I once wrote for The Birmingham News. And I was thrilled to do it.
How’s that for a confession? I didn’t write much for them, and not for very long. But I wrote at a time when a byline in Alabama’s largest daily newspaper and most influential media presence meant something — to me, and to many other readers and writers, hundreds of thousands of them across the state.
It also happened to be a time — 1993-ish — when I needed to build some confidence as a writer of material for broad public consumption. This was opposed to the press releases, organizational statements and subject-matter reports I’d spent several years producing in my job before striking out to see whether I could make a living as an independent writer (as it turned out, I couldn’t, at least at that time; but that’s another story).
What I did for the News was write book reviews. On three or four occasions over perhaps six months, I drove down to the old News building on the northeast corner of 4th Avenue North (for those who do not recall it, it was one of those quietly grand old buildings you looked at and just knew would stand forever; oh, well). In a small office that housed several senior members of the editorial staff, I would paw through two or three boxes of newly released books, pick several that interested me and write reviews of them, for publication in the paper’s Sunday edition.
The reviews were mostly capsules of one or two paragraphs. On a few occasions, though, I was allotted the space to write a full-length review, to stretch out stylistically and to write from a critical — that is, a questioning and analytical — perspective. I lost or misplaced those clippings long ago, and the only title I have a specific memory of reviewing in long form is Save Me, Joe Louis, a novel by Madison Smartt Bell.
Why do I remember it? Because some time — probably two or three months — after the News published my review, I ran into an acquaintance at a social gathering. He told me that my review made him want to read Bell’s novel, so he’d gone and bought a copy — people used to do that sort of thing — and had just finished it. Now, he wanted to talk about the book in the context of my analysis in the paper.
That kind of encouragement could not have come at a better time for me. Nor could the opportunity that made it possible. That opportunity came from Joey Kennedy, who was fired on Feb. 19 by the Alabama Media Group, the self-described “digitally-focused news and information company” that owns the now thrice-weekly News and the Al.com website, and is itself owned by New Jersey-based Advance Publications.
By the time I met Kennedy, he was already a couple of years removed from having teamed with colleagues Ron Casey and Harold Jackson to bring the News its first Pulitzer Prize. The award, for Editorial Writing, recognized the trio’s series calling for sweeping tax reform in Alabama for shining light on the forces that have perpetuated — and, to substantial degree, institutionalized — social, economic and political divisions for their own virtually exclusive benefit. It was strong, incisive, important stuff.
And here I was, figuring out how to be a writer. And here’s this guy who’d won a Pulitzer, digging through these boxes of books with me, offering up an opinion or two about what he’d be interested in having reviewed, engaging in some random conversation about politics or public policy.
I’m not talking about monumental, life-changing events here. I’m talking about small things that are personally meaningful, things that inform and influence our views of ourselves, and the ways in which we encounter our fellow citizens. To say, for instance, that but for Kennedy and those book reviews, I might have given up on writing — well, that would be gilding the lily in a way that surely would embarrass us both.
But, just as surely and more so, I appreciated and benefited from the time that Kennedy gave me. He certainly didn’t have to do it, other than apparently having made it his task to corral aspiring local writers to contribute book reviews.
Over the intervening two decades, I’ve never gotten to know Kennedy well. We have not palled around, to speak of, though I do have memories of a very pleasant evening spent in camp chairs at the Argo Drive-In, watching Saving Private Ryan with Kennedy and another News lifer, our friend Bob Carlton. But I’ve read most of what he has written, and we’ve had enough mutual friends and sufficient professional interaction that we have run into each other, or been thrown together, on an occasional basis. Stemming from all of that, my appreciation of him has grown steadily over time.
The news of Kennedy’s termination reached me late that Thursday night. Expressions of shock, outrage and sadness were fanning out through social media, along with some very pointed questions about why AMG would part ways with one of Alabama’s most respected newsmen.
Few, if any, were buying the reason that AMG reportedly gave Kennedy for terminating him immediately. According to Facebook comments posted on Saturday, two days after the firing, by Kennedy’s wife, Veronica, he was let go for “being ‘too personally involved’ in covering his beat and for ‘threatening’ sources.” The beat to which she referred was covering animal rights and pet-related issues, to which AMG assigned Kennedy exclusively some time ago.
Veronica Kennedy — who was let go as a reporter for the News in the massive round of buyouts and layoffs that took place in the fall of 2012 — disputed those characterizations in her post. She added that her husband “hasn’t responded publicly to his unfair dismissal upon the advice of his amazing employment attorney, John Saxon.”
I had reached Kennedy by telephone midmorning on Friday, but he declined to answer questions or make any statement for the record. With that out of the way, we had a brief personal conversation, from which I hung up and began reaching out to people who have known and worked with him. Much of what I heard from them was love and concern, expressed amid a flood of emotions related to Kennedy’s present situation.
“They don’t deserve Joey Kennedy,” declared Brooks Brown. A page designer and copy editor at the News/AMG for eight years, Brown left the company in September 2012 — the same time as Veronica Kennedy — as the paper ceased daily publication.
Brown spoke of Kennedy’s “talent and reputation,” as well as his willingness to take on the “unenviable task of being a liberal newspaper columnist in Alabama.” But she also described him as “extremely funny” and “always approachable,” saying the Kennedys have long been “a surrogate mother and father” to students from the journalism classes they have taught at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
“As decorated as he is,” Brown told me, “he’s always willing to put himself out there, whether it’s working with students or writing about things that need attention. He’s very dedicated to the idea of the newsroom, what that means to journalism and to people’s lives. He’s just one of those people you meet, and you’re glad you know him.
“And this is what he got from AMG? Unbelievable. If they can fire Joey Kennedy, they can fire anybody.”
Carol Nunnelley is a respected editor, writer and journalism trainer who currently is working with other interested parties (including me) to launch a nonprofit to support public interest journalism. She was a longtime colleague of Kennedy’s at the News, concluding with her time as the paper’s managing editor from 1992-2000.
“I would think that this would make any Birmingham News graduate very sad,” Nunnelley said of Kennedy’s firing. “It speaks to the loss of the sense of collegiality that prevailed at the News in the past. Actually, I think the message about [AMG’s] commitment to local journalism was sent when Joey was put on the pet beat. That was a very odd placement of a guy who was such a part of the most important work the paper has done.
“But Joey has many, many friends in this community. He has built relationships that may prove especially important to him now.”
That much seems certain. In which vein, it probably will not surprise the reader to learn that the most succinct, and yet all-encompassing statement about Kennedy came from another his colleagues and friends of long standing, the columnist John Archibald. I was just doing my job when I sent John a private message on Friday, asking if he could “say anything about Joey.” I did not necessarily expect a response, but Archibald sent one over the weekend.
Only that I love him and hope he’s ok.