Happy Birthday, Times-Herald!

Pulitzer nominee Winters new general manager

by W. Winston Skinner


Newnan Times-Herald General Manager John Winters with IT Coordinator Jonathan Melville.

John Winters, the new general manager at The Newnan Times-Herald, has a long journalistic resume that includes investigations of a nuclear materials production plant, a story that led to a tax reduction for senior citizens and stints running publications in Alaska and Nebraska.

Winters, 51, who grew up in Tulsa, Okla., assumed his duties earlier this year. His journalism career started while he was studying at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, where he took some introductory journalism courses.

He was a U.S. history major. When his father sat him down for “the talk” about how his college degree might lead to a job, Winters shared his interest in journalism.

Soon, he had a summer internship writing the Action Line column for the Tulsa World. The job involved responding to reader calls — from finding a clown for a child’s birthday party to getting a neglected pothole repaired. “I just loved it,” Winters recalled.

Back at W&L, Winters was challenged by professors, including Clark Mollenhoff, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter who had briefly served as ombudsman to President Richard Nixon. “They worked with me, and they literally designed an entire journalism degree in a year,” Winters said.

A passion for investigative reporting grew in Winters. After graduation, he got into contact with Billy Morris, who owned a chain of newspapers, and Winters got a job at the Augusta Chronicle. In August 1985, Winters went to work — covering city and county government.

It was the era before cell phones and the Internet. The Herald published in the afternoon, and the newspaper paid for a telephone line at city hall so Winters could phone in stories from midday council meetings.

When a law change required Richmond County to do a massive revaluation of property, Winters learned many older widows found themselves without enough money to pay their taxes on the increased value. He wrote a series of stories about the issue which the county tax commissioner passed along to the county’s legislative delegation.

That process led to the creation of the state law exempting senior citizens who met certain income criteria from paying the school property tax portion.

Winters also began writing stories about the Savannah River Site, which had been started as part of the Manhattan Project during World War II. DuPont operated the plant, which manufactured plutonium and tritium, for the nation’s nuclear weapons complex.

At that time, there were five reactors with about 15,000 employees. The University of Georgia had an ecology lab in the site.

As Winters began covering SRS, efforts were under way to restart some closed reactors. “It became a huge national story,” he said. Primary coverage of SRS was being done by four organizations — the New York Times, the Washington Post, Associated Press and the Chronicle.

Winters’ sources ended up including U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn and U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, other members of Congress and a South Carolina governor. Winters was interviewed for “48 Hours” and the SRS situation made the covers of Newsweek and Time as the nation came close to restarting the nuclear arms race with what was then the U.S.S.R.

“It was a crazy time,” he said. SRS quickly upped its employees to about 24,000. Winters began getting reams of reports from the General Accounting Office, which eventually led the Chronicle to get him a fax machine — after the advertising department got tired of him borrowing theirs.

Winters began commuting to Washington, D.C., to attend monthly hearings. In 1992, Morris sent him to Washington as bureau chief. He continued covering the SRS story — creating copy not just for the Chronicle but for other Morris papers in Amarillo, Tx., and Oak Ridge, Tn., which also had plants involved in the nuclear weapons complex. One series of stories related to DuPont’s decision to leave SRS. The company was focusing on consumer products, and the plutonium facility did not fit with its image any longer.

DuPont’s agreement was to run the plant for $1 per year plus expenses. Since it was company policy to give generous severance to employees at layoffs or closures, that money was also billed to the government. “Nobody would ever say the dollars, but it was in the millions,” Winters recalled.

During those years, Winters was nominated for three Pulitzer Prize awards, the journalism’s highest honor, for this reporting on SRS.

“It was a pretty heady time,” he recalled. “Here was little old me going up against the best reporters and biggest papers in the country. Sometimes they beat me on a story, but sometimes I beat them.”

In 1995, he was approached about becoming publisher of the Juneau Empire in Alaska. His recent bride, Corby, had just taken a job, but they ultimately decided to go to Juneau. He still remembers their shock when they figured out they could not drive cross country to their new home because Juneau could only be reached by plane.

“It’s like a foreign city move. It takes forever,” Winters said. He recalled a time when he and his wife ventured out for something to eat but found everything closed. After awhile, they figured out it was 3:30 a.m. and that the midnight sun had fooled them into thinking it was much later in the day.

The Empire was a great newspaper with numerous awards. One of the highlights of Winters’ time there was a project on Alaska’s Indians and how they had handled getting large sums of money as oil drilling began on Indian lands. Some groups had hired outside help and invested in tourism and other long-term improvements. Others had clear cut their land and made a quick fortune that was quickly lost.

Three staff members spent an entire year on the project — often sleeping on the floor in people’s homes in remote villages.

“Mr. Morris always said it was one of the best journalistic endeavors his company had ever done,” Winters said. “I was really proud of my team for what they did.”

During Winters’ time in Alaska, the Empire was the site of a Newspaper Association of America executive committee conference that drew top executives from across the nation. The Internet was beginning to emerge as a communication source, and the paper won an Edge, the NAA’s top award for newspaper web sites for papers with a circulation under 50,000.

There were about 50 employees at the Empire. In 2000, Winters was named general manager at the Grand Island Independent in Nebraska, which had about 116 employees.

A couple of years later, he was tapped to reactivate Morris News Service. Walter Jones, who also worked for the news service, suggested the Winters look at Coweta County as a place to live. The Winters moved to Coweta, and the news service spread stories and columns to 30 newspapers in 11 states with a total circulation of 600,000.

Winters selected columns on cars, home repairs, children’s books, movies and wine, features, news and other subjects from various Morris papers. The bureau also covered state governments, NASCAR and the Atlanta Braves. They even sent teams to the Olympics and all four major golf tournaments.

“I really had a blast doing that,” he said.

Winters left Morris after 24 years. A key reason was that his wife’s parents were suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia, and his wife and brother had to take custody of them. The family left Coweta to take care of Corby’s parents in Oklahoma for two years. After his in-laws’ deaths, they they moved back to their old home in Coweta County. “Newnan really had become home. The kids loved it,” Winters said.

Winters wrote a book, “Everybody Needs a Sam,” which is a about the importance of mentors, and followed it with a study guide. He also wrote “The Little Black Dress and the SONs of Thunder — Recipes on Life and Food.”

When a job opened up at The Newnan Times-Herald in 2011, Winters took it. After the retirement of longtime publisher Sam Jones, he moved into the general manager post.

Corby Winters is a life enrichment coach and speaker. Their sons are Caleb, 15, a student at Newnan High School; Seth, 12, who attends Madras Middle School; and Levi, 10, who is at Brooks Elementary. They are active in karate and Boy Scouts.

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