Butler: ‘I like telling stories’
Thu, 04/09/2015 - 15:28
Veteran editor, Pulitzer Prize winner, mentor made a lasting mark on journalism
Telling stories is something James R. “Jim” Butler did professionally for most of his life as a reporter and editor in Louisiana and Mississippi.
“I like talking to people and telling their stories,” Butler, 70, said. “I like telling stories.”
When he was 23 years old, Butler started his Louisiana newspaper career at The Town Talk in 1967. He retired in 2003 after serving as editor of the Alexandria newspaper since 1977.
The retirement was brief.
In 2004, he returned to work at the Sun Herald in Gulfport as night editor. At the Mississippi Gulf Coast newspaper he helped lead the Pulitzer Prize- winning coverage in telling the story of Hurricane Katrina through the Reporter’s Notebook and editing.
Butler returned to Louisiana in 2006 as editor of The Eunice News and in January 2010 he became online managing editor for Louisiana State Newspapers.
Butler retired at the end of February.
Nearly 50 years ago, “The newspaper in Alexandria, The Town Talk, was kind enough to try me at a job and it worked out from there.”
Butler started on the wire desk pulling copy off the wire, learning to write headlines and layout the wire report pages.
“...it was just trying to keep food on my table,” he said of his first newspaper job.
“Then one week the sports editor (Bill Carter) needed some help on a Friday night covering some high school football,” he said.
Next, Butler covered outdoor news.
Then Adras LaBorde, editor, noticed Butler.
“Laborde was a native of Avoyelles Parish and was a cantankerous Frenchman,” Butler said.
LaBorde also was the boss who threatened to fire Butler.
“We brought a billy goat into the newsroom ... and he didn’t think it was funny. He said to fire everyone involved and I stood on my desk and said, ‘Adras, don’t you ever smile?’
“And you know, he actually smiled that day.”
Butler covered city government, school board, parish government and the legislature, including the 1973 Constitutional Convention.
“Then they moved me back to Alexandria as city editor. I did a little bit of that then LaBorde decided to retire and in 1977 I became editor of the Town Talk,” he said.
“Believe me no one had ever been less qualified to take on that job than I was,” he said.
Publisher Joe D. Smith evidently knew something about the 33-year-old journalist.
The newspaper’s circulation nearly doubled and The Town Talk was named by the American Society of Newspaper Editors as one of the top 15 best small daily newspapers in the county during Butler’s tenure. The paper won numerous state, regional and national awards during his tenure.
And, over the years Butler won numerous awards for his columns and reporting.
He was a guest speaker at Southern Newspaper Publisher Association and American Press Institute workshops and seminars and lectured journalism and communications classes at several colleges and universities.
Butler’s stories, columns and editorials covered the administrations of seven Louisiana governors. He once termed Edwin Edwards the easiest interview among them and Dave Treen the most difficult.
He interviewed four presidents -- Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. Bush and Bill Clinton -- hundreds of public officials and public employees and thousands of just plain folks who were in the news for one reason or the other.
Butler’s career spanned hot metal type to the digital revolution.
Along the way, Butler helped launch many careers.
“There are too many to enumerate,” he said. “There are many men and women who worked with me whom I hired as their first or second jobs who work in newspapers around the country.”
Carl Redmond, former Baton Rouge Advocate editor, was one of his hires, he said.
“I was fortunate to be able to attract some really quality young journalists who worked for us long enough to develop their craft and they would move on as you would expect,” he said.
Richard Sharkey was a city editor under Butler.
“I consider him a mentor,” Sharkey said. “He and Ron Grant (former managing editor at The Town Talk) .. were both mentors to me. They helped show me the ropes.”
Butler had a clear vision for the paper, he said.
“He certainly didn’t mind letting you know if he thought you had taken a wrong turn, yet he also provided the support the newsroom needed.”
Butler was fair, said Bob Tompkins, who served as a sports editor during Butler’s tenure. “He was a great mentor from the start. He was somebody that helped me with my writing.”
