"Just Do You" features Hollis Towns

Hollis Towns is a firebrand with a penchant for good storytelling.

A love for the written word began early while growing up in a public housing project on Hunt Street in Fort Valley, Ga. In high school, he wrote stories blasting the policies of administrators.The passion for truth telling only deepened at Fort Valley State University where he majored in journalism.

After a brief internship at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, he was hired before graduation. After the FVSU degree was conferred, he bounced into a major market newsroom and from that day to this, Towns’ rise through the ranks of print journalism has been meteoric. Recently, he became president of the Associated Press Managing Editors organization comprised of 1500 executives from newspapers throughout the country and Canada.

FVSU Marketing director Vickie Oldham interviewed him at the 2010 APME national conference held at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.

From graduate of Fort Valley State University, you’ve worked as a reporter at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, an editor at the Cincinnati Enquirer, and now an executive editor of the Asbury Park Press. Your newest title is president of the Associated Press Managing Editors. Describe your ascent to the top in print journalism.

I’ve tried to work really hard and do the best that I can with the tools I’ve been given. Really, I’ve been blessed. I grew up in Fort Valley and got a good grounding there. I went to Fort Valley State and had some instructors who prepared me well in the journalism program and beyond that. Any success has to be attributed to having a solid foundation.

I had a number of internships while at Fort Valley. One was at the Detroit Free Press which was the first for me; then the Atlanta Journal Constitution. They hired me two weeks into the internship and asked me to return to FVSU and graduate. I had a job waiting for me after graduation.

I don’t call it an “ascent”. I call it being successful based on working with the tools I was given.

You say that FVSU professors prepared you. How?

George Foster was head of the mass communications program. He’s now deceased. He was excellent in preparing himself to speak in front of large audiences. His background was television. In his broadcast classes, we talked about projecting and enunciating. Louise Hermanson was a print professor. She talked about making sure the writing was tight. We talked a lot about the basics. Beyond that, in other classes I had very good professors. Dr. Richie Dean White was a very good math professor. She helped me with the math component oftentimes after hours. Dr. Marion Smith, who is now at Florida A & M also was another good professor. Fred van Hartsveldt played a vital role; also Bobby Dickey, Charles Dallas and Dan Archer, who taught all of the photo classes. It was a great experience for me to be trained by people who cared.

As a football player, Coach Doug Porter was very much involved in athletes’ lives. He insisted that we go to class to make good grades. There was continuity there. A friendship developed among the players; and he talked with other professors to make sure we attended class. All of those things came together nicely to help me accomplish the things I have.

The mass communication building was not ready for classes and equipment wasn’t in place, but you weren’t deterred.

I graduated before Bishop Hall was completed. Our classes were in Founders Hall and makeshift classes were in the Green Building. Most of the equipment was not in place. But there was a hunger among the students to learn. The Peachite was publishing quarterly, but Mrs. Hermanson changed that and made sure it was published every two weeks. We kept that schedule during the years I attended FVSU. We sold advertising, had columnists, reviews, and puzzles. We took it seriously. We laid it out in Founder’s Hall the old fashioned way with exacto knives and glue guns.

What’s the take away lesson from that experience for FVSU students and faculty today?

I think the difference at HBCU’s and small institutions like FVSU are the people. More often than not, the equipment isn’t there. I was blessed with having instructors who really cared. Some professors drove dozens of students around the country in a broken down van without air conditioning. We drove to conferences to represent Fort Valley State based on our desire to be successful in this business. It comes down to the people. They went beyond the call of duty to insure that students got the best opportunities.

You were a firebrand at FVSU pointing out issues that needed resolution. What’s the impetus that led you to do this?

It didn’t start at Fort Valley. It started at Peach County High School. As a student, I wrote a column for the Leader Tribune criticizing policies. One rule was that boys couldn’t come across the sidewalk to see girls. We had assigned seating in the auditorium. The policy, I felt was designed to keep black guys away from white girls in Peach County. I harshly criticized the principal. I got called into his office. He wanted to know who helped me write the article because he didn’t think I was smart enough to write it myself.

I was a lettered player on the football team and heavily recruited. As a punishment, the principal took my letter jacket. I never received it after 4 years of playing football. When I graduated and went to Fort Valley, the stories I wrote later were an extension of what I’d done in high school.

As a reporter and columnist for the Peachite, I wrote about the teacher education program, financial aid and the quality of the food in the dining hall.

I wrote a story about the “tater tot revolt”. Tater tots were fried in old grease and had a terrible taste. Students threw them across the dining hall that day. The headline of that story was, ‘Oreida is not Alrighta’. People looked for my columns.

