At the Arab Tribune, all news is local news

Jul 11, 2017

By Teri Saylor

Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary


very once in a while, a local community newspaper will get the chance to report on a story that makes national news. That’s what happened last month for Charles Whisenant, editor of The Arab (AL) Tribune, a week after a pair of dangerous convicts allegedly murdered two prison guards during a prisoner transport near Atlanta.

Inmates Ricky Dubose and Donnie Rowe presented a frightful visage as their menacing faces captured in law enforcement mug shots glared out at the world on national news sites across the country. Serving lengthy sentences for a variety of violent crimes, the duo is accused of overpowering the two guards, stealing a gun and shooting them. The inmates embarked on a 60-hour odyssey over 260 miles, stealing five cars, robbing two homes and holding an elderly couple hostage before they were captured in rural Christiana, TN.

Christiana resident, Patrick Hale saw the escaped convicts approaching his home, and decided to take his daughter and make a run for it. He had a gun, made sure it was loaded and called 911 to report the sighting. Then he grabbed his daughter and jumped in his car to flee the area. He was shocked when the men took off their shirts and waved to them in surrender. He waited in his car until officers arrived and arrested the escapees. In news reports later, Hale believed the escapees mistook his car for a police cruiser.

Hale’s wife, Danielle, was born and raised in Arab. And just like that, a breaking national story 100 miles away became big news in her hometown.

Here’s Whisenant’s lede in the June 20 edition of The Arab Tribune:

“They thought he was a cop.

“At least that’s what Patrick and Danielle Hale think is the reason that Ricky Dubose and Donnie Rowe gave themselves up in the Hales’ driveway in Christiana, TN, last Thursday.

“Dubose and Rowe were the dangerous inmates who escaped from Georgia last Tuesday and got into a shootout with authorities in Tennessee on Thursday before giving themselves up in the Hales’ driveway.

“CNN, Fox and other major news outlets initially reported that Patrick Hale held the two men at gunpoint until police arrived. That’s just not true, says Danielle Hale, who was a Beam before she and Patrick married nearly five years ago.

“Danielle Beam Hale is from Arab—born and raised.”

Whisnant said later that Danielle Hale’s parents and uncle, who is the former mayor, still live in Arab, and it didn’t take long for them to call The Tribune. He scored an interview with her even though she and her husband had stopped responding to reporters.

“She was very gracious with her time, and she said, ‘we have stopped answering press calls, but I will definitely make an exception for my hometown paper,” Whisenant wrote in an email.

Arab (pronounced A-rab), which sits atop Brindlee Mountain and straddles two county lines (Marshall and Cullman) in northern Alabama, is home to 8,500 residents.

Whisenant, who grew up there, says a spelling error led to the town’s unusual name.

“In 1882, Arab’s founder, Stephen Tuttle Thompson wanted to name the town after his son, Arad Thompson, but the U.S. Postal Service clerk mistook the ‘d’ for a ‘b’ and Arab, AL, was born,” Whisenant said. “Changing it later would have required too much red tape, so the name stuck.”

Arab, located about 30 miles south of Huntsville, an important NASA hub, is a bedroom community in which “a chunk of our citizens leave to go to work at the space centers,” Whisenant said. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the median income for a family in Arab is $64,432.

“We have a small, historic Main Street that runs less than a mile,” Whisenant said. “It used to be the main thoroughfare through the county, but back in the 1960s, Highway 231 created a bypass around town, and created a hive of activity for retail development.”

The Arab Tribune is located on the bypass, too.

Today, Arab’s historic district is slowly undergoing a revitalization and is host to street festivals, dances, and other downtown activities that small towns enjoy, and The Tribune is there to cover all of it.

According to Whisenant, a businessman named Ralph Reed started the Arab Tribune in 1958 because he thought the town needed a newspaper. Six weeks after he launched it, he was killed in a bus accident as he and his wife, Martha Jean, chaperoned a group of students on a field trip to Nashville. Months later, the couple’s son, Ewell Reed, an FBI agent, moved to Arab from Washington and helped his mother run the paper until 1972, when Ewell Reed’s son, Ed, took over. Ed still owns the newspaper and his son-in-law, Marc Johnson, serves as vice president and manages the day-to-day operations.

Whisenant oversees the news and editorial department. He has been with The Tribune since 1998, starting as a reporter/photographer, and has served as editor since 2013. Before working for The Tribune, Whisenant was editor of The North Jefferson News, of Gardendale, AL.

“When I was hired at The Tribune, the editor told me, ‘the good news is you’re from here, and the bad news is you’re from here,’” Whisenant said. “I have learned this is true. It’s hard when I have to put my friends in the newspaper for being arrested, but that comes with the territory.”

Even harder, Whisenant admits, is covering local tragedies involving children.

He has vivid memories of a wreck that killed five teenagers about 15 years ago.

