With bylines older than many, if not most, of his employees, Norman Baggs is entering a new phase of a lengthy career that’s been devoted to making sure local residents get the news they need.
On Friday, Oct. 14, Dawson County News’ general manager stepped away from day-to-day newspaper operations for the first time in nearly a half-century of work and moving to what he calls a “reduced role,” working on corporate special projects and as an adviser .
“I’ve worked too hard and too long to just stop,” Baggs said during a break recently from cleaning out his office, with newspapers and books stacked in different places. “I’ll just be slowing down a little.”
His journalism career began while in high school in Forsyth County, where he crafted his first story 52 years ago. He went to college for a couple of years — where he didn’t graduate or even take a journalism class — before continuing on in newspapers in Blue Ridge, Blackshear and eventually his first daily, Gwinnett County. The ensuing years found him working in Hall and Forsyth counties.
When the Gwinnett Daily News closed in 1992, Baggs was the founding editor for what is now the Gