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.
The announcement last week that Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post for $250 million dollars was at first shocking. Questions swirled in the media. How could the Graham family ever give up control of this great institution they guided with such courage since 1933? What does a Silicon Valley wizard have in mind for a legendary media company? As I started to listen to news interviews, I calmed down.
Bob Woodward was optimistic that Bezos was a smart choice to bail out the Post. Former editor Len Downey, a friend of my late husband Tim Robinson (a Washington Post reporter and editor in the Watergate era), predicted Bezos was an innovator who would apply his creativity to the issues facing newspapers. I first heard Downey and Woodward on NPR radio. This weekend Downey was on “Face the Nation” and told Bob Schieffer he was cautiously optimistic because Bezos bought the Post as a private company, so doesn’t have the restraints placed on a public company. He could tolerate losses to invest in change and slowly make it profitable, similar to the long, slow development of Amazon into today’s goliath.
Yes, the handwriting has been on the wall for a long time – print journalism is in upheaval and the rise of the internet has forever changed its fate. The New York Times seems to have the sad distinction of being the last great family dynasty surviving in a shrinking landscape. What is the future? I’ve found some links that hold clues to the answer as this story continues to unfold (copied below). I’m rooting that this merging of journalistic tradition and Silicon Valley invention will gell and make the Washington Post even greater, just the way Amazon slowly changed the face of retail on the web. We need that tradition of tough reporters questioning power and keeping it honest in a written format as well as electronic media, but we clearly need to find a new economic model for print. Let’s hope Jeff Bezos will have the answers without killing the soul of a great newspaper.
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!
There’s a lot being written lately about the importance of “dream teams” in success.
Malcom Gladwell writes about it in Outliers and Keith Ferrazzi in his new book Who’s Got Your Back. My late husband Tim Robinson, a legendary journalist, often said he wasn’t sure if it was talent or pure luck that got him bylines covering major civil rights stories and then a key role on the Watergate team at the Washington Post, pioneering legal journalism and finally one of the early experts inventing the editorial side of search on the internet – he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. But he also surrounded himself with amazing “teams,” and I think the most remarkable was his family.
It all started in the south, in a small town called Dora, Alabama. I remain so proud to have been accepted as an honorary Southerner and part of the extraordinary Sumner and Robinson families. Tim’s parents, Clarence and Edith Sumner, both alumni of Samford University in Birmingham (then known as Howard College), were the first dream team in Tim’s life. He adored them. Samford was the school that gave the entire Robinson family the key to a brighter future. Clarence Robinson had started college at Howard but dropped out because of the depressions to work as a coal miner for most of his early career until around the age of 40. That’s when the mines started closing and he lost his job. Tim’s father’s solution to this midlife crisis? He found the courage to go back to college and. finish his degree in education at Howard, becoming a high school teacher. He also encouraged his wife Edith to get her education degree, and later pushed all their kids to attend: Terah, Gerald, Mike, Nelson and Tim, the youngest. When they were together, the Robinsons generated amazing warmth and love as a family, something I got to experience when I was first engaged to Tim. He father was also a Baptist preacher and the first time I flew south to meet the family, Tim happily took me to the small Baptist Church near their home for Sunday Service (where his father preached while Tim played the piano), followed by a potluck lunch on the grounds with heaping servings of his mom’s delicious chicken and potato salad.
When Tim announced to his parents at an early age that he wanted to be a Washington Post journalist when he grew up, they encouraged him. Tim was taught his first lessons by his mother in a one-room schoolhouse in Pumpkin Center. He had mastered the violin and piano by age 5 and tested out at 170 IQ long before he graduated from Dora High School at the age of 15. He started college and also landed the first job in his storied newspaper career at the Daily Mountain Eagle, where he had already been calling in football scores to the sports pages while in high school.
Before he could vote, he was assistant city editor at The Birmingham Post-Herald and working on the weekends as a reporter for UPI, all as he finished his degree at Samford. And yes, he made it to the Washington Post, but not until he was turned down a few times by the hiring editor as too young. Tim’s solution to this setback was to get his graduate degree in journalism from American University and keep trying. He then took an interim job as an editor at the weekly Examiner, but was still in his early 20s when he finally was hired and eventually named to the Watergate team.
Tim always loved to talk about his family and the importance of being in Alabama for Christmas while his parents were alive. Even after their death, Tim still had the strength of family to lean on – when we moved out to California, we got to live near the two oldest brothers he had missed knowing well as an adult, Gerald and Mike and their spouses Martha and Caroline in LA and his Uncle Mike and Aunt Adah’s large family in Northern California.. Then when the economy got tough in southern California and both of us found our jobs threatened, Tim kept listening to LA’s Tom Petty and Heartbreakers singing “Running Down a Dream” and refused to look back as he took on the Internet and brought me along, all the while remembering his courageous parents were not afraid to dream big when the world was changing around them.