Small Paper Uses Profits to Train New Reporters

H. Brandt Ayers

Under the leadership of publisher H. Brandt Ayers, The Anniston Star was judged to be one of the country's best by Time magazine and the Columbia Journalism Review. David Folkenflik, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Folkenflik, NPR
Chris Waddle

Chris Waddle, a former top editor at the Star, has been put in charge of overseeing the Ayers Institute for Community Journalism. David Folkenflik, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Folkenflik, NPR

At many newspapers, the top priority is how best to prop up revenues. But the family that owns The Anniston Star in Alabama is quietly planning to devote the paper's profits to training new generations of reporters.

The Star is a small daily that packs an outsized punch, situated in a town west of Atlanta. The paper has a circulation of just 27,000. But under the leadership of publisher Harry Brandt Ayers, it fights above its weight class. It campaigned for racial desegregation at a time when much of Alabama was brawling to keep it out, and it has uncovered pollution and government corruption. The newspaper has maintained a staff that is twice as large as what industry consultants recommend.

The Star has long served as a training ground for aspiring journalists. Rick Bragg and Jim Yardley went on to win Pulitzers at The New York Times. Others graduated to the Chicago Tribune and The Wall Street Journal.

Ayers told longtime Star editor Chris Waddle that he wanted to build on that record. Waddle suggested the University of Alabama could create a graduate program in journalism that would be based at the Star itself.

The Ayers family created a not-for-profit foundation. Over time, the holdings of the Ayers family in the publishing company will be turned over to that trust. The company's earnings will be used to run the paper, and its dividends will help pay the cost of teaching the students. The Knight Foundation has contributed $1.5 million to the project.

Waddle who has held pretty much every senior editorial post at the Star, became president of the trust and is also a professor at the university.

Ultimately, it will be a dozen students reporting — and learning — in the newsroom. They won't have to pay tuition, and they'll receive modest monthly stipends, plus a bonus to subsidize a job hunt.

Very few American papers are owned by not-for-profit groups. One paper in Tupelo, Miss., uses its money to encourage regional development. The St. Petersburg Times in Florida is controlled by the Poynter Institute, a professional training center. But there's nothing quite like this.

Ayers says he's driven by his own paper's tradition, and by watching budgets and aspirations being squeezed at newspapers owned by the Knight Ridder, Gannett and Tribune companies.

"We want a great newspaper and we want a school to really add something to our craft. And we want to make enough money to make that happen," Ayers says. "That's what drives us. That's what we want."

A lot of people in Anniston say the paper is a central part of their lives. Ayers has gone to a lot of trouble — and passed up a lot of money — to make sure it stays that way.

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