The Key Role a Local Newspaper Played in the Trial Over Ahmaud Arbery’s Murder
The first of the stories was published on the local newspaper’s website the day Ahmaud Arbery died. The story was three sentences in length. Larry Hobbs was the Brunswick crime beat reporter News, It is a good memory, as he did write it. It is a burglary suspect who was shot and killed at Satilla Shores in Brunswick, Ga. This information, like many others published every day on sudden deaths in the United States of America, was provided by police.
The next day, a Monday, Hobbs managed to get Arbery’s name from the coroner and included it and a few more lines in a followup story. Then he wrote about the close involvement of district attorney’s office investigators in examining what happened, and about official silence on whether the incident was being investigated as a possible homicide or case of self defense. These stories were only the beginning of many Hobbs’s articles about the February 2020 shooting at Satilla Drive. This event would garner national attention. This work was split between his column in the daily news and the crime blotter that he wrote. Hobbs sprinkled them with storytelling flairs, which make it possible to visualize Mark Twain reading through the contents of the crowd. Hobbs has written about fifteen stories over the course of many weeks.
“I’ve had the full front and a story on the jump,” Hobbs, 59, says about having written every story on the front page and one that continued to the inside of the paper. “All of my colleagues have done the same thing. This is not, you know, ‘I’m the only [one], woe is me.’ This is life on a small town newspaper.”
Glynn County in Ga. is where Arbery was murdered. Some residents are unhappy with the coverage of Satilla Shores. But this fact remains: Hobbs’ reporting ultimately played a major role in getting larger news outlets—and eventually civil rights groups and state law-enforcement agencies—interested in digging into what had happened. Hobbs and his many questions produced work that, while he himself admits it wasn’t always perfect, served a critical need. Now, almost two years later, with Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan having been convicted of murder and other charges, the weight of that role is clearer than ever, and at a moment when the future of local news reporters and newspapers is in jeopardy.
Continue reading: What Ahmaud Arbery’s Death Has Meant for the Place Where He Lived
In the last 15 years, as many as 2,200 newspapers across the country—about a fourth of all American newspapers—have closed, most of them small local papers like the Brunswick News, They are the newspapers that alert other outlets to important newsworthy events. During that period, more than half of people working as journalists in the United States have been laid off—even as, in 2018, a Pew Research Center study found that 70% of Americans believed that newspapers are doing well to very well financially. Only 14% of those surveyed had ever spent money on local media.
“The Brunswick paper is unusual,” says Penny Muse Abernathy, a visiting professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications who worked in the industry for 30 years. She has written four reports on the state of the industry, including last year’s “News Deserts and Ghost Newspapers: Will Local News Survive?” Abernathy’s research has identified a total of 1,800 communities that became what she calls news deserts From 2005 to early 2020. Those are places where people have very limited access to credible and comprehensive news—information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level.
“So that’s the decisions made at the school board. That’s the decisions made by the sheriff’s office.The decisions made by the county commissioners,” Abernathy says about what is not being covered in a constant way. “All of those have an impact on our daily lives. And that’s the very heart of this democracy. This starts at the local level. So without good local news you risk corruption…It starts around the edges, and as no one is looking.”
The number of Brunswick residents has increased. NewsStory about Arbery’s killing grew, some people called Larry Hobbs, a white man from Alabama, a racist. Some suggested that he made the McMichaels look like heroes who used big guns to protect a homestead. Those criticisms cut deeply. But among the complaints was an email exchange that stood out: a note from Wanda Cooper-Jones, Arbery’s mother.
Despite her initial reactions to the incident, she was not able to resist. News coverage of the killing did not include praise, she had noticed that the narrative Hobbs wrote differed from what police initially told Arbery’s family. He was shot and killed by a homeowner in an altercation, she had heard. “When I saw your articles roll out, I reached back out to [the officer] and tried to get some explanation of what really happened,” Jones wrote in an email reviewed by TIME. “Because what I was reading in the paper wasn’t what he told me. Thank God for The Brunswick News.” (Cooper-Jones declined to be interviewed.) Hobbs gave his phone number and indicated that he was available to speak with her. He also said that he had kept his family in his prayers. Hobbs has been in the habit of that kind of praying—for every dead person and their family that he writes about—since around the time he got sober almost a decade ago, he says. Looking back now, Hobbs says he sees that he should have tried sooner to speak with Arbery’s friends and family in order to include their perspectives in his coverage, to move beyond what police and prosecutors were willing to say or where they wanted to direct the public’s attention.
