Breaking With the News: One Shooter, One Writer

Breaking With the News: One Shooter, One Writer
Stephen B. Thornton

Life after newspapers awaits photojournalist Stephen B. Thornton. But first, his bathroom needed fixing.

In a Facebook announcement and an interview with Arkansas Business last week, Thornton said he is leaving the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette after 23 years to accept a job taking pictures and shooting videos for the Arkansas Department of Human Services.

He starts his new role this week, but the master bathroom couldn’t wait. He gutted it down to the studs. “Hopefully before I begin my new life adventure, I’ll have a shower that doesn’t leak and a toilet that flushes only when I want it to.”

Thornton, 50, had a while to ponder the career change. “Unlike some of my colleagues I wasn’t forced to make a move after a staff reduction,” he said.

The job at DHS, which “is building a fresh and different” communications department, defined the timing. “This type of position might not have been as financially attractive 10 years ago, but since we’ve had salary freezes and rough economics for years in the news industry, there’s more appeal. I took time to find something that fit me, to make use of the skills I developed at the Democrat-Gazette.”

His years at the paper gave him “a front-row seat” to history, including Hurricane Katrina and the war in Iraq. But smaller stories were sometimes more deeply felt. “The street-racing death of a teenage girl; a 10-day-long church revival camp; the rebuilding of a small Arkansas town after a tornado.”

All made indelible memories.

“It was a great ride,” he said, but he wanted to make a difference in a new role, to “work with a great team and continue to grow as a storyteller.” He found that at DHS.

Thornton, a graduate of Western Kentucky University, had four young children when he accepted the Democrat-Gazette job. Now they’re all safely grown. “My wife, Lisa, four kids and two grandchildren welcome this change,” Thornton said. “It will mean more regular hours and a far smaller chance of being called upon to cover tornadoes, floods or wars.”

Hardy’s ‘Gnawing Doubts’
Another journalist, Benjamin Hardy, is also at a career crossroads. He has left the weekly Arkansas Times in Little Rock and was caught last week “bumming around the library, like unemployed people do.”

The writer wants to pitch story ideas to national publications, take a break from long hours at the Times and see if he can “make a decent living freelancing.”

But the bigger reason for the job change was philosophical, “a bit more abstract … or possibly just more crazy,” he said. He has “gnawing doubts about whether journalism ... is capable of playing a constructive role in a political moment in which half of Americans seem to occupy a different reality than the other half.”

Hardy, 32, worked in the nonprofit world and as a schoolteacher in New Orleans after getting an international relations degree from Hendrix College. He joined the Times in November 2014. “I was fortunate, and I still admire them and all they do,” he recalls. “They hired me when David Ramsey left.”

Hardy wrote perceptively about the long aftermath of the 2013 ExxonMobil pipeline spill in Mayflower and broke the blockbuster story of former state Rep. Justin Harris’ “rehoming” of two adopted daughters, who were put in the care of a Bella Vista man who molested one of the girls.

But the grind of a job constantly demanding that reporters do more with less took its toll, and then came the 2016 election. “I was struggling to write with an editorial voice that I felt was accurate,” the Ozark native said. “The brightest minds in all media thought the election of Donald Trump was impossible. But here we are.” He felt that he needed to spend more time listening.

“I think the truth matters to people; the common good matters,” he said. “But today’s society isn’t set up for people to engage in civic issues, beyond reacting to the latest outrage. People can smell BS in their daily lives, but when it comes to media — not just the news media but TV, online media, everywhere — that’s where the breakdown happened. People are so used to media as entertainment [that] now when they see news conveyed over those same channels, they are less prone to think of it as true. There’s a feeling of unreality.”

Hardy thinks deeper engagement might help. “I have thought about trying to do something to educate people about how government works, how the media works. I feel people lack the skills to absorb and understand the news.” How to impart that understanding is what Hardy is trying to figure out.