Weld for Birmingham has learned that Thomas Spencer, a reporter for the Birmingham News for the past 13 years, will begin a new job with the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) in October. As the senior research associate for the Samford University-based nonprofit, Spencer will be responsible not only for directing key research initiatives, but also for making PARCA’s research findings better known and more accessible to the public.
“I’ll be doing some heavy lifting on research projects on subjects to be determined,” Spencer told Weld. “With the overall goal of helping state and local governments function more efficiently and effectively in public policy areas, my focus will be on looking at the problems we have in Alabama and offering workable solutions.”
Founded in 1988, PARCA has a singular purpose, described in its mission statement as “provid[ing] objective, nonpartisan information that will lead to the improvement of state and local government in Alabama.” Chaired by former Alabama Governor Albert Brewer since its inception, the organization has a small staff that conducts research on public policy topics ranging from education to ethics to best practices in budgeting.
Acknowledged as a superior resource, PARCA over the years has been challenged nonetheless by the logistics of ensuring that the results of its research — and its recommendations for specific policy or programmatic initiatives — receive the public attention and support needed to spur state and local governments to implement improvements and reforms. Spencer sees that need becoming more acute at a time when state and municipal budgets have been increasingly constrained by political factors as well as economic ones.
“One of the things that appeals to me about going to work for PARCA is the opportunity to be a part of refocusing the debate in Alabama on good ideas, rather than the totally partisan question of who wins and who loses,” said Spencer.
By definition, Spencer maintains, the individuals and businesses that support PARCA’s work financially are “change agents.” His hiring is one of several moves the organization is making to rejuvenate its profile and redefine its priorities as its 25th anniversary approaches in 2013. Additional announcements in this regard are expected in the coming weeks. As it relates to his job, Spencer said that over the long term, he wants to see PARCA become Alabama’s version of ProPublica, the independent, nonprofit news site for public interest investigative journalism.
Spencer’s move to PARCA comes after nearly 13 years at the News. Spencer was one of more than 60 newsroom staff members notified last June that their jobs would be eliminated as of October 1, when the paper will switch from daily publication to three editions per week. Spencer will start work at PARCA on October 15.
In addition to his time at the News, Spencer’s career includes stints as a newsroom assistant at the New York Times and a reporter at the Anniston Star. Immediately prior to moving to the News in 1999, he spent two-and-a-half years as editor of the Birmingham Weekly.
Spencer has reported on higher education and local government for the News, but cemented his reputation as a newsman in recent years with his reporting on the environment. Asked about the apparent decision by the News to deemphasize its coverage of issues such as air and water quality, resource management, land use planning and public health, Spencer recast the question in terms of the need and demand for dedicated local environmental reporting.
“It will be important that somebody carry on that role,” said Spencer. “I think it’s incumbent on the wider citizenry to find ways to engage with and support independent sources for that kind of news reporting.”