyone else to participate.

  4. Virginia says:

    Joey,
    Oh you did your job and you did it well. I will never forget a few decades ago when reading your column in the B’ham News made the day for an autistic student in our school who idolized you. Meeting you in person was a day he ( or the faculty) will never forget. Now I’m privileged to call you and Veronica friends. May you never lose your spirit and your passion for what you believe in!
    V

  5. GD says:

    Journalists? A couple of proofreaders would be a start. Anyone can copy and paste a link.

  6. Stuart Collier says:

    I always liked your columns. They were about meaningful matters and they were brave and they were thoughtful. I did not know all this, but I did know that the real life has gone out of the paper. I don’t know if AL.COM is related, but it once was enjoyable to go through, but it has just become a litany of daily crimes. Thanks, Joey.

  7. Ed Thigpen says:

    I couldn’t agree more. What is foisted off upon us a news reporting is blatherskate.

  8. Rod Scott says:

    Joey,
    I miss your writing. I also miss what we as a community lost when AMG gutted The Birmingham News. Hang in there and keep caring.

  9. Ayesha Bey says:

    Joey, you nailed the problem with AMG. Along with poor journalism is poor accounting practices and loust customer “service.” i use that term loosely. I subscribed for about 15 years and called it quits last summer despite my dislike of online papers. You raised the point of good investigative journalism and the Post reporters who brought down Nixon came to mind along with the News reporters who brought the junior college scandals to light. Both ethics and responsibility to the readers have “exited stage right”(to quote Snagglepuss of years ago). You might take note that I am reduced to quoting a fictional cat in response to today’s reporting and writing. I try to remember that old saying,”God doesn’t close a door without opening a window.” Now you can spend more time with rescuing precious animals who have all the love and gratitude that we pray people would have.

  10. Albert Haynes says:

    As someone who has been laid off I can relate with the accompanying sadness and depression. However times do change and the end game of any business is to make money so that the doors can stay open. Journalism like many industries have been extremely effected by changes in technology. Use your skills to the positive and adapt! We cannot sit around all day talking about the good old days and hoping for times that once were. We must move forward be agile and constantly aware of changes that will inevitably occur, not lament them.

  11. Kimnerly says:

    My spouse spent 18 years with this company and also experienced the humiliating, stressful times of Al.com. No one can truly understand how difficult and mentally taxing that time was, if they were not there. Walk a mile in my shoes never applied more. The constant deadline pressure was hard in a good company, so employees worked with a daily stress level anyway. The head games, secrets, illogical behavior that followed was damaging. Others want you to rise above it, but I believe it’s more like any other kind of experience that messes with your mind … one has to work through it until they are in a place where they can move on.

  12. Wendell Barnhouse says:

    Yeah, but I’m sure that AMG covers the HELL out of Alabama and Auburn football, right?

  13. Jeannie Branham says:

    Joey, I missed this article earlier this year, but, ‘found’ it while I was researching your Pulitzer Prize winning series.
    I’m very proud of you and the work you continue to share. Your insights are spot-on and I applaud your courage despite the horrendous action by the group who chose greed over integrity.

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