Butler’s advice, he said, was to “use only the words that are necessary.”
Billy Gunn, a reporter and editor at The Town Talk under Butler’s reign, said Butler could be intimidating.
Gunn, now a reporter with the Acadiana Advocate, recalls making a math error in a budget story.
“He called me one night. ‘I know it happens. Don’t do it again,’” Gunn said of Butler’s coaching on the issue.
Double-checking math in stories is something that has stuck with him, Gunn said.
Darrell Guillory, chief operating officer of Louisiana State Newspapers and publisher of The Eunice News, said, “It was a pleasure working with Jim for the past eight-plus years. Jim, a veteran editor, embraced the transition from print to digital. Jim was instrumental in encouraging and guiding our newsrooms throughout the company to embrace the technological changes in the newspaper industry.”
Louisiana State Newspapers’ director of digital media, Tom Coleman, said Butler was the first editor he met when he came to LSN to introduce digital.
“I have known some Jim Butlers in my 35 years in newspapers, and it’s taken me most of those three-plus decades to learn how to interact with them. But Jim threw me for a loop. Darrell introduced us and said, ‘Tom’s here to build us a website.’ I steeled myself for the inevitable tirade I was about to receive about the Internet killing the news. I was flabbergasted, to say the least, when Jim responded ‘It’s about damn time.’”
Butler knew the web was not competition, but a louder voice, Coleman said.
“He knew that the Internet was a way to catch more eyeballs — a way to extend the reach of The Eunice News,” Coleman said. “And his early numbers proved him right. EuniceToday.com took off out of the gate with page views that exceeded my projections fourfold, and that is no exaggeration. Soon Jim was enlisted to enable other LSN newsrooms to emulate the same techniques, and before long they had surpassed Eunice in their own numbers.”
Coleman said while Butler’s newspaper pedigree is well-known, including a Pulitzer, “I am indebted to this editor who personally changed my perceptions of all of those Jim Butlers I knew from the past. Maybe some of them get it today, too.”
Butler counts among his mentors, LaBorde, Smith, Carter and Cecil Williams, a city editor at The Town Talk.
Williams was “just as mean as a cat with a barbed-wire tail, but boy did he know newspapering.”
A good journalist has curiosity, the ability to listen, knows the language and is sensitive to other people’s views.
“You’ve got to be able to rattle the cage every once in awhile,” Butler said. “If you don’t like knocking on doors, you are in the wrong business. If you don’t like shaking somebody’s cage, you are in the wrong business. If you want everybody to greet you hail fellow and well met, you need to sell cars.”
Butler and his wife, Bonnie, have moved to Porter, Texas. They have two children, Tiffany, who lives in Alexandria, and Stacy, who lives near Houston. They have six grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
Butler is a native of Little Rock, Arkansas.
Other Butler views on journalism and life.
The major story of his life: The evolution of civil rights. “When I started in the newspaper business minorities weren’t really in a factor in the news, in government or anything else.”
Technology. “It allowed us more time to do our work because we could get more done in the same amount of time.”
Internet. “You better have your facts right these days. Every once in awhile in the old days you could kind of wing it. Take a guess at something and print it, so I’m told. You can’t do that any more. You better have it right for sure.”
Newspaper work pace. “I think the grind toward deadline is pretty much the same. What has changed is we are able to do more in that six hours than we used to because of the technology. But the pace is pretty much still as it was then.”
Newspaper life. “That’s the problem with newspapers. They use ink and that ink gets in our veins. That ink is heavier than blood. That’s the problem.”
Work. “If you are going to watch the clock you ought to have a hardware store.”
His career. “I was fortunate to become the editor of the paper at a very young age. I was 33 when Joe Smith named me editor of The Town Talk in Alexandria. That was too soon, but he did it. We went from there, so to speak.”
The future of newspapers. “There will always be a place for newsgatherers and reporters. It is just how are we going to package it and deliver it?”