April 29, 2014

Robert Williams is the voice of America’s small-town newspapers

     The ink bug bit Robert Williams early.  Before he was shaving, he had ink in his veins and a pants-on-fire desire to be a newspaperman.  In 1971, when Roy Chalker Sr. and Wilkes Williams called Robert, he dropped out of Georgia Southern College and sprinted to Blackshear.   At age 20, Robert became the youngest newspaper publisher in the nation, owning one-third of The Blackshear Times.  Eventually, he’d become sole owner of the weekly whose motto is: “Liked by many.  Cussed by some.  Read by them all.”
As president of the 2,300-member National Newspaper Association, 
Robert Williams, right, is making laps around the country 
being the voice of small-town newspapers.  In March, he presided over the annual 
government affairs conference in Washington, D.C.  
He invited his friend Bob Schieffer, left, the CBS News host of 
Face the Nation, to keynote the event.  Another highlight of the conference 
was the presentation of the Daniel M. Phillips Leadership Award to 
Eric NeSmith.  NeSmith, 34, vice president of Athens-based 
Community Newspapers Inc., is currently chairman of 
The University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of 
Journalism and Mass Communications alumni board.  
In late 2013, Georgia Trend magazine named him to its annual 
Top 40 Under 40 list of leaders. (Photo by Stan Schwartz, NNA)
Forty-three years later, Robert’s pants are still on fire.  Robert and his wife, Cheryl, own Southfire Newspapers Inc., which publishes five newspapers.  Both are past presidents of the Georgia Press Association.
     These days, Robert is making laps around America as president of the National Newspaper Association.  And when Pierce County named him citizen of the year, the chamber of commerce told him the news on his cell phone.  Robert was in Nebraska giving a speech.  He is the voice of small-town newspapers.
     If you asked me to name the five best community publishers in the country, Robert would be among them. He’s a do-it-all guy.  Robert can out-write, out-sell and out-think the next dozen of his peers.  Want to spank an out-of-line public official? Robert can make the words jump off the editorial page.  And when it comes to marketing, he’s a one-man pizzazz machine.  
     How do I know?
     We’ve been friends, neighbors and business partners. I’ll never forget his call in 1973.  “There’s a newspaper in Florida that you and I should buy,” he said.  I doubt we had an extra thousand dollars between us.  Still, in our youthful exuberance, we raced to Callahan to negotiate with the owners of the Nassau County Record.  
     A banker and his lead director bought the newspaper for their wives to operate.  Before long, the wives gave their husbands an ultimatum: “Get rid of that paper or we’re gone.”  The bankers were motivated sellers, lending us 100 percent of the purchase price.  Then we borrowed $5,000 more to operate.   Try that today.
     Not long afterwards, Robert was in another bank, trying to sell an ad.  Sitting in the cashier’s office, Robert saw a masked Mutt and Jeff walk into the Patterson Bank.  One was toting a sawed-off shotgun.  “This must be a prank,” Robert thought.  But he thought otherwise, when he and the bank employees were sprawled on the floor.

     Since Robert was the only man in the bank, Mutt and Jeff assumed he was the president.  “Open the vault,” one of the robbers growled, kicking Robert in the ribs.  Mrs. Eloise Grinner stammered, “He doesn’t work here.  I’m in charge.”  When the police asked Robert how big the gun was, he gasped, “Big enough to cover my head.”  Robert lost the ad, but he gained one of the biggest eye-witness stories of his career.
     And then there was the time Robert went to the airport to take photos for a full-page ad.  Standing on the runway, he watched the crop-dusting plane take off, sputter and nose dive.  The pilot, the Rev. Ron Wilcox, had the best possible co-pilot — God.  When the plane smacked the ground, Ron walked away.  So did Robert’s big ad.

     Four decades later, Ron is still preaching, and Robert’s career is flying higher and higher.  One of his late daddy’s log trucks couldn’t hold the accolades Robert has stacked up.  So if you want to meet one of the best community newspaper publishers in America, go to Blackshear.  You might catch Robert there.  But then again, he might be in Omaha, giving fellow newspaperman Warren Buffett a few tips.