News of longtime Editor and Publisher Robert Williams’ sale of The Blackshear Times was met with varied reactions across the community last week, mostly surprise at the suddenness of the announcement and inquiries of “what now?”.
Williams, and his wife Cheryl, sold The Times to Matt Gardner, formerly of Baxley, last Monday, and announced their retirement.
Williams was the longest serving editor of The Times with 48 years at the helm of this weekly paper, surpassing former Editor Kirk Sutlive’s (1920 - early 1940s) record nearly 30 years ago. The first edition published under his tenure is dated April 12, 1971.
Robert, a 20-year-old college kid at the time, partnered with Roy Chalker, Sr. and Wilkes Williams in ‘71. The two men and Don Ferrell had purchased The Blackshear Times from Dean Broome months earlier, but Robert bought out Ferrell when he moved to town and took over as editor. His partners backed him at the local banks in securing funding for the buy-in, then they slapped him on the shoulder, wished him luck, and left town, telling Williams he’d “have to act like he was 40” from then on.
Suddenly, Williams was the youngest newspaper editor in the state.
“I’ve joked that we were ‘boy publishers,’ not long after we started shaving. We’ve been friends — more like brothers — ever since,” says Dink NeSmith, president of Community Newspapers, Inc.
NeSmith and Williams started in this
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business the same year with NeSmith taking up the same role in Jesup.
He may have been young, but Williams was no stranger to the newspaper business. He’d worked as a teen for The Springfield Herald and The Savannah Morning News.
William Wall, longtime businessman and local grocer, remembers when Robert came to town. Williams had a lot to learn when he first arrived, but caught on quickly, Wall recalls.
“He tried to cover (things) as good as anybody can do,” Wall says. “You’re not supposed to write what you think, (you’re) supposed to write the information, and I think he did that.”
That’s not to say the influential businessman always agreed with Williams.
“Ain’t everybody going to agree all the time. You just try to work through it and go on. There’s another day tomorrow,” Wall says with a laugh.
Williams did irritate, and sometimes anger, his audience over the years, particularly in his early career as he broke new ground, covering city and county government more aggressively than had ever been done before. It didn’t take long for Williams to earn a reputation as “the nosiest man in town.”
In retrospect, Williams concedes he could come across as brash or cocky at times, even though that wasn’t his intention.
Some who disagreed with Williams most, however, express appreciation for the importance of The Blackshear Times, and its role in the community.
“A newspaper is vital for the community because it informs its citizens and brings the community together. It is a great economic instrument for the development of your cities and counties,” says former Blackshear councilwoman Mary Lott Walker. “A newspaper is a great recorder of history … Robert was a great recorder of our history.”
Walker, who spent her career teaching government and is actively involved with preserving local history, was prominently pictured with then-Governor Jimmy Carter for a proclamation signing on the front page of Williams’ first issue of The Times.
Those who worked alongside Williams through the years could count on accuracy in his reporting.
“Robert always investigated thoroughly,” says W.D. ‘Papa Bear’ Strickland, former school superintendent and longtime coach.
Strickland and Williams would talk through issues, speaking openly and honestly with each other. He said he has appreciated Williams’ ability to listen and consider others’ opinions.
“You did not wonder what Robert was thinking, because he would tell you, but he wasn’t so opinionated that he did not listen to what you said, and it could alter what he was thinking,” Strickland adds.
“He’s the most objective journalist I’ve ever worked with. He always tried to take both sides into consideration,” agrees Blackshear Police Chief Chris Wright. “That’s all you could ask for.”
As a lawman, Wright also appreciated Williams use of the newspaper to ensure people “do the right thing.”
Williams never shied away from the tough questions.
“He don’t mind asking that question, there’s no doubt about it – whether it’s a good question, a bad question or a hard question,” says County Commission Chairman Neal Bennett. “That’s important.”
“I’ve always liked him. He’s always been fair. He’s been understanding,” Bennett continues.