I have a deep, abiding love for Fort Valley State.

Describe your proudest moments as a reporter.

I wrote the definitive interview with Coretta Scott King. She hadn’t talked to the AJC in 20 years and felt the newspaper was very negative against her family. I convinced her to give what is the only interview she has granted to the AJC. I covered the BranchDavidian fire and explosion in Waco, Tx; the sentencing of Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell and the Olympics. I was at Olympic Park shortly after the bomb and wrote the story. I’ve covered Klan rallies, the transformation of public housing and transportation stories. I can’t think of just one that I’m proud of more than the rest.

You love journalism. I do too. But today, can you really point young people to this profession with so many layoffs happening, the low pay, and increased responsibilities in the newsroom?

Prepared young journalists will find jobs. Here’s where it’s difficult for FVSU and small institutions like it. The journalism programs must step up their game right now because kids are graduating from journalism schools at Penn State and Harvard when there are fewer jobs. Those kids have the best equipment and very good professors. If you’re coming from a program and not writing stories for a weekly newspaper, uploading video, and putting together sound slides, you’re at a disadvantage.

Our business is transitioning from print to a digital business. Students who can operate those tools and write well will be hired by companies like mine. Students who have the basics and can write, but haven’t done much writing and research on the internet, uploading video and have a proficiency in the use of digital tools will be at a disadvantage. The small dailies may be where they end up. It’s very competitive today. That we’re shrinking isn’t a bad thing.

In the past, we’ve cast a wide net to recruit for internships. We’d look at students fromFVSU, FAMU and Clark Atlanta and still do. But today, they face tougher odds because students coming out of Penn State are stepping up their game dramatically. They are changing with the industry.

Unfortunately, HBCU’s have not kept up. They must if students graduating from their programs will have a fighting chance at getting jobs in the industry.

So, it’s not enough to have caring professors? Updated equipment is also a must?

Absolutely. The game has changed since I graduated. If you had the basics in writing, that was the only requirement. You didn’t have to take pictures, shoot video and operate an audio recorder.

I hired a student recently who graduated from Harvard, worked several years at a newspaper company and got laid off. He had the basics of writing but went back to school to learn video editing, blogging, audio recording and how to produce sound slides. I hired him at the low end of the salary range. That shows you how competitive the industry is. There are students coming out of school that are further ahead than he is.

You are now president of a huge organization made up of 1500 managing editors from newspapers around the country and Canada. How important is the organization that you now head?

We’ve always played a major role, not only in policy making in the country, but leadership. That will continue.

Our business is in a state of transition. That said, my goal is multi-faceted. I have a proposal in place to raise a significant amount of money from major computer companies such as Apple and Google. It’s in the embryonic stages right now, but it will endow hundreds of organizations with a significant amount of money to help us move forward with the good work of journalism.

Beyond that, online credibility is another aspect that I’ll focus on to differentiate citizen journalists and bloggers from pros.

You wouldn’t go to a citizen journalist to tell you about an investigation. We want to make sure people look to professionals for information. We must insure that there’s a separation between the community of bloggers on the internet and professionals who are doing the real heavy lifting with respect to reliability and carrying on the mission of journalism.

I want to also insure that the profile of APME remains high. Other organizations do similar work, but none have the legacy and history that APME has. We’ll reach out to college students to prepare them for what they face in the industry upon graduation.

I don’t take my role lightly. It’s a huge task that we’re facing in this business of journalism.

There was an incident in April that caused a furor in the news. You made a decision and actually became the story. What happened?

A hockey team, the New Jersey Devils was interested in more coverage. My newspaper was interested in “inside the locker room” coverage. We agreed to have one of their staff writers submit stories to my newsroom. They were color stories called fluff pieces that would be published as side bars to support the main story.

The New York Times heard about it and interviewed me. I explained in great detail what we were doing. They published a story with a headline that read, “The Asbury Park Press will allow a hockey team to cover itself”. Naturally, I was very upset and contacted the editor of the New York Times and the publisher. They published a story that wasn’t the truth. The national media picked up on it. The blogosphere wrote about it. There was a furor over the incident for several weeks. It died down. I issued clarity about our decision which was misrepresented in the New York Times.

At no time did we allow the Devils to cover themselves. Three stories were written. They were edited by my staff. We used the Associated Press and our own beat writers to cover the Devils. The New York Times omitted those facts and got it wrong. It was disappointing.

As an editor, it’s difficult to call out a fellow newspaper. But mistakes are made and we correct them. The New York Times made a mistake. It’s a nonissue at this point.

Towns graduated from Fort Valley State University in 1988. He was a Peachite columnist and also served as Business Editor, Assistant Editor.