Thirteen years ago I rolled into the parking lot of a Greenwood hotel in August. It was, I think, the first time I had ever visited Mississippi beyond perhaps driving through on the way to somewhere else.
The first thought I had when getting out of my car was that I had never felt a combination of heat and humidity like that before, despite growing up in what I didn’t consider to be that far away in East Tennessee.
I was there to interview for a reporter’s job at the Greenwood Commonwealth. I ended up getting two job offers: from Greenwood and from the paper in my home county. I had seen too many people I knew hang around the only place they knew, living at home, bouncing between menial jobs, hanging out with the same people they’d known forever, so like Robert Frost I decided to take the road less traveled by and set out some 500 miles from home knowing no one in the entire state.
And that has made all the difference.
Over the past decade-plus I’ve met a lot of great people who have taught me lessons about life and faith. Sure, I’ve met plenty of stinkers as well, but never forget that even if a person makes no other contributions in life they can always serve as a bad example. I’ve learned from those, too, not to mention from my own mistakes.
I met my wife, moved a bunch of times between Greenwood, Indianola and Columbia, had two daughters and wrote thousands of news articles and opinion pieces, often about subjects that a fiction writer simply never could have conceived, no matter how creative.
It’s been a great journey, although certainly not one I could say I have loved every minute of. But sometimes during difficulty it helps you see more clearly what is really important. That’s a lesson I will take with me for the rest of my life from my 13 years in Mississippi and journalism, a period that will end Friday.
My family is moving to Bowling Green, Ky., where I’m going to be entering graduate school at Western Kentucky University in economics. I’m excited about the new opportunity, although the change, maybe like any change, is bittersweet as you remember how things have been and how they won’t be anymore.
The C-P faced a lot of challenges when I came here in 2017, many of which were related to factors out of anyone’s control like the general decline of the newspaper industry because of digital developments over the past two-plus decades and the population and industrial losses that rural communities across America have experienced during that same time.
But I’m proud of what our team has been able to accomplish. On the news side, it was gratifying a few weeks ago to see our work recognized by unbiased judges as being the best of any newspaper in our class in this state, as we won the General Excellence award. I had come close several times in my weekly newspaper career to earning that honor but had never won until now. I’m proud of how our news staff has worked hard to publish stories that really matter to our community.
And from an operations perspective, we’ve been among the top three of Emmerich Newspapers’ 20 or so publications in financial performance despite many hardships. Nobody really sees the newspaper’s business standing except me, my bosses and Office Manager Bonnie Hudson, but it matters indirectly to every reader and advertiser because if a newspaper can’t turn a profit it won’t last for long. Although no longer at the levels seen during newspapers’ heyday, we’ve been able to continue to profitably produce a quality product without falling into a death spiral of layoffs, which reduces quality, giving people less reasons to subscribe or advertise, leading to more layoffs, ad infinitum (see the Hattiesburg American as Example 1A).
I’d like to thank my wife, Ashley, for being patient and supportive while I put in the long hours that have always been required to successfully publish a newspaper, even more so during the internet age. She has been a dedicated spouse and mother, no matter what has come our way, and I love and appreciate her for that.
Also, I’m grateful to Bonnie for talking me off the ledge, figuratively speaking, when things went wrong and I pondered leaping. She’s been a faithful employee and friend to me.
My older daughter, Maggie, has had three great teachers — Melanie Bass at Columbia Presbyterian, Cheryl Barnes at First Baptist and Leanne Bilbo at Columbia Primary — during the crucial ages of 4 to 6. Those years really lay the foundation for your future, and I thank those educators who helped put my daughter on the right foot. Columbia is blessed with great education options, and we’re particularly sad to be leaving Columbia Primary, where Principal Jay Rayborn and team are doing so many great things.
And I’m eternally grateful to our subscribers and advertisers. I’ve said it many times, but it’s worth repeating: You make everything we do possible. Thank you for your support; it matters.
