My Editor

Jim Abbott

Jim Abbott

“I would follow him to Hell; and that’s no small thing to say, for I think him capable of going there.”
–Alexander Dumas, “Twenty Years After”

I thought of Jim Abbott the first time I read that quote, while I was still working for him at The Enterprise-Tocsin newspaper in Indianola.

To be sure, in the best possible way — that Jim would be willing and able to burst through the gates of Hell itself in the fulfillment of his duties as editor and publisher of the community newspaper. And if he had, I would have followed. To watch him, you would think there could be no higher calling.

Jim was my first boss after college; he hired me straight out of Ole Miss journalism school, giving a rookie reporter his first break. I spent five of the next six years working for him — when I left after a couple of years to have a badly ended adventure elsewhere, he welcomed the prodigal reporter back home with open arms.

But he was more than my editor and publisher. He was a mentor. He was a second father. He was a friend. He and his wife, Cynthia, The E-T’s office manager, took amazing care of me during some rather interesting years of my life. I was born in Huntsville and graduated from high school here, but in a lot of ways, I grew up in Indianola. And Jim and Cynthia were a big part of that.

To say Jim was one of a kind would be based on my limited experience with editors, but I can say there aren’t many like him out there anymore. To me, he was a legend from a bygone age. For Jim, there was no question which word was more important in the phrase, “newspaper business,” and that was the main way he differed from too much of the rest of the industry, in my opinion.

Jim made The E-T work financially, but he did so in a way that was completely opaque. Unlike other papers, I never heard the term EBITDA at The Enterprise-Tocsin. Ad ratio was important only because it determined how we laid out news pages. We never ever compromised coverage in the face of financial concerns.

For Jim, the newspaper was about news. Period. And, more than that, it was about serving the community. Jim Abbott was part owner of The Enterprise-Tocsin, which gave him the freedom to run the paper the way he wanted. And the way he wanted recognized a higher truth that is all but forgotten today — Jim may have owned the paper, but it belonged to the community. The E-T long predated him, and now continues without him. But it always has, and God willing always will, served the people of Indianola. And Jim understood that in a way few newspaper owners seem to.

And that focus made it a pleasure to work for him.

I can’t tell you all the ways I’m a better person for having worked for Jim Abbott. I’m a better reporter, a fact that matters little in my post-newspaper days. I’m a better writer, a fact that is still very relevant. I’m far more fearless, more willing to do what it takes to do what needs to be done. I understand that people are just people — when you’re a 21-year-old kid making chump change fresh out of college, and you’re expected to go toe-to-toe with the mayor or whoever and come out ahead, you have to understand that, ultimately, the person on one side of the desk is no better than the one on the other. I learned loyalty … what it means to give everything for something you believe in. If Jim had one fault, it was that — he was willing to give all of himself, all of Cynthia, all of his family, all of his staff, and more for the sake of the cause. But he believed in it, and he made it easy to believe in.

If Jim had two faults, it was that he could be tough to work for. Before I started, the last two people to hold my job had been there, combined, for five months. He had his style of running the paper, and that was who he was. It either worked for you, or it didn’t. And for me, it did. Oh, gracious, it did. I respected him. A lot.

Tomorrow night, I’m going to go see Jim Abbott inducted into the Mississippi Press Association Hall of Fame, a recognition that is extremely well-deserved. I don’t know if I’ll even get to talk to him, if he’ll even know I was there. But it will be an honor to be in the audience, regardless.