Later in his career, Williams assumed a fatherly editorial voice when the need arose. That voice of reason was an asset in the aftermath of the Parkland, FL, school shooting a year ago when rumors of a similar threat at PCHS caused widespread panic in the community. Williams wrote an editorial calling for the community to stop spreading and believing rumors.
It worked — almost instantly.
“That helped calm a hostile situation,” Wright says.
Williams’ passion and energy for reporting Pierce County’s news is evidence of his love — not only for the job — but for this community and its citizens.
“It’s obvious he does have a great love for Pierce County, and serving the people of Pierce County,” Strickland says. “He has always served this community extremely well.”
“Besides his passion for community journalism, I respect Robert for his heart and his backbone,” NeSmith adds. “Beneath that hardnosed newsman is a huge heart. He cares. He really cares, but that doesn’t mean he’s a pushover.”
Williams’ love for the community was most visible in his weekly columns which were written from the heart, wise and witty, Strickland adds.
After nearly 50 years of investment in The Blackshear Times, Williams’ voice isn’t likely to disappear from its pages quickly. His journalistic influence and expertise will remain intertwined in each edition for years to come.
Williams makes mark on news industry across state, nation
Former editor and publisher of The Blackshear Times Robert Williams’ reputation for thorough investigative reporting and crisp writing is well-known in Pierce County, but his influence in the news industry reaches far beyond the county line.
Williams, who sold The Times last week to Baxley native Matt Gardner, has been recognized across the state and the nation for his expertise, where just like in Pierce County, Williams has been a frontrunner in the industry.
“Robert stands out as a real visionary. He’s always been a person within this community of news organizations who had a clear vision of how newspapers can best serve the community,” says Tonda Rush, public policy director and general counsel for the National Newspaper Association (NNA) in Washington, D.C. “If he’s been the kind of leader in the community that he has in the industry, then Blackshear has been a lucky community.”
Williams is one of just a few Georgians to ever become president of the NNA, and may be the only Pierce Countian to be president of a national trade group.
“Robert is more than a small-town newspaper icon. He has garnered respect from journalists across America, newspapers big and small,” NeSmith says. “Perhaps the zenith of his career was serving as president of the National Newspaper Association. Just like E.F. Hutton of old, when Robert Williams speaks, people listen. He has been a relentless champion for the people’s right to know.”
During his tenure with the NNA, Williams spread far and wide his view that a community newspaper’s first order of business is to serve the public.
“He used to say all the time that to have a healthy community, you have to have a healthy newspaper, and if you didn’t have a healthy newspaper, you couldn’t have a healthy community. You need both,” Rush recalls.
Williams has been just as energetic in his work across Georgia and the U.S. as he has here on the local newsbeat.
“I don’t think I ever knew a man who had so much energy. Working with Robert is not for the faint of heart,” Rush adds with a laugh. “You don’t start off ever with ‘I can’t’ or ‘I won’t,’ or ‘that’s not possible’.”
Williams was the youngest president of the Georgia Press Association when he took office in 1980 on his 30th birthday, and is still actively involved with GPA. He was named to Georgia Trend magazine’s annual list of 100 Most Influential Georgians in 2014, a distinction he initially thought was “just a joke” until he investigated further.
Williams’ influence stretched across a wide swath of small towns. He once co-owned the Nassau County Record in Callahan, Florida and in Georgia, among the holdings of he and his wife, Cheryl, have been the Richmond Hill-Bryan County News, the Clinch County News, The Ocilla Star, The Telfair Enterprise, The Alma Times, the Charlton County Herald and the Monroe County Reporter in Forsyth. Williams credits Cheryl with the impetus to branch out and buy newspapers elsewhere.
“She told me she didn’t think just The Blackshear Times could afford to have me on its payroll and I needed to find something to help our company grow,” recalls Williams with a laugh. “That’s when we started buying other newspapers. I sure couldn’t have done it without her.”