My experience with Otis Brumby Jr. began 33 years ago this month, when this newspaper decided it could no longer allow smaller publications to eat into Atlanta’s suburban market.
Brumby’s Marietta Daily Journal and his chain of weekly Neighbor Newspapers were the largest part of that competition, as I found when I inherited the AJC’s new Cobb bureau. As first impressions go, I’m sure we were wary of each other.
Several college friends who worked for Brumby had two primary objections: a) He paid little more than minimum wage; and b) felt fully entitled, as publisher, to rewrite any reporter’s copy so that it made the point he wanted.
Most MDJ hires left as soon as they could, which suited Brumby just fine. Journalism schools churned out new graduates every year.
Three decades can have a remarkable influence on one’s thinking. What a young outsider might have denigrated as cheap in 1980 looks like a business model today – but maybe one that we will not see again.
Newspapers are becoming rare enough. What Brumby built was rarer still: A community newspaper that for more than 40 years served as one man’s megaphone. That his community was Cobb County, which has occupied the Democratic and Republican crossroads of Georgia politics for roughly the same period, is no coincidence.
Brumby, 72, was buried on Wednesday, felled by a two-year battle with prostate cancer. His last act was to fill First United Methodist Church of Marietta to the rafters. Mourners included a lieutenant governor, an attorney general, an ex-governor, at least two members of the state Court of Appeals, one member of Public Service Commission, and the mayor of Marietta. One or two more state lawmakers and they might have started legislating.
And there were the “OMs.” Old Mariettans are the social stratum that formed the base of Brumby’s readership. They accepted that he was no Editor Whedon, able to see every side of every issue. Their question every morning was, “Who’s Otis after now?”
Maybe the school superintendent who recommended laptops for every student. Or the university prospect who cited the Marx brother named Karl rather than Groucho. Or the county commission chairman who helped put together a package of road and rail projects for a transportation sales tax referendum.
There was a fascination to it – not unlike watching a terrier stalk a mouse. But in print, day after day.
It is worth noting that not everyone was in the pews on Wednesday. One of those missing was Bill Byrne, the former Cobb County Commission chairman, who nearly unseated Republican incumbent Tim Lee last month.
The MDJ had hammered Lee for his support of the July vote on TSPLOST, among other sins. But in the end, the newspaper endorsed Lee – and Byrne lost by a narrow margin.
“Totally, completely combative,” is how Byrne described his relationship with the publisher. “Otis Brumby was the kind of guy – if you didn’t agree with him, you were wrong. And he bought ink by the barrel.”
Otis Brumby III, whose name now appears as publisher of the MDJ, served as a spokesman for the family at the funeral. Running a newspaper, his father had declared, was like having a seat on the 50 yard-line of your community.
“It was no secret he took particular interest in the newsroom,” the younger Brumby said. “He couldn’t wait to get there in the morning, and as recently as two weeks ago, was meeting with reporters and editors.”
But it was Brumby’s pastor, the Rev. Sam Matthews, who gave the fullest account of the man. Matthews spoke glowingly of Brumby’s philanthropy to his church, his humility, his dedication to his family, and even of the newspaperman’s well-noted pursuit of open government and transparency.
But any Methodist minister might do the same. Matthews ventured slightly further in his description of Brumby.
“He had a way of talking about the newspaper in the third person. It was never ‘we.’ It was never ‘I.’ It was always ‘the paper.’ As if the paper had a job to do that was different from the job he had to do,” the pastor said.
“The paper” could be sometimes cold and stark – something its publisher was not, he assured mourners.
“I went to see him one time,” Matthews said. “I said, ‘Otis, I think the paper’s harsh – too harsh, sometimes. I think you need a more pastoral, softer tone.’”
You do not often hear guffaws at funerals.
”I said that,” Matthews continued. “And he virtually ignored me.”
When it came to the inevitability of Otis Brumby, the pastor quoted Marietta Mayor Steve “Thunder” Tumlin. “If there was an issue that’s coming, you might as well go talk to Otis really early. He’s going to have a piece of that action. He’s going to talk about it,” the preacher said. “’The paper’ had a job to do.”
Every morning, my Cobb County driveway receives two newspapers. It used to bother me that, every now and then, the woman who shares my life would read the other one first – “to see who Otis is after.”
Today, that question can’t be answered. And we’ll miss it.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider