The first of the stories was published on the local newspaper’s website the day Ahmaud Arbery died. It was about three sentences long. Larry Hobbs, the crime beat reporter at the Brunswick News, remembers it well; after all, he wrote it. The essence: burglary suspect shot and killed in Satilla Shores, a subdivision outside Brunswick, Ga. The information within, as is the case with countless other items published each day about a sudden death in the United States, came only from police.
The next day, a Monday, Hobbs managed to get Arbery’s name from the coroner and included it and a few more lines in a followup story. Then he wrote about the close involvement of district attorney’s office investigators in examining what happened, and about official silence on whether the incident was being investigated as a possible homicide or case of self defense. Those were the first of many stories Hobbs would write about the shooting on Satilla Drive in February 2020, an event that would go on to seize national attention. He fit that work between other daily news, his column and a crime blotter he writes, sprinkled with storytelling flourishes that make it easy to imagine Mark Twain reading the contents to a crowd. Many weeks, Hobbs writes about 15 stories.
“I’ve had the full front and a story on the jump,” Hobbs, 59, says about having written every story on the front page and one that continued to the inside of the paper. “All of my colleagues have done the same thing. This is not, you know, ‘I’m the only [one], woe is me.’ This is life on a small town newspaper.”
Some locals in Glynn County, Ga., where Arbery was killed, are critical of the way the paper has covered the killing in Satilla Shores, describing it as too credulous of the Glynn County Police and other local officials. But this fact remains: Hobbs’ reporting ultimately played a major role in getting larger news outlets—and eventually civil rights groups and state law-enforcement agencies—interested in digging into what had happened. Hobbs and his many questions produced work that, while he himself admits it wasn’t always perfect, served a critical need. Now, almost two years later, with Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan having been convicted of murder and other charges, the weight of that role is clearer than ever, and at a moment when the future of local news reporters and newspapers is in jeopardy.
Read more: What Ahmaud Arbery’s Death Has Meant for the Place Where He Lived
In the last 15 years, as many as 2,200 newspapers across the country—about a fourth of all American newspapers—have closed, most of them small local papers like the Brunswick News, which are often the publications that alert larger outlets and area TV stations to events that deserve exploration. During that period, more than half of people working as journalists in the United States have been laid off—even as, in 2018, a Pew Research Center study found that 70% of Americans believed that newspapers are doing well to very well financially. Just 14% had spent any money on local news.
“The Brunswick paper is unusual,” says Penny Muse Abernathy, a visiting professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications who worked in the industry for 30 years. She has written four reports on the state of the industry, including last year’s “News Deserts and Ghost Newspapers: Will Local News Survive?” Abernathy’s research has identified a total of 1,800 communities that became what she calls news deserts between 2005 and early 2020. Those are places where people have very limited access to credible and comprehensive news—information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level.
“So that’s the decisions made at the school board. That’s the decisions made by the sheriff’s office.The decisions made by the county commissioners,” Abernathy says about what is not being covered in a constant way. “All of those have an impact on our daily lives. And that’s the very heart of this democracy. It starts at the local level. So without good local news you risk corruption…It starts around the edges, and as no one is looking.”
As the number of Brunswick News stories about Arbery’s killing grew, some people called Larry Hobbs, a white man from Alabama, a racist. Some implied that he was making the McMichaels out to be heroes with big guns defending a homestead. Those criticisms cut deeply. But among the complaints was an email exchange that stood out: a note from Wanda Cooper-Jones, Arbery’s mother.
Though her initial reaction to the News coverage of the killing did not include praise, she had noticed that the narrative Hobbs wrote differed from what police initially told Arbery’s family. She had been told he was killed in a confrontation with a homeowner, not chased and killed in the street. “When I saw your articles roll out, I reached back out to [the officer] and tried to get some explanation of what really happened,” Jones wrote in an email reviewed by TIME. “Because what I was reading in the paper wasn’t what he told me. I thank God for The Brunswick News.” (Cooper-Jones declined to be interviewed.) Hobbs shared his number, indicated he would like to talk and told her that she had been in his prayers. Hobbs has been in the habit of that kind of praying—for every dead person and their family that he writes about—since around the time he got sober almost a decade ago, he says. Looking back now, Hobbs says he sees that he should have tried sooner to speak with Arbery’s friends and family in order to include their perspectives in his coverage, to move beyond what police and prosecutors were willing to say or where they wanted to direct the public’s attention.
