SPOTLIGHT: SNPA People

Hometown publisher

Once a high school football stringer, James Phillips is the new publisher of the Daily Mountain Eagle

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James Phillips is back at the Daily Mountain Eagle in Jasper, Ala., for the third time. This time he's the publisher, a publisher who covers news stories, ramps up the paper's social media presence and thinks up promotions.

A native of Walker County in coal country northwest of Birmingham, Phillips, 38, started out as a football stringer out of high school and later served as managing editor. He's been back in town for a couple of months.

"The biggest thing that I've promoted since being back is that we want to be as hyperlocal as possible," Phillips said. "We don't want to rely on wire for the bulk of our paper. We want it to be local content. The staff seems to have bought into that philosophy, and the community has really embraced that."

The Daily Mountain Eagle is owned by Walls Newspapers. It publishes every day but Monday and circulates just over 8,000 papers. Phillips said readers can find out what happened at a national political convention on their smart phones before the paper gets out, but the Mountain Eagle will inform them, in detail, about what happened at the school board meeting the previous night.

"That's where we come in. We provide that local service that nobody else can provide," he said.

A local story might well run under Phillips' byline.

"With a small staff, every now and then the publisher needs to step up and do what he can to help out," he said. With an editorial background and a small newspaper's small staff, writing his own stories helps the overall product, he said.

"I can go sit in a trial sometimes, where if we take a reporter out for a whole day to sit at a trial that really bogs down our product. If I don't have a lot going on that day, I can go spend the day or a good portion of the day at the courthouse and give us some coverage that we might not typically have."

Phillips was writing stories and journals by fourth grade. He considered and discarded the idea of being a lawyer before deciding to be a sportswriter. He went first to Bevill State Community College and then to the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

After working in the sports department during college, Phillips left the newspaper business for software work with AT&T. It didn't last more than a couple of years because he "just couldn't stand that corporate mentality."

Phillips married his high school sweetheart, Andrea, in 1999. They have four children: Stone (13), Breeze (11), Daisy (9) and Joy (4).

Returning to newspapers, Phillips was general manager and publisher for the North Jefferson News in Gardendale, just outside of Birmingham, from 2003 to 2006. He came back to Jasper as managing editor from 2006 to 2013, being promoted to editor in 2012. In 2013 he left his home county again, this time to be publisher of The Star-Herald in Kosciusko, Miss.

When Jack McNeely left the Mountain Eagle earlier this year to become publisher of the Herald-Citizen in Cookeville, Tenn., Phillips was recruited to come home for the top job.

"It was a really good homecoming," Phillips said. "People have been very receptive in the community. I think they were happy to have a local guy."

He handles his own editorial page, with an emphasis on local editorials and local columns. He is expanding the paper's social media presence "even as we speak." Previously, the Mountain Eagle was only on Facebook and did not even have a Twitter account.

There are new special sections and photo pages on community events as the hyperlocal philosophy extends to the inside pages. And as an Alabama native, Phillips is well aware of the news and sales value of high school football.

The annual football preview will be a magazine this year. "The town is excited about that," Phillips said. And this week the paper is passing out 20-inch high, 26-inch long posters with football schedules for each of the high schools in the coverage area and ads across the bottom.

"I started it in Mississippi and it was so successful that I thought we might as well do it here. It was an easy sale."

Each business in Walker County will receive a poster, and the high schools will get enough for every student. "So all the advertisers get plenty of looks," Phillips said.

Phillips thinks small daily newspapers can stay strong by both promoting their communities and acting as watchdogs when necessary, and by emphasizing customer service. The support of Jasper newspaper readers is what he has most enjoyed about coming home.

"They want us to be successful, and they want us to provide them with a good product. I think that says a lot about our area. Our newspaper has been here for 145 years, almost. So we've got a history here and people trust us."

For more information, contact James Phillips at James.Phillips@MountainEagle.com.


Jane Nicholes

Jane Nicholes, a regular contributor to the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association's eBulletin, is a freelance writer and editor based in coastal Alabama. She is an award-winning veteran of more than 30 years in the newspaper business. Reach her at jbnicholes@att.net. Suggestions for future stories and comments on this piece are welcomed.

Jasper, Phillips

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