For the first time since 2006, I didn’t make it to Birmingham, Alabama in the spring for the Timothy Sumner Robinson Forum at Samford University in honor of my late husband, a pioneering legal journalist. There were delays this time in scheduling the busy speaker, Brian Lyman, a political reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser. He was tentatively scheduled to appear in March, but local political events kept interfering – and even the April 10th appearance was cancelled that morning when the Alabama Governor suddenly resigned in a major scandal.
In the end, I was grateful that Samford’s Journalism and Mass Communications department was able to set up a live electronic feed when the Forum was finally rescheduled to May 1st and I got to be a faraway participant.* Lyman had a positive message for Samford’s journalism students – arguing that despite the struggles, local newspapers like the Montgomery Advertiser were evolving in exciting times. He explained that the declining newspaper revenue that resulted in fewer editors monitoring a reporter’s copy also could have a positive result: a new freedom to pursue the kind of human stories first crafted by heavyweights like Jimmy Breslin back in the 60s. He concluded that today’s reporters must be story tellers – “we must show how facts are experiences.” Lyman further said that political journalism focuses on power – and stories about the use and abuse of power are important and need to be covered, summing it up with the challenge that “Reporters must be the bridge between the council chamber and the living room.”
In a time of change and increasing public distrust of the media, it was refreshing to hear a reporter champion the challenges today, and glorify the local beat . My late husband started on local beats in Alabama during a time of great change in the 60s and was always just as proud of those years as his later part in pioneering legal journalism on a national scale. I was thankful for this affirmation of the power of local news. And this fall I plan to visit Tim’s amazing family in Birmingham – and also look forward to meeting the latest students to benefit from the Robinson Forum , as well as from the scholarship program and an internship at the Washington Post. Go Samford!
*My thanks to Bernie Ankney, Chair, Journalism and Mass Communications Dept. and Jackie Long, Recruitment and Alumni Affairs Officer for coordinating the electronic feed – and to my brother in law Michael Robinson and his wife Carolyn, who kept me informed on all the changes and represented the family in person this year.
I was back in Alabama this year in time to watch the 2016 Academy Awards with my late husband Tim Robinson’s brother Mike, a retired Air Force Colonel and his wife Carolyn, a talented editor and retired teacher. I had flown in to visit with Tim’s amazing Southern family and friends, as well as attend an annual journalism Forum in my late husband’s honor (http://www.samford.edu/arts-and-sciences/robinson-forum) that was featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Brad Schrade, an investigative reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. So it was not only a great surprise, but a special moment that Sunday night for us when the winner of this year’s Oscars for best picture went to “Spotlight,” which chronicles a Boston Globe Pulitzer Prize–winning investigation ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spotlight_(film)).
Two days later, Brad Schrade told the assembled audience for the Timothy Sumner Robinson Forum at Samford University in Birmingham that “we’re at a moment again where popular culture has deemed investigative work important and even pretty cool,” citing Spotlight’s wins as Best Picture and Best Writing (Original Screenplay), coming 39 years after the four Oscar wins for All the President’s Men, a film about the Washington Post’s famous investigation of the Watergate break-in. That failed political espionage eventually caused President Nixon’s resignation and the conviction of many of his top officials. Schrade went on to tell the assembled students in the audience that while newspapers and other printed media were struggling, he hoped this film would inspire a new generation of journalists to “take up this flag.”
What Schrade didn’t know and what I enjoyed telling him later was that the last footage in the film All the Presidents’ Men shows the coverage of the Watergate trials coming off the newsroom tickertape, flashing my late husband’s byline over and over. Schrade also didn’t realize that Tim was a city editor on the desk when his favorite reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were put on special assignment. He was proud to join them on the investigative team as the White House conspiracy unraveled. Tim did such a brilliant job of reporting on the convictions stemming from the Watergate break in that he went on to receive a Ford Fellowship to Yale Law School and become a distinguished legal columnist for the Post. He was recruited to be Editor in Chief of a new publication in New York called the National Law Journal and thus blazed a pioneering trail in the field of legal journalism. My gratitude goes to everyone at Tim’s alma mater Samford University for their support of the Forum and Scholarship program in Tim’s honor, which includes an internship each year at the Washington Post. And I am will always feel grateful for such a special Southern family, which also includes Tim’s sister Terah’s family in Jasper, his brother Nelson’s family in the hometown of Dora and sister-in-law Martha in Fresno, California.
Alabama in the spring always comes with the threat of tornadoes, so I was just grateful that storms held off until the end of my visit last week for an annual journalism Forum at my late husband Timothy Robinson’s alma mater, Samford University in Birmingham.
This year’s Forum speaker was Jason Reid, a Washington Post sports columnist who spoke on the role of social media in sports reporting . This was also the first year that more students than alumni showed up for the event, hosted by the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications. I was sure it reflected both the love of sports among undergrads in the South and their love of social media.
Reid emphasized the ways that breaking news posted on social media is changing reporting into a 24/7 job for many beats, including sports. While he clearly relished the challenge and acknowledged the positive aspects of enlarging the dialogue, Reid also urged students to push for the same rigid standards for blogging and posting news stories on facebook or twitter as newspapers and other traditional media demand. Reid must provide two sources for any news leads, a standard not enforced in social media. He was optimistic that it would inevitably happen.
It turned out that Reid, who was born in Brooklyn, had started his career in Los Angeles and got his undergraduate degree from USC the same year I graduated with my master’s from USC’s Annenberg School of Communications. The previous year he had won two awards from the Los Angeles Press Club for his coverage of the Los Angeles riots – and I related how my late husband directed coverage of the police trials that led to the riots while editor of the Daily Journal, the statewide legal newspaper. It was amazing how our paths had crossed in those years.
The Timothy Sumner Robinson Forum features Washington Post speakers and the Post also announces an internship award each year to a Samford journalism student. All expenses are funded by a Robinson Scholarship, set up by the family and including donations from both family and friends. Tim had worked as an editor, investigative reporter and legal columnist at the Post during the 70s and early 80s.
I’m convinced that because Time was also a pioneer of editorial content on the web during the last part of his career, he would have championed Reid’s call to action on accountability. So I was proud that Jason Reid was sounding the alarm on Tim’s home turf that a storm is picking up strength in journalism – and that so many students were listening!