“Have I done everything brilliantly? No,” Hobbs says. “But this thing stunk to high heaven almost from the very start. So, I tried asking questions. What I can say is that I certainly tried.”
Hobbs started his journalism career in Florida. The years that followed were both productive and destructive. It was so chaotic that he quit news. He worked once on a Pacific Northwest dairy farm. He said that the sea air was his calling. So, he moved to Glynn County’s St. Simons Island and took a job at a hardware store. He freelanced from there. Golden IslesRegional magazine. He wrote 2 books on local history. In addition, he began writing occasional columns for The Brunswick. NewsBefore being invited to join our staff, we were asked for a part-time position in 2014 and full time the next year.
Hobbs, a sunny-weathered man sporting scraggly blonde shoulder-length locks and scraggly blonde hair can be admired if you spend enough time with him. He’s covered local elections, car wrecks, shootings, at least one massive shipwreck and scandal at the Glynn County Police. Ahmaud Abery, who was then killed in February 2020.
As Hobbs wrote those first words about Arbery’s death, some things just didn’t make sense to him. One of them was: Why was an unarmed burglar shot in the street on a Sunday afternoon, while it was still daylight? Hobbs demanded a copy both of the police reports and 911 calls.
It was Hobbs who published details from a police report about Arbery’s shooting, a document that includes an officer’s summary of the initial statements made by the men involved in the killing and the fact that police were unable to find evidence of a burglary. Hobbs reported on the existence of another man that chased Arbery and the fact that McMichael was an investigator in the Glynn county district attorney’s case.
Hobbs claims that the process of obtaining this report took over a month. Hobbs did an interim investigation into Arbery. He also gleaned information from public records. Hobbs reported on Arbery’s probation status when he died. Arbery had been charged with bringing a firearm to a high-school basketball game. He wrote about the local NAACP’s concerns about the case and those Arbery’s family had raised with the civil rights organization, about the possibility that race was a factor in the shooting and the lack of arrests. Hobbs published all of it, just a few at a given time.
That’s the job of a reporter, Hobbs says, shrugging.
And even those displeased with Hobbs’ coverage relied on it—and the facts it contained—as a way of raising a red flag, showing others many questionable things that seemed to have happened in Glynn County.
Josiah “Jazz” Watts, Arbery’s cousin, had been in touch with a writer at the New York TimesFor a past story on local foodways, see here Brunswick: Unhappy News’ coverage of the shooting and frustrated with what he perceived as local officials’ rushing to judgment, Watts reached out to that writer, who put him in touch with a New York Times correspondent in Atlanta, Richard Fausset. Fausset (who is white) read news articles from local newspapers and came to Brunswick to write. This resulted in significant coverage at the national level. Likewise, when Thea Brooks, one of Arbery’s paternal aunts, asked the NAACP, Black celebrities and a local radio station for help, she sent each a packet of info on the case, including local news stories—even some of which she loathed. Gerald Griggs is a former vice-president of the Atlanta NAACP branch, and vice president for the Atlanta NAACP. He tells me the Brunswick NAACP was and then the state NAACP arrived in town. Together, they, like Rosa Parks in the 1940s, knocked on doors and gathered eyewitness accounts a few weeks after Arbery’s death. The local branch also spoke to Hobbs.
“[Arbery’s family and friends]They were, in fact, very tiny voices that shouted in an environment where COVID was making a lot more noise. They’re not very well situated in a media market. They are kind of pinned to the edge of the Jacksonville, Fla., market; they are like 300 miles from Atlanta,” Fausset says. “To me the real lesson of this—in terms of how the story got told and the fact that the story got told in the first place—is the story of that unrelenting engagement, which must have been just extremely tiring and frustrating.”
And so, months after Arbery’s killing, local conversations and gossip continued to grow. It was like a spray of water from an open fire hydrant that the number of questions grew. In May, a lawyer friend of Roddie Bryan’s released a video to a local radio talk show. Bryan had captured parts of the chase, as well as shooting at Satilla Drive. Hobbs claims that it was seen at most 250,000 times within an hour. However, the station took the video off their website. One cannot return the water to the hydrant.
And unlike most American newspapers.Brunswick NewsIt is still family owned, just as it was for the past four generations. The four-member reporting team covers an area of approximately 85,000 residents and publishes six days per week.
Today, the United States has a small number of national newspapers. There are also 150- 170 papers that can be considered state or regional. In addition, approximately 6,500 newspapers have a circulation reaching over 15,000 people. Although consolidations and closures of newspapers have been happening for years, the most serious problem was discovered in 2008. Kristen Hare is a member the Poynter Institute for Media Studies’ local news faculty. This non-profit journalism training organization and research center specializes in journalism education and research.
“Those two things start happening at the same time and create a perfect storm,” Hare says. “You could add in a third factor: Some people like to say the original sin was putting work up online. My opinion is different. I think the original sin was imagining that people would always read newspapers.”
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A smaller number of businesses consolidated ownership and staffing. These large firms, Medill’s Abernathy says, often cut costs by trimming reporters and local editors—the folks who have been around long enough to know, say, where a person involved in a shooting worked before the incident. It is more common for a single editor to cover small towns within multiple states.
National papers did not cover many of these stories. Miami Herald’s work prompted new charges against Jeffrey Epstein and his companion Ghislaine Maxwell. Indianapolis StarLarry Nassar was charged with sex crimes and USA Gymnastics were eventually sent to jail. Und die Albany Times UnionWas the first journalist to publish stories about Keith Raniere’s activities. He was later identified by federal prosecutors as the leader of an abusive group of cult-like groups. He received 120 years prison sentence in 2020.
“That work is, at the local level, really hard, poorly paid and rarely recognized,” says Hare. “They live in the places they are covering and so usually they are doing this work at great risk.”
This pandemic was very hard on the paper industry, especially small ones like the Brunswick. NewsHowever, the Paycheck Protection Act may have stopped a slaughter. Now, legislation known as the Local Journalism Sustainability Act will, if passed as a part of the Build Back Better package, give smaller newspapers and chains a tax credit for a portion of each journalist’s salary, provide readers a tax credit for subscribing, and other measures. Abernathy said that although the bill enjoys bipartisan support, it is not certain. The political and self-interests of lawmakers may prove to be a benefit. Study after study has found that voters are less likely to participate in local news, and their government spending increases.
Continue reading: COVID-19 has been ravaging newspapers in the area, and it is easier to spread misinformation.
After the tape of the Arbery shooting emerged in May, Georgia’s governor dispatched the Georgia Bureau of Investigations (GBI) to investigate. The McMichaels and Bryan were taken into custody two days later. Jackie Johnson (then the area district attorney) would also be arrested. Johnson, arrested September 23rd in connection to her handling of this case, denies any wrongdoing.
There’s a reason that a free and functioning press and the right to speak through organizing, action and protest are enshrined in the U.S. constitution.
“Everybody was outraged [by the shooting],” Hobbs says. “I’ve got some emails from people who said they could see how this was self defense. However, this is just a tiny minority. It was a scandal. And then, the protests started.”
When Arbery was alive, Hobbs thought of Glynn County as an idyllic place, with “a really cool vibe,” where people get along. “I think light-skinned people like me have probably rethought some of their assumptions about how unified we might have been in the first place,” he says. “Maybe there’s something there to reassess.”
For Hobbs, the gravity of what’s happened is clear. I ask him a story about the New York aftermath. Times had come to town, but amid the barrage of critical messages he was getting, came one from Cooper-Jones, Arbery’s mother. That message, he says tearing up, “meant the world.”
A real investigation of Arbery’s death and indictments for the men involved had not been inevitable. Many people played a role in making it happen, she told him—and Hobbs was one of them.
That quiet statement of facts has been a kind of bulwark for Hobbs, one he’s had to lean on since the verdicts. He would be happy with the anonymity of writing “cheesy stories” about volunteer beach clean-ups, he says, especially if Arbery were still alive. He was instead the subject of both the Monday following the verdicts. praise-filled tweetsHe is referred to as a “police functionary” and other slurred words. He is uneasy about all of this. He is clear on what he did, as well as how he views the role of local reporter during a time like this.
“I would be the first to say that I could have done a better job,” Hobbs says. “But the main thing I did was I didn’t let it go. I kept asking questions.”