Let me take a minute here and say I realize this is going on way longer than my normal column. But you know what? I’m still the editor for now, I’ve poured my whole being into this paper over the past three years and I’m going to say my piece in full. Normally I craft each column carefully, going back and editing sections I’ve written, deleting this or moving that around. But this one just flowed out from the heart.
This newspaper has a rich heritage. I recently found its first edition, published Oct. 3, 1935, after Lester Williams consolidated The Columbian and The Marion County Progress. The story announcing the formation ended with this simple statement: “The Columbian-Progress is dedicating itself to the progressive policies that characterize the city of Columbia.”
That message showed an understanding that the future of a community and its newspaper are tied together. Every town needs an objective, independent source of information. Oliver Emmerich, founder of this company, wrote that a newspaper should be “a torch to the many, not the flame for the few.” My goal as editor has been to fulfill that saying, to serve the broad public interests, not the narrow interests of the business and political elite, and I’m proud to say that I was never in the pocket of anyone who thought they could dictate what this newspaper reports — or doesn’t report.
We’ve done our best to give you the news, good or bad, without favor and always with the aim of a better community for us all. As John Emmerich, Oliver’s son, said in a statement that has been passed down in company lore, a newspaper should be both its community’s biggest cheerleader and biggest critic.
As the Scripture says, “It is required of stewards that they be found faithful,” and that’s what I’ve tried to do as the manager of this business, knowing that the newspaper belongs to the community and that many stewards entrusted with its care have come before me and will come after me.
I’m grateful to Emmerich Newspapers President Wyatt Emmerich and Chief Operating Officer Dan Strack for giving me an opportunity to fulfill a dream to run my own newspaper when I was just 27 years old — which seems like a long, long time ago now, although it’s only been eight years; I have the gray hairs to prove that I’ve done it.
And I deeply appreciate the relationships with other publishers who are always at the other end of the phone to give advice about situations they’ve experienced, too.
Tim Kalich at Greenwood has been a mentor of sorts, giving me my first full-time job, teaching me what a community newspaper ought to be and the hard work required to make it so, recommending me for my first publisher’s job and providing support whenever difficult situations have arisen. Other publishers have also been willing to help whenever I needed it, within our company like Jack Ryan in McComb, Pat Brown in Magee and Steve Kuperstock in Franklinton, La., and outside our company like Paul Keane in Waynesboro and Waid Prather in Carthage.
It’s been a privilege to work in this industry, which I consider the greatest in America, being the only one specifically mentioned in our Constitution (“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of … the press.”).
I’m also grateful to the church families I’ve found wherever I’ve been in Mississippi. I’ve often looked back and thought that there are many communities with weak newspapers and weak local churches of Christ, but that I came, without any planning on my part, into a place that had a strong presence with both through the Greenwood Commonwealth and Greenwood’s West President Church of Christ. I’m a firm believer in the providence of God; that is, that He is working behind the scenes in a non-miraculous way to take care of His children. Although you can never quite put your finger on it for certain when that takes place, I believe God was with me in bringing me there at that impressionable stage in my life.
And perhaps when God takes care of you in that way, He is also preparing you for how to handle things when they are more difficult so that you can be the kind of person who loves and helps others because of the way you have been loved and helped. The churches where my family has attended in Indianola and Columbia have certainly been smaller, but that just means each member’s presence and service is needed that much more.
Without doubt the hardest part about leaving Columbia was announcing it at the Columbia Church of Christ. We’re grateful how the members there have taken us in, often mailing and bringing gifts to our daughters, not just on holidays but just at random because they care. That’s just one example of their kindness, and we will miss their love and fellowship.
Let me end with one last plea: Continue to support this newspaper. It needs you, and you need it. I fear that one day, maybe not too far from now, many cities in America are going to wake up and not have a newspaper and realize how devastating that is to their history, culture and democracy, but it will be too late to do anything about it then.
It’s not too late here in Columbia; you still have a strong newspaper. Do your part to keep it that way.
Charlie Smith has been editor and publisher of The Columbian-Progress since July 10, 2017, and will end that role on July 31, 2020. If you’d like to reach him after his departure from the newspaper, you can email him at email@example.com.