Paper Trail

Robin Rhodes was the youngest of four children in her family, thus it fell to her to “Run, go get the paper.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that for the past 21 years, Rhodes has been involved in the business of preserving and improving local newspapers statewide, first as a staff member at the Georgia Press Association (GPA) and since 1993 as the organization’s executive director.

The GPA was founded in 1887 to protect, promote, foster and advance the interests of the newspaper industry in Georgia. Members range from rural weekly newspapers to metropolitan dailies. “Contrary to what some believe,” Rhodes says, “newspapers are not going away. One reason is their dedication to local community news. Take a drive through Georgia, stop in any city or town, large or small, pick up that local newspaper and you will know what’s happening in that community.”

A Stone Mountain native, attending both Stone Mountain Elementary and Stone Mountain High School, Rhodes, 49, grew up working in the family furniture store. She attended the University of Georgia, in Athens, graduating in 1981 with a degree in interior design. But her first job out of college had little to do with fabric swatches or paint chips. Instead Rhodes worked for SEMCO, Inc., a company producing trade and public shows at Atlanta’s World Congress Center.

“No one could have had a better job or worked for a better person than I did,” she says, describing working for SEMCO owner Ted Conrad as “a blast.” Basically, Rhodes was in sales. “I took the floor plan of a trade show hall, divvied up the space and sold it to vendors,” she says. Her vivacious personality and enthusiasm for her work caught the attention of Kathy Berry, who at that time was the executive director for the GPA.

“In 1986, out of the blue, I got a call from Kathy,” Rhodes recalls. “She asked if I would be interested in interviewing for a position with the association doing their conventions and meetings.” Rhodes had worked a summer convention when she was in college and enjoyed the experience. “I thought, ‘Never turn down an opportunity,’” she says. “I met with Kathy and have been with GPA ever since.” And when Kathy Berry resigned, Rhodes applied for and got the executive director’s job.

It was a challenging time to take the job. The internet was just becoming a news and information force and newspapers were grappling for ways to compete with the new ways their readers were accessing information. Rather than circle the wagons and refuse to change, the GPA encouraged its members, especially smaller papers, to consider the internet an asset – another way to enhance their print product. The GPA even has an employee on staff to assist newspapers trying to establish a web presence.

“Technology is so important to our industry,” Rhodes says. “Our staff works continuously to stay abreast of the latest trends. We must, as an association, be able to offer guidance that will help our members train their employees and help produce a better product.”

Members with legal questions have access to a legal hotline, administered by David Hudson, the association’s general counsel. Hudson, an expert in open government and media law, is with the Augusta firm of Hull, Towill, Norman, Barrett and Salley. The GPA also offers seminars and conferences and sponsors an annual convention.

Rhodes is particularly proud of the association’s role in establishing georgiapublicnotice.com, a statewide searchable database complementing the traditional print public notice system. As of November, all 159 counties in Georgia posted to the database.

The GPA tends to journalism’s future by offering scholarships to journalism students statewide through the Georgia Press Educational Foundation. The foundation hosts the annual Cracker Crumble fund raiser, a black-tie dinner and political spoof featuring newspaper folk and such dignitaries as former governors Roy Barnes and Zell Miller.

“Over $650,000 has been given in scholarships and internships,” says Rhodes, still as enthusiastic about her work as the day she started.

“What makes these publishers, editors and their staffs so great to work for is their dedication to their profession, to open government, and their persistence in producing a tremendous product in print and on the internet,” she says. “They know how to deliver the news.”

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