VALDOSTA — Today, The Valdosta Daily Times unveils SunLight.
The SunLight Project is a team of top journalists in Georgia and Florida who will use state Sunshine Laws, data research, open records requests and investigative journalism skills to shine the light on big issues and opportunities facing the community.
The recurring reports will include comprehensive, in-depth looks at crime, economic development, education, government spending, bureaucratic red tape, quality of life issues, poverty, homelessness and a host of other topics that impact our readers.
Regional Editor Jim Zachary is the architect of the SunLight Project, and he is no stranger to watchdog reporting and accountability journalism. One of just three journalists in the state to have been feted with the David E. Hudson Open Government Award, he's also received five Freedom of Information awards from the Georgia Press Association and the Associated Press, along with multiple awards for editorial writing and reporting throughout his career.
“Reliable news sources readers can trust matter more than ever before," Zachary said. "The proliferation of fake news reports has heightened the need for quality reporting, and we are committed to being the leading source of news and information in all the communities we serve.”
Zachary was tapped by Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc. to oversee CNHI papers in the Georgia communities of Valdosta, Dalton, Milledgeville, Moultrie, Thomasville and Tifton and the North Florida towns of Live Oak, Jasper and Mayo as part of a print and digital content improvement plan. Skilled reporters from these newspapers make up the innovative SunLight team.
“We take our role as the Fourth Estate very seriously. Newspapers have a long and important legacy as a system of checks and balances for government as well as giving a voice to the voiceless. Any newspaper that does not hold the powerful accountable, champion government transparency and defend the First Amendment is not worth the paper that it is printed on or the ink that fills its pages,” Zachary said.
“We are also very committed to celebrating our communities and being a cheerleader while providing valuable information to community leaders about ways economies and quality of life can be enhanced," he added. “By combining the resources of multiple newspapers and talented journalists from a two-state area, we believe we can provide comprehensive reports, comparisons and contrasts, along with valuable data that will make each report a must-read in our coverage areas.”
Zachary describes the SunLight Project team of reporters as a "blend of young, enthusiastic, skilled reporters and experienced veterans who will combine their respective skill sets in collaborative news gathering and reporting that will result in the publication of powerful, in-depth reports."
The team includes:
John Stephen - Valdosta
John Stephen is the lead government reporter at The Valdosta Daily Times and will work as the team leader for the SunLight Project.
Zachary said, “John is a strong journalist who is smart, passionate and understands the importance of in-depth reporting, holding officials accountable as well as showcasing the positive things happening in the community."
Stephen said, "Journalism digs deep into humanity to show us the good and bad of it all. In the end, we are all better for it. Journalism, like any other profession, is not without its flaws and stumbles. However, when reporters get it right, their work is crucial to the success of a free society, from the smallest rural town to the grand halls of Washington."
Stephen has found inspiration in high-profile investigative journalism that has been in the national spotlight, explaining, “Journalism has the power to change the world, and it does so every day. Child abuse in the Catholic church. Negligence toward veterans. Corrupt politicians who think they’re above the law. Without journalism, such issues would most likely never be spotlighted and properly addressed.”
Thomas Lynn - North Florida
Thomas Lynn, who reports for The Suwannee Democrat in Live Oak, Fla., described journalism as the first draft of history.
“Years from now, people are going to be reading articles written by journalists to understand what life was like at the time it was written. A journalist informs people. Using facts, figures and credible sources, we take complicated and sometimes incredibly boring subjects and make them understandable for anyone," Lynn said.
“Journalism that matters most is journalism that makes something confusing more understandable. It connects the dots and holds those with power accountable.”
Charles Oliver - Dalton
Charles Oliver is a veteran reporter at The Dalton Daily Citizen.
"I started writing for newspapers while I was still in college, just to make money," Oliver said. "But I didn't really plan to make that my life. I went to graduate school just outside Washington, D.C, where I earned a master's degree and worked for a think tank.
"While I ultimately decided I loved reporting more than economics, I believe the experience helped me gain a greater understanding of business, the economy and government. For the past 28 years, I've worked for newspapers and magazines across the country.
