Who: Sonny Albarado, president of Society of Professional Journalists & editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
What: Speaking on “Journalism Today”
When: Tuesday, March 19 at 9 a.m.
Where: Le Bijou Theater
By Dr. Al Delahaye
Sonny Albarado is a busy man
The Nicholls alumnus is the national president of the 103-year-old, 8,500-member Society of Professional Journalists, which promotes excellence in journalism and defends First Amendment freedoms. He is also a top editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock with a circulation greater than that of the Times-Picayune.
He will speak on “Journalism Today” at 9 a.m. Tuesday, March 19, in Le Bijou Theater under the sponsorship of the Nicholls SPJ student chapter, one of about 300 professional and student chapters across the nation, He will also answer audience questions.
How does he maintain such a busy schedule? “I’ve got a good boss,” he says, “and the publisher is an SPJ member.”
Back in the early 1970s, he was well-known across the campus as the Nicholls Worth’s passionate but controversial editor. He aggressively opposed racial segregation by off-campus nightclubs and hair and dress regulations in force on campus. In a year or so, he and student body president Ken Wells and a few other student leaders got the changes they wanted.
Author and journalist Wells remembers Albarado as “a short guy with frizzy ’60s hair but a huge presence on campus.” Today Albarado is bald and a huge presence among the nation’s journalists.
Upon assuming the presidency of the SPJ at its national convention in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in September, Albarado said, “Cops have got to stop arresting journalists, especially photojournalists.” He also said, “Being a journalist is one of the best jobs on the planet.” He got a standing ovation.
As SPJ president, he has gotten charges against arrested journalists dropped in separate cases, has traveled quite a bit, and has helped the association serve as a watchdog over governmental policies as they relate to open meetings and open records.
SPJ, a multi-faceted society, has a legal defense fund, a foundation, its own magazine and conducts competitions for students and professionals. Albarado relies upon an executive director and a full-time staff in Indianapolis to look after everyday matters.
As his paper’s projects editor, he supervises investigative reporters and those writing long-narrative reports. Only recently did he take on additional duties as city editor. Before joining the Democrat-Gazette in 2007, Albarado spent 18 years at the Memphis Commercial Appeal. From 1977 to 1989, he was on the staff of the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate.
In the years shortly after his 1973 graduation from Nicholls as an English major, he reported for the Houma Daily Courier and spent a year as editor of the Donaldsonville Chief.
In Little Rock his first project meant going through 600 e-mails that included romantic exchanges involving a married public official arrested on felony theft charges – and finding that the theft resulted from expenditures for his lover, a married vendor. Later came investigative news reports concerning a developer who used property he had already sold as collateral for more than $2 million in loans; the developer declared bankruptcy and went off to Mexico, only to be arrested upon his return to Arkansas.
Albarado says he is especially proud of two reporters who asked the state crime lab to do a second DNA test on bones found in 1991 because they believed them to be those of a young girl who had been missing for years. “That second DNA test proved the reporters right,” Albarado says.
In Memphis, where Albarado spent several years as projects editor, one investigation concerned federal funds to help women get off welfare by paying for child support while they worked or went to school. Albarado’s investigators uncovered wrongdoing that resulted in the indictment and jailing of two people whose private nonprofit agency was supposed to be helping women find childcare.
That investigation brought about a landmark Tennessee Supreme Court ruling that applied the state public-records law to businesses that get the bulk of their revenue from public funds. That same investigation also resulted in tips that prompted another investigation into the activities of a powerful state senator who was ultimately indicted by a federal grand jury and finally imprisoned. Albarado also cites “a data-driven investigation that revealed disparities and flaws in property assessments, necessitating adjustments for many property owners.”
The Thibodaux High School graduate is also a member of a freedom-of-information coalition that reviews all Arkansas legislation concerning access to governmental documents and meetings.
His long newspaper career began at Nicholls during what he calls “a tumultuous era.” He was Nicholls Worth editor throughout the 1970 calendar year when he and his staff produced a newspaper crammed with opinion columns, letters to the editor, picture pages and lots of news stories concerning various controversies. Ignoring editorial precedent, he endorsed a candidate in the 1970 SGA presidential election when 41.5 percent of students cast ballots.
Albarado was among the dozens of students and a few faculty members subpoenaed by an assistant district attorney in what was billed as a drug investigation. The effort, editorially denounced by Albarado as “a farce,” brought about no arrests. As for his opposition to dress and hair regulations, the alumnus says, “I thought I was reflecting a general groundswell of people who thought it ridiculous to have quasi-military standards not essential to learning.”
As president of his senior class, Albarado helped depose a student body president.
The editor sometimes spoke at weekly Free Speech Alley sessions; news coverage of one three-hour session required 1,500 words.
One semester, he neglected his studies and got a grade-point average below 1.0. When a committee rejected his appeal to re-enter the university, he turned to President Vernon Galliano, whose policies he had sometimes criticized. Surprisingly, Galliano let him back in and Albarado went on to earn all As.
As for the future of journalism, Albarado says, “It is bright, but newspaper format will change to mobile devices and online. There will always be a need for editors and reporters.” As for criticisms of “the liberal media,” Albarado says simply: “Media ownership is not liberal, and readers and viewers see things through their own personal prisms.”