“Have I done everything brilliantly? No,” Hobbs says. “But this thing stunk to high heaven almost from the very start. So I have tried to ask questions. What I can say is that I certainly tried.”
Hobbs began his career in the wilds of Florida journalism. Those years were productive at work but destructive at home. His life was so messy he walked away from news; at one point, he worked a dairy farm in the Pacific Northwest. But the salty sea air was calling, he says. So, he moved to Glynn County’s St. Simons Island and took a job at a hardware store. There, he freelanced for Golden Isles, a regional magazine, wrote two books on local history and began contributing an occasional column for the Brunswick News before being asked to join the staff part-time in 2014 and full-time the following year.
Spend some time with Hobbs and you get the sense that this sun-weathered man with scraggly blonde, shoulder-length locks is enjoying his second act. He’s covered local elections, car wrecks, shootings, at least one massive shipwreck and scandal at the Glynn County Police. Then, in February 2020, Ahmaud Arbery was killed.
As Hobbs wrote those first words about Arbery’s death, some things just didn’t make sense to him. Among them: why was an alleged burglar, unarmed, shot in the street, in broad daylight on a Sunday afternoon? Hobbs asked for a copy of the police report and the 911 calls.
It was Hobbs who published details from a police report about Arbery’s shooting, a document that includes an officer’s summary of the initial statements made by the men involved in the killing and the fact that police were unable to find evidence of a burglary. It was also Hobbs who reported the presence of a third man who chased Arbery, as well as the fact that the elder McMichael worked as an investigator for the district attorney who prosecuted crimes in Glynn County.
It took more than a month to obtain that report, Hobbs says. In the interim, Hobbs also looked into Arbery and gleaned what he could have from public records, reporting on the fact that Arbery was on probation when he died, having been arrested in connection with an incident in which he brought a gun to a high school basketball game. He wrote about the local NAACP’s concerns about the case and those Arbery’s family had raised with the civil rights organization, about the possibility that race was a factor in the shooting and the lack of arrests. Hobbs dutifully published it all, a drop or two at a time.
That’s the job of a reporter, Hobbs says, shrugging.
And even those displeased with Hobbs’ coverage relied on it—and the facts it contained—as a way of raising a red flag, showing others many questionable things that seemed to have happened in Glynn County.
Josiah “Jazz” Watts, Arbery’s cousin, had been in touch with a writer at the New York Times for a previous story about local foodways in the area. Unhappy with the Brunswick News’ coverage of the shooting and frustrated with what he perceived as local officials’ rushing to judgment, Watts reached out to that writer, who put him in touch with a New York Times correspondent in Atlanta, Richard Fausset. Fausset, who is white, read local news stories and then came to Brunswick himself to report, resulting in the first significant national-level coverage of the case. Likewise, when Thea Brooks, one of Arbery’s paternal aunts, asked the NAACP, Black celebrities and a local radio station for help, she sent each a packet of info on the case, including local news stories—even some of which she loathed. Gerald Griggs, a former vice president with the state NAACP branch and vice president of the Atlanta NAACP, tells me that the Brunswick NAACP and later the state NAACP came to town. Together, they, like Rosa Parks in the 1940s, knocked on doors and gathered eyewitness accounts a few weeks after Arbery’s death. And the local branch talked to Hobbs.
“[Arbery’s family and friends] were in a way very small voices kind of shouting in a universe where there was a much larger din being made by COVID particularly. They’re not very well situated in a media market. They are kind of pinned to the edge of the Jacksonville, Fla., market; they are like 300 miles from Atlanta,” Fausset says. “To me the real lesson of this—in terms of how the story got told and the fact that the story got told in the first place—is the story of that unrelenting engagement, which must have been just extremely tiring and frustrating.”
And so, months after Arbery’s killing, local conversations and gossip continued to grow. Then, the community of people asking questions expanded like the spray from an open fire hydrant. In May, a lawyer friend of Roddie Bryan’s released a video to a local radio talk show. Bryan had recorded parts of the chase and shooting on Satilla Drive. It was viewed at least 250,000 times in about an hour, Hobbs says. The station pulled the video off its website, but one cannot put the water back in the hydrant.