“I just happened to be in the area when the call came over the scanner, so I went and took a look,” he said. “I got there before the ambulance and the chief, and there were kids’ bodies scattered across the highway. Seeing them that way—that really stuck with me.”

He sees himself and other journalists as life’s first responders, working alongside police, fire departments and emergency medical teams.

“I have thrown my camera down and helped,” he said. “I know that isn’t what journalists are supposed to do, but that’s what small town reporters do.”

Twenty years ago, he was on his way home after covering a town meeting, when a fire alert came across his scanner. He didn’t feel like going to the fire, but the address sounded familiar.

“Then I realized that was my address,” he said. “I rushed home and discovered someone in my household had started a grease fire.”

It wasn’t serious enough to warrant a full news story, but Whisenant made sure he covered it in one of the occasional columns he writes.

He would rather give up column space to a seemingly unlimited number of local writers—the garden club president, a child psychologist, a hospital administrator, a retired state transportation worker, a historical society president, the chamber of commerce president, a pastor, and various agriculture extension professionals.

“We run a ton of columns on a rotation basis every Wednesday,” he said.

The Arab Tribune is published twice a week, on Wednesday and Saturday. The paper, along with a TMC called The Metro, have a combined weekly circulation of 14,000.

The Tribune’s page count averages 16 pages on Wednesdays and 10 pages on Saturdays. The newspaper also offers an electronic edition. You can buy subscriptions to each one for $27 per year, and if you want both, you can get them together for $32 per year. The paper edition remains the most popular among his older readers who like the feel of newsprint between their fingers. The newspaper’s website does not have a paywall, instead, it shows a few paragraphs of featured news stories and if readers are interested in story endings, they are invited to purchase the newspaper. The Tribune’s Facebook page is popular, with 7,462 friends recorded as of mid-June.

“Facebook carries photos of kids, pool parties, birthdays and other events,” Whisenant said. “But these are also in The Tribune, along with news. We still run a birthday page, weddings and engagements.”

The newspaper also practices what many publishers like to refer to as “refrigerator journalism,” and one of the most popular features is “My Favorite Photo,” a program that allows people to submit their favorite pictures, which are published in the newspaper and are likely to end up on a refrigerator somewhere.

Whisenant’s staff is made up of a full-time sports editor/photographer, one part-time reporter and a reporter he shares with the pressroom. A local retired journalist writes weekly features on a freelance basis.

Together they cover it all, but Whisenant considers coverage of the local school system his bread and butter.

“From administrators, to principals, to teachers—all are fantastic. They are so great about sending me news and information, and I would not trade our superintendent of schools with any other superintendent in the state,” he said. “There are those rare days when drugs are found or something goes wrong at the schools, but the superintendent and principals don’t shy away from bad news.”

About 15 years ago, the Reed family bought a local radio station: WRAB-1380 AM, which broadcasts classic country, and southern gospel music.

The Huntsville Times circulates in the area, but it is published three times a week. Two other weeklies are also located close by but don’t cross paths.

“What sets us apart is we’re each local,” Whisenant said. “We’re all separate and don’t encroach on each other’s territories. I’m on one mountain. There’s another newspaper on another mountain and another newspaper in the valley on a lake. Our only common coverage is the county commission, the county school board and the sheriff’s department. We are all super local.”

Whisenant believes community journalism has a bright future, and he believes as long as there is news to cover, people to read it and refrigerator doors with space for clippings, newspapers will thrive.



Editor: Charles Whisenant.

Name of Newspaper: The Arab (AL) Tribune.

What is The Arab Tribune’s circulation? About 15,000; Tribune and Metro combined.

What is its publication schedule? Each Wednesday and Saturday.

How long have you worked at the paper? Since July 1998.

How long as editor? Since June 2013.

Does the newspaper have a mission statement or a motto? The Ledger of Community Progress.

How many people are employed at The Tribune? Twelve.

How do you view your newspaper’s role in your community? Just as our motto says: The Ledger of Community Progress. Good or bad, it’s our job to be the community’s journal or archive.

What is the most rewarding aspect of editing a community newspaper? Learning about the people we cover, whether it’s the mayor, police chief or the guy who grows the biggest cabbage each year.

What are your biggest challenges? Not being able to cover everything that needs to be covered.

What are your top goals for 2017? Continue to make the Tribune the best local paper it can possibly be, and eyeballs. Strange? What do we want more than anything as a newspaper? Eyeballs looking at, reading and enjoying the paper.

Look into your crystal ball and let us know what you see for the future of community newspapers. I believe community newspapers will be fine. We’ve had to adjust our way of thinking a little because of social media and other challenges, but for the long haul, community papers will be around.

What advice would you give to other newspaper editors and publishers who want to provide the best service possible to their readers, advertisers and community in general? Establish relationships with as many people as possible and cultivate those relationships. The community paper belongs to the community. Make them a part of it.

Phone: 256-586-3188