Area publishers meet in Bainbridge

Published 12:55 pm Friday, August 24, 2012

Ten employees of southwest Georgia newspapers met Thursday at Bainbridge’s Kirbo Center, for the first of six “publishers’ roundtables” that are being sponsored this year by the Georgia Press Association (GPA).

The employees met to discuss challenges and issues that are being faced by the state’s newspapers. Also in attendance were local State Rep. Jay Powell (R-Camilla) and State Rep. Darlene Taylor (R-Thomasville), who offered their opinions about newspapers and other state issues.

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GPA President Otis Raybon Jr., who is the publisher of the Rome News-Tribune, said the roundtables are useful for a variety of reasons.

“It allows publishers to share ideas and information, that we can all use to better serve our communities,” he said.

Additional roundtables are scheduled for the Georgia cities of Brunswick, Cumming, Macon, Madison and Rome.

“We’re all facing similar challenges due to the Internet and other factors,” said GPA Executive Director Robin Rhodes. “But I would argue with those who say newspapers are dying. A newspaper is still a vital part of a community, and many times it’s the only way to find out about local news and events, especially in rural parts of the state.”

Both Taylor and Powell said they appreciated newspapers, especially how they help inform the citizens.

“One of the reasons that America is the country that it is, is because we’ve always had a free press,” Taylor said.

“I appreciate newspapers because they help give a ‘flavor’ of the community,” Powell said. “They play an important role in keeping the people informed.”

The state legislators also addressed some of the key issues of the past General Assembly session, as well as issues that might come up for debate in the next session. Powell said that one major issue will be ethics reform, especially with regard to limiting (or eliminating) gifts that lobbyists can give to elected officials — such as lunches or entertainment tickets.

“Whether it’s a real problem or not, the perception is out there that we have a problem,” he said. “If a lobbyist buying a meal for a legislator affects a citizen’s trust or distrust of their government, then it’s obviously a big enough problem that we need to deal with it.”

Powell said he is concerned that the law might go too far. For example, he pointed out that he regularly shares lunch with a friend in Camilla, and they alternate who pays each time. Powell is concerned that the new law might punish him, if his friend picks up a lunch tab.

“I don’t think we need to punish people who are doing the best they can, and inadvertently break the rules,” he said. “I don’t want this to become a piece of ‘gotcha’ legislation.”

Powell also addressed some citizens’ concerns about the recent T-SPLOST legislation. Although the measure failed in most regions of the state, it did pass in three of the 12 regions. Under the legislation, those regions will only need to match 10 percent of local Department of Transportation grants; the nine regions who did not pass T-SPLOST will have to match 30 percent.

Powell said some people think it is “unfair” to penalize that extra 20 percent, because the measure failed so strongly across much of the state. However, he said he thought it would be just as unfair to make the matches more equitable.

“Those people in those [three regions] voted for T-SPLOST in good faith, because they thought this was going to be the playing field and they would get a lower local match,” he said. “I would almost rather see T-SPLOST repealed across the board, and start over, than to change the rules after the fact.”

In November, Georgia citizens will have the opportunity to vote on an amendment to the state constitution, which would legalize state-sponsored charter schools. Both representatives addressed their thoughts on the charter school issue.

“I don’t know that I’m a big proponent for charter schools,” Taylor said. “But I do see the need in some communities for them. You have children out there who do not learn in a normal school setting. I think sometimes the school boards are looking at it only as money. I want to look at it as children. They’ve got to become educated. We have a problem in this state; we have a problem with educating our young people for the next generation.

“Are they the only answer? No, there’s a lot of things we need to do differently in education. I feel like we have good schools in south Georgia. This is not an area that plays out here, but there are other areas in this state that do have major issues in their education systems.”

Powell said he supports the amendment because he believes charter schools help serve as an occasional “safety valve” when public education is not doing its job effectively.