Unlike most American newspapers, the Brunswick News remains family-owned, as it has been for four generations. Its reporting staff of four covers a county of about 85,000 people, publishing six days a week.
In the United States, there are today a handful of national newspapers, about 150 to 170 newspapers considered state or regional, and about 6,500 local papers with circulations reaching up to 15,000 people. Newspaper closures and consolidations have always happened, but the worst of the current problem began in 2008, says Kristen Hare, a member of the local news faculty at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a non-profit journalism training and research organization, at a moment of economic crisis when more people were moving their lives to the Internet.
“Those two things start happening at the same time and create a perfect storm,” Hare says. “You could add in a third factor: Some people like to say the original sin was putting work up online. I disagree. I think the original sin was imagining that people would always read newspapers.”
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Ownership and staffing became consolidated in the hands of an ever smaller group of companies. These large firms, Medill’s Abernathy says, often cut costs by trimming reporters and local editors—the folks who have been around long enough to know, say, where a person involved in a shooting worked before the incident. Instead, a single editor in a hub office may cover small towns in multiple states, if those towns get covered at all.
And yet many of the biggest stories of recent years were not broken by national papers. The Miami Herald’s work prompted new charges against Jeffrey Epstein and his companion Ghislaine Maxwell. The Indianapolis Star explored sex-crime allegations against Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics that ultimately sent Nassar to jail. And the Albany Times Union was the first to write stories questioning the activities of Keith Raniere, a man federal prosecutors would later describe as leader of an abusive cult-like group; he was sentenced to 120 years in prison in 2020.
“That work is, at the local level, really hard, poorly paid and rarely recognized,” says Hare. “They live in the places they are covering and so usually they are doing this work at great risk.”
The pandemic has been rough on the industry, particularly on small papers like the Brunswick News, but the Paycheck Protection Act is believed to have prevented a total slaughter. Now, legislation known as the Local Journalism Sustainability Act will, if passed as a part of the Build Back Better package, give smaller newspapers and chains a tax credit for a portion of each journalist’s salary, provide readers a tax credit for subscribing, and other measures. The bill has bipartisan support but, like everything else in the package, is far from certain, Abernathy says. One thing that may help: the self interests and political goals of lawmakers. Studies have shown that in communities where local news disappears, voter participation goes down and the cost of government rises.
Read more: COVID-19 Is Ravaging Local Newspapers, Making it Easier for Misinformation to Spread
After the tape of the Arbery shooting emerged in May, Georgia’s governor dispatched the Georgia Bureau of Investigations (GBI) to investigate. Two days after that, the McMichaels were arrested; Bryan and the then area district attorney, Jackie Johnson, would follow. (Johnson, who was arrested in September in connection with her handling of the case, has denied any wrongdoing.)
There’s a reason that a free and functioning press and the right to speak through organizing, action and protest are enshrined in the U.S. constitution.
“Everybody was outraged [by the shooting],” Hobbs says. “I’ve got some emails from people who said they could see how this was self defense. But that is a small minority of people. Most think it was an outrage. And then, the protests started.”
When Arbery was alive, Hobbs thought of Glynn County as an idyllic place, with “a really cool vibe,” where people get along. “I think light-skinned people like me have probably rethought some of their assumptions about how unified we might have been in the first place,” he says. “Maybe there’s something there to reassess.”
For Hobbs, the gravity of what’s happened is clear. He tells me a story: After the New York Times had come to town, but amid the barrage of critical messages he was getting, came one from Cooper-Jones, Arbery’s mother. That message, he says tearing up, “meant the world.”
A real investigation of Arbery’s death and indictments for the men involved had not been inevitable. Many people played a role in making it happen, she told him—and Hobbs was one of them.
That quiet statement of facts has been a kind of bulwark for Hobbs, one he’s had to lean on since the verdicts. He would be happy with the anonymity of writing “cheesy stories” about volunteer beach clean-ups, he says, especially if Arbery were still alive. Instead by the Monday after the verdicts, he was the subject of both praise-filled tweets and digs calling him a police functionary and far worse. All of that has made him uneasy. But he is also clear about what he did and did not do, and how he sees the role of the local reporter in a moment like this.
“I would be the first to say that I could have done a better job,” Hobbs says. “But the main thing I did was I didn’t let it go. I kept asking questions.”
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