In this interview series where we ask questions to people who are making a difference, it can be big, it can be small, it doesn’t matter, what matters is their contribution to our society. It can be anyone from any walk of life and from any country. Please, do send us suggestions of people whom you think we should interview for this series.
Joey Kennedy is a Pulitzer Prize winning writer. He has won many accolades and awards for his opinion articles. In his 42 years long career he has made significant contribution in the field of journalism and public awareness. He also teaches at University of Alabama at Birmingham and lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife Veronica and quiet a few dogs. Following are his views on some of the questions we asked.
Tell us something about yourself?
I’ve been a working journalist since before I was graduated from high school in 1974. I’ve worked for the Houma (La.) Daily Courier, two Louisiana radio stations, the Cullman (Ala.) Times, the St. Clair News-Aegis (Ala.), The Anniston Star (Ala.) and The Birmingham News over a 42-year career. I left The Birmingham News in 2015 and currently write the back-page column for B-Metro Magazine and a weekly political column for Alabama Political Reporter. My wife and I operate an animal news and information website, Animal Advocates of Alabama (www.alanimals.com). I attended Nicholls State University (Thibodaux, La.), Jacksonville State University and took my bachelor’s degree from UAB in 1988. I also earned a master’s degree from UAB in 2003, and I’ve taught in the English Department at UAB since 2001. I’ve been married to Veronica for 36 years. We have no children but lots of dogs. In 1991, two colleagues and I won the Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing for a series of editorials on Alabama’s tax system. The News editorial board was a finalist (top 3) for two other Pulitzer Prizes in 1994 and 2006. I have been named the state’s top opinion columnist five times.
Why did you choose journalism as a career?
I have always enjoyed writing, and knew that if I was a journalist I’d get to write every day. Also, I came of age during the Watergate period, and understood how journalism could make a difference. Also, I’m really crappy at math, so journalism seemed a good way to go.
What’s the most challenging aspect of being an investigative journalist?
Journalism is a confrontational business, and investigative journalism is really confrontational. People don’t want you snooping around their business, and so you have to be firm and able to stand up to all sorts of stuff, including threats. You must let people know that story isn’t going to die even they don’t cooperate with you.
Besides the technology shift from print to online, in what ways has journalism as a whole changed?
Certainly journalism today is nothing like journalism in its heyday. The real shift, to me, is that too many media organizations have forgotten what our mission is: To document history as it happens. Instead, news organizations like Alabama Media Group simply want to generate clicks on the website. They aren’t holding government’s feet to the fire and have practically given up their watchdog role. This truly disturbs me as a journalist. I don’t know if we can be known as the Fourth Branch of Government anymore. Some newspapers still do it well — The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times. But while The Birmingham News was once a great newspaper, it’s hardly a newspaper anymore.
People have a perception that news has more to do with TRP numbers instead of public interest, same thing in regards to the corporate influence on media. Is that true?
Sadly, I believe it is. Toward the end of my time at Alabama Media Group, every floor of the building had huge flat-screen monitors that did nothing but tell reporters how many clicks their stories were getting. And certainly the profit incentive for groups like AMG override any effort at all in news gathering. The focus is on the clicks, and reporters who didn’t generate enough are laid off. That’s a bad way to do journalism.
What would to advise for aspiring journalists out there?
Well, while journalism isn’t what it was as I was coming up, it’s certainly still there. Indeed, even though many newspapers have gone out of business, I would venture to say there are more journalism opportunities today than ever before. I would tell journalism students to set up a blog online, to be familiar with writing online and put together a strong, cross-media portfolio. Know the technology and social media. Have a strong presence. That’s what is going to get you a decent job in journalism.
Lots of journalists have a moment in their career where their work makes a direct impact on public policy. Did you ever have such an experience in your work?
Yes, indeed. Certainly the tax reform series we did at least got the state Legislature and leaders talking about our tax system. The work I’ve done on immigration in Alabama has had an impact. In 2006, we wrote a series on why we were changing our stance on the death penalty (we came out against it) and it won national awards and was a Pulitzer finalist. One of the men on Death Row we featured in that series eventually was exonerated and is now out of prison. Personally, much of my journalism has influenced lawmakers or city leaders to act in a certain way or at least respond.
Your message for our readers?
Do not depend on just one source for your news and information. Be skeptical and investigate issues yourselves. We have so much information available to us, but evaluate sources and don’t just believe something because you see it posted by one news source or on Facebook. Use discretion.