"As a reporter I focus mainly on local government, but I've covered everything from homicides to weddings. The stories I enjoy most are the ones that allow me to learn something new, whether it is reporting on a new stem cell therapy that healed a man's badly injured foot or talking to men who were prisoners of war during World War II. Newspapers should help their readers learn new things, ask the questions they want asked and explain complex issues in simple language. The SunLight Project will do that."
Eve Guevara - Tifton
Eve Guevara, who reports for The Tifton Gazette, came to journalism from different disciplines and brings a natural curiosity and a thirst for information to the team. Coming from an anthropology background, Guevara brings years of research know-how, writing experience and listening to people’s voices to tell their stories.
Guevara is committed to strong community journalism.
“It lets the community know about things that are happening that they might not be aware of,” Guevara said. ”It’s looking at things that don’t get looked at. That’s what we’re here for, to find information, to find stories and bring them to light. And we’re not outsiders looking in. We’re part of the community. I want to know what’s going on in my community as much as anybody.”
Billy Hobbs - Milledgeville
Billy Hobbs, who primarily reports on government, crime and public safety for The Milledgeville Union-Recorder, has been a newspaper reporter for four decades.
"After all these years in this profession, I still get very excited about a good news story," Hobbs said. "I’ve come to realize through the years that we truly are an important group of people, and play an enormous role in all segments of society.
"Quality journalism is paramount to any community in America. I believe with everything in me that people truly want to know what is going on from a factual standpoint in their community. Oftentimes, especially today, the best way of getting the real story is through credible newspapers ... the kind of newspaper that is fair, responsible, and stands firm on the principles that make us a Free Press – just the way our forefathers desired and intended when they established the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution."
Hobbs said he believes the SunLight Project can tackle broader stories and offer more in-depth coverage to the area.
Alan Mauldin - Moultrie
Alan Mauldin is a strong crime reporter who has a wealth of journalism experience. Mauldin works for The Moultrie Observer and described his path to journalism as "accidentally on purpose," giving him an opportunity to meld his love for reading and writing with his thirst for knowledge and information.
Mauldin said a life in journalism is full of unforgettable moments: "In what other kind of job can one have a county school superintendent, the veins in his forehead throbbing like Poe's telltale heart, threaten the arrest of a reporter for 'inciting a riot' just for standing on the right-of-way with a camera, or a sheriff observe that one's shirt looked like camouflage for shooting birds in a flower bed? Then there's also the odd moment when extensive digging reveals that a health-care facility has been ripping off taxpayers in the millions of dollars."
Patti Dozier - Thomasville
Patti Dozier is a fixture in South Georgia journalism and has spent decades covering crime, courts and government. Among her favorite stories during her tenure with The Times-Enterprise includes one about the 1948 deaths of two teens whose bodies were found on train tracks.
“The still-unanswered question is whether they were murdered and their bodies placed on tracks or whether their deaths were the result of the train that ran over the bodies,” Dozier said.
Dozier has won numerous awards from the Georgia Press Association and the Associated Press, covering such issues as investigative reporting, deadline news-writing, feature-writing, columns, hard news-writing and business reporting.
“Newspapers are crucial aspects of big cities and small towns, but particularly small towns in today's world and national news overload,” Dozier said. “People in small towns look to the newspaper for many things, not only news, but for other information – obituaries, school activities, weddings and engagements involving people they know, comics, advice and, yes, the crossword puzzle. I have been told by Thomasville residents they are comforted daily knowing the Times-Enterprise will be there when they get up in the morning.”
Graphic artist and journalist Terry Richards will assist in data collection and prepare charts, graphs and illustrations to augment reports.
Derrek Vaughn is the photo editor at The Valdosta Daily Times who will enhance the reporting with photos, photo illustrations and video.
Dean Poling is a veteran editor who will polish writing and assist reporters as they gather information for the reports.
Digital Editor Kristin Finney will prepare reports for online distribution and work to make it easy for readers to find the information they are looking for with each report.
Readers, tipsters or people with information the public needs to know can contact the SunLight Project team simply be emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Regardless of where you live in Georgia or North Florida, the team is always interested in what readers want and need to know. Emailed messages will go to every member of the SunLight team.
Based in Montgomery, Ala., CNHI is a leading publisher of local news and information, serving more than 130 communities in 23 states.