January 6, 2018 10:38:22 PM
In January 1996, when I took this job, I had little idea about the inner workings of a newspaper. As a kid, I had grown up running up and down the halls of this place, and I'd had a few summer jobs here.
Those consisted mostly of hanging out with the dubious characters -- and, newspapers were full of them in those days -- who comprised the sports department and taking the occasional photograph. Later, in the mid-70s, I worked as a full-time staff photographer for a year or so.
But, in '96, when I walked into The Dispatch newsroom to take what was an ill-defined position, I'd been a self-employed photographer for 20 years. I had plenty of experience dealing with the public, though none managing people. Some of my photographic endeavors required I do some writing, but not much. Suffice it to say, the early going was bumpy.
What I had going for me, however, was a deep affection and attachment to the town where I had grown up and was raising our children. And, I had a love of newspapers -- this one in particular -- for the essential role they play in the health of our democracy. Twenty-two years later, those feelings remain unchanged.
Fortunately, too, I was married to a woman whose concern for and involvement with the community was equal to mine, and, more importantly, is blessed with good judgment, a trait that has kept me -- and this newspaper -- out of more ditches than I can count.
I would be the third generation -- and the third Birney -- to serve as publisher of The Dispatch. Each of us, my grandfather, who died before I was born, and my father, had different ideas about the role a newspaper plays in the life of a community. Those attitudes were shaped in part by the times we lived in.
Newspapers dominated the media landscape during my grandfather's time -- he was publisher from 1922 until his death in 1947. Other than a sprinkling of AM radio stations and the newsreels shown before the main feature at the Varsity, Princess and Dixie theaters, The Commercial Dispatch was the news media here until the mid-1950s.
With changing times and the growing number of media sources, the role of newspapers changed.
A child of the 60s and the Watergate era, I felt a newspaper's responsibility was to speak truth to power, to serve as an advocate for the public by demanding transparency and accountability from elected officials.
Aside from that, we would publicize the creativity, good works and accomplishments of the people of our readership area. We have and continue to promote events and organizations that bring people together.
In the early 2000s, with the growing pervasiveness of the internet, the media landscape began to change suddenly and dramatically. Perhaps no other media felt this more acutely than newspapers. The cacophony of news, real, made-up or inaccurate, was, and continues to be, deafening. As you would expect in a business rooted in 19th century technology, newspapers were slow to embrace these changes.
As fortune would have it, our son, Peter, who had been working in property management in Memphis, moved his young family here. His plan was to work with me for a year while he took stock of his career options. This was October 2008.
Prior to moving to Memphis, Peter spent three years in Austin, Texas, with his cousin, Brian Musso, working with an internet start-up. That experience has proven to be invaluable.
Fortunately, Peter embraced the newspaper business and was well prepared for the challenges it offered. By early 2009, he had built and put into play a website for The Dispatch and in June of that year, he guided the launch of The Starkville Dispatch.
His business acumen and knowledge of the internet have been critical to the survival of The Dispatch. And, best of all, he loves the work. While it sounds like a platitude, he, as did I and my antecedents, views our work here as that of service.
Today, Peter officially takes the mantle of publisher, the fourth generation in our family to do so. And though Birney Sr. and Birney Jr. are not here to see it, I can't help but think they would be proud beyond words, just as I am, to see this day.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.
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