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James Watkins, citizen journalist, on the story in Fairhope

Cori Yonge

A new report paints a bleak picture when it comes to the future of news reporting in the U.S. The study from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism found the nation may lose a third of its newspapers by 2025. That trend could mean fewer journalists covering city and county governments as local news organizations cut staff over money problems. The reporter shortage means the media’s role as a watchdog is diminished. Today, we meet one man making it his mission to keep an eye on local government.

At 3 pm on a Friday afternoon in March, the weekend is calling. But the all- volunteer City of Fairhope Environmental Advisory Board gathers at the public library. Fairhope is one of the fastest growing cities in Alabama and the group is talking to the city’s mayor, planning and zoning manager, and building administrator. There are no reporters from area newspapers or television stations. But one man is keeping an eye on things…

“James Watkins…Citizen Journalist, I guess,” he said.

Cori Yonge

And, Watkins is a one man band when it comes to covering local government.

“I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia and I started out majoring in college in journalism, but I got sidetracked in the Navy and I never went back to it,” he observed.

Until 2006, when a brouhaha erupted over the approval of a Walmart Super Center just outside Fairhope city limits. Watkins, retired from a long electrical career with Hughes aircraft, began paying attention.

“I decided I didn’t know enough about what was going on in locally, with local government,” Watkins recalled. “I decided to start going to all the meetings to find out. And then people started asking me what was going on.”

Watkins studied up on blogs, Google, Facebook, and Twitter and the laws governing what he could and couldn’t say. He bought a flip camera. He published his first blog post under the name The Fairhope Times on November 10, 2008. It took off. Now almost 15 years later…

“I looked this morning at how many views there have been over the duration of the blog. It’s four million, two hundred forty nine thousand, three hundred and forty two views,” said Watkins.

Watkins suspects there might be a few bots inflating those numbers.

“That seems a little high for Fairhope, Alabama,” he thought.

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Still he’s a prolific blogger. These days using a smart phone instead of a flip camera to cover local meetings and events.

“Some of them are quite important. You know the airport authority, they spend millions of dollars a year. They get grants from the federal government. They get $300,000 a year from the city tax payers,” Watkins insists.

In one week in March this unpaid citizen journalist not only covered local committee meetings but area water consumption woes, the possibility of a second Fairhope police precinct, and boundary issues surrounding a little known city park. Hyperlocal news that wasn’t covered by any of the area’s other media outlets.

“So a lot of times, you know there’s not reporters to go around for every meeting that we have so they will pick up on James’s stories to do something to elaborate on it,” said Fairhope Mayor Sherry Sullivan. She says it’s not unusual for her office to field calls from established media regarding blogs in The Fairhope Times. Watkins considers himself more of a presenter of news than journalist. Even so…

“It’s good to be first sometimes. You know what I mean? I’ll put it that way,” said the Mayor.

As the years have passed Watkins has become something of a fixture at city meetings. And he says he sometimes bumps up against resistance from city and county leaders.

“It happens everywhere, nationally, not only here but all levels of government, they would like to promote some stuff keep the rest secret,” Watkins speculates. “And I’m interested in the stuff they don’t want out, to be honest. That’s where the press is supposed to play the watchdog role.”

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But, Watkins has his fans as well. Fairhope resident Gary Gover, sits on no less than six government and nonprofit committees including that Environmental Committee I told you about earlier. He says with less traditional media presence, Watkins’s role is critical for the community.

“James keeps an eye out for irregularities in the actions of these committees and boards as well as the city council and the mayor and so on,” Gover said. “He engages all these folks in conversations where he is, without appearing to do so, sort of prying into what’s going on.”

And Gover says, Watkins on the job training has taught him well.

He has a sort of professional journalist set of standards of his own that he adheres to so he does this I guess you could say with a high quality standard of his own making,” he thought.

Mayor Sullivan says that standard helps keep local politicians honest.

“I think him being at all those meetings and reporting some information that we may or may not have wanted to share immediately with the public, it keeps us transparent and it’s what the public expects and what they should expect.”

The Fairhope Times is more than about politics. Watkins says some of his most loved stories are the heartwarming ones.

“Somebody mentioned the dog rescue alright. That is memorable when some dogs fell off the pier about 3 a.m., probably eight years ago, eight or nine years ago, and the police and some bystanders came to rescue them and I just happened to be there filming, I had a flip camera at that time,” said Watkins.

Though he was a self-proclaimed rookie when he started, at 69 Watkins has figured out reporting. And for the future, he’ll take it day by day. Fairhope grew more than 45 percent in the last 10 years. At that rate, he’ll have plenty to cover.

“Citizen reporting is not easy by any means,” he recalled.

But informing the public does give Watkins a sense of satisfaction.

“Sometimes, Sometimes it does. When I get something accomplished,” said Watkins.

And, as long as people click on his blog, Watkins says he’ll pound the pavement with his smart phone and notebook, looking for that next big story.

APR Graduate student intern Cori Yonge returns to journalism after spending time in the corporate world. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Journalism and Media Studies from The University of Alabama and is ecstatic to be back working with public radio. Cori has an interest in health, environment, and science reporting and is the winner of both an Associated Press award and Sigma Delta Chi award for healthcare related stories. The mother of two daughters, Cori spent twelve years as a Girl Scout leader. Though her daughters are grown, she still enjoys camping with friends and family – especially if that time allows her to do some gourmet outdoor cooking. Cori and her husband Lynn live in Fairhope.
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