By Carl Carter, APR
When I arrived at The Birmingham News with a newly minted journalism degree in the mid ‘70s, one of the first people I got to know was Carol Nunnelley, then covering City Hall. We and dozens of others worked hard on a newspaper that went through four editions a day. There were endless boring meetings, all nighters counting votes, and occasional shouting matches as reporters competed for space and resources for stories they cared about deeply.
After a decade, I bolted for a PR career, but Nunnelley and many others soldiered on. And at a point when most would be content to sit and reminisce, she has once more emerged as a major force in Alabama journalism, as co-founder and editor of BirminghamWatch. It’s an ambitious — maybe even Quixotic — undertaking for anybody, but especially noteworthy for someone who long ago earned her spot in the annals of American journalism.
After a full career capped by eight as managing editor of The Birmingham News, she took on a new challenge with Associated Press Managing Editors, a job that took her across the country, training journalists and building bridges between media and readers. Meanwhile, back home, The Birmingham News was following the national trend for newspapers, cutting back on editions and coverage, reducing staff, and leaving stories uncovered.
Nunnelley wasn’t willing to concede the news business to mediocrity. At least not in her home town. She and two others founded the Alabama Initiative for Independent Journalism, setting it up as a 501(c)3 nonprofit entity, similar to about 100 others around the country, including the widely followed Pro Publica. The AIIJ publishes BirminghamWatch, which — like most nonprofit news organizations — relies largely on philanthropy and reader donations for support, much like Public Radio. The AIIJ also received a welcome grant in August 2016 from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.
The project began with some financial backing from individuals, with experienced journalists who were willing to donate their time to help get it launched. BirminghamWatch published its first story in September 2015 and has never looked back. Key to its operations and success from the very beginning has been another Birmingham News alum, Emily Jones Rushing, who serves as president of the board.
“We try to focus on news that matters, especially on topics that aren’t getting the attention we believe they deserve,” said Nunnelley. “We’re able to focus on the longer term, without the pressure of day to day deadlines. At the same time, we’re seeking just the right balance between beefier, in-depth stories and shorter pieces that might have more immediate reader appeal,” she said.
Education, state and local government, the economy and the environment have been major topics of coverage, but she takes extra pride in the voter guides prepared for the most recent elections. BirminghamWatch partnered for those guides with WBHM 90.3, Weld, B-Metro, Starnes Publishing (publisher of regional newspapers around metro Birmingham), Trussville News, Public Libraries of Jefferson County, and the League of Women Voters. The guides provided key non-partisan information about key races in Shelby and Jefferson counties.
Most recently, BirminghamWatch has established a partnership with Weld to ensure that all meetings of the Birmingham City Council and Jefferson County Commission are staffed. “The people of Birmingham need to know what’s happening in their community, and how it affects their lives,” said Weld Publisher Mark Kelly. “For us, working with Carol and BirminghamWatch is an integral part of our efforts to fulfill that mission.”
Things aren’t perfect. Nothing in media is, these days. Nunnelley is acutely aware of the gaps in sustained coverage of surrounding cities and counties, where many councils, commissions, school boards and other government agencies work without the oversight of any watchdog media.
“There are budget limitations, of course. We have to do what we can based on the personnel available. But we’re continuing to work hard to provide coverage of things that are important for the people who live, work and do businesses in greater Birmingham. We’re getting more traffic at birminghamwatch.org, and we continue to work to earn local support. We’ll continue experimenting with various models for providing sustainable coverage, but we do rely on the financial backing of local individuals, and I think we’ll see more of that support as people get in the habit of relying on our coverage and gain confidence that we’re in this for the long haul,” she said.
As a note, I must point out that while I engage in public relations work for clients, I follow a strict policy of disclosing whether I’m getting paid to write something, and by whom. That is a requirement of the Public Relations Society of America’s Code of Ethics. BirminghamWatch is not a client. They didn’t pay me a dime to write this. BirminghamRaw does not publish sponsored content.
Donations to BirminghamWatch are tax deductible and may be sent to:
Alabama Initiative for Independent Journalism, Inc.
147 Glenview Drive
Birmingham, AL 35213