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Bridges: Reporting the news without fear or favor

It’s amazing how even today in 2019 that so many do not truly understand the role of a community newspaper.

First let me define a community newspaper. It is one which primarily covers the county in which it is based. That is true for the publication you are reading these words in.

A community newspaper is also called that because it focuses on the “community” where it is based. “Local, local, local” is the motto for community newspapers.

It’s a simple concept really. During my 23 years working full time as a journalist, each year was spent at a community-based publication. It is something I am proud of.

While a local, community paper certainly prints positive news (probably 80 percent overall is positive) it is not the job of a publication of this sort to not report all the news. To do so means you aren’t actually a newspaper. You could be a Chamber of Commerce newsletter I suppose, but you would not be an actual newspaper.

I mention all this because a community newspaper colleague (as well as the entire editorial staff) came under some pretty intense criticism recently for simply doing the job they are supposed to do. It was The Covington News which broke the story (a nice accomplishment by the way) of University of Georgia receiver JJ Holloman being dismissed from the football team.

Holloman is a star athlete from the Covington area and while other media outlets (some national) also reported the news in recent days, it was the publication based in Newton County which had the scoop first.

In reading the story it was certainly not written in a sensational style. It simply reported the facts along with a statement from UGA coach Kirby Smart which was issued after the local paper inquired about the situation. It should be repeated this was actually a solid job of news reporting by the publication.

Almost immediately social media was filled with criticism for The Covington News for, well, for doing its job. It is in no way the responsibility of a local paper to turn a blind eye toward news of this nature.

Quite frankly a newspaper which would not report this story has lost all credibility. One reader commented how the paper should pray for Holloman rather than reporting what happened. In reality, some prayers would likely be appreciated by the female assault victim in this case.

No, Holloman has not been found guilty in a courtroom but he has been dismissed from the UGA football team. That is news plain and simple.

There have been community-based publications which have tried to take the “no bad news” approach. One was located in Winder, the city where I have lived for 22 years.

That paper’s “positive only” approach was for sports and news coverage. Perhaps the most egregious incident came when this publication (which is no longer in business) ignored a huge scandal involving the district attorney who represented the tri-county area. Fortunately, another area newspaper did its job and unearthed the facts. 

The series of stories in a neighboring county eventually help remove the DA from office. The DA also ended up serving prison time. Those stories ultimately were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize as well they should have been.

Contrary to the belief of some, local journalists don’t relish in stories like the one about Holloman. For me, it has always difficult to have to write about a coach being fired or a local athlete being in trouble with the law. Still, it had to be done.

After one local football coach in Winder was fired I wrote a column criticizing the move. That caused a furious response from the school’s athletic director at the time who said it was not the job a local paper to question such a move. I couldn’t have disagreed more and told him so.

I was also part of a newspaper staff which was blacklisted for a while from covering a local high school football team. The coach, whose program was mired in a multi-season losing streak, didn’t like an online poll question our publisher decided to ask concerning issues with the local program.

The backlash from the coach caused my publisher to write a column entitled “Crybaby coaches” which drew even more criticism upon us from coaches at the school in question. One assistant called me yelling and screaming in a way which would have make a United States Marine drill instructor proud. Our paper continued to cover the program, however, despite those limitations and even with the threat of having the police escort us from the taxpayer-funded stadium.

When the coach would not grant us interviews, I simply talked to the head coach for the opposing team. In the end the blacklisting stopped (many parents actually sided with us in the issue) and when a new head coach came in we had a solid working relationship from day one.

I understand what the staff of The Covington News has gone through in recent days. However, a newspaper, even a community one, without credibility is not worth the paper it is printed on.

The staff of The Covington News has shown it is a trusted, reliable source for news, whether that news is good or not-so-good. I tip my journalism cap to them today. The paper’s readers should be thankful for the story rather than taking to social media to criticize.

Chris Bridges worked as sports editor of The Covington News from 1994-1997. He is a two-time winner of the Furman Bisher Sweepstakes Award for sports journalism excellence. He welcomes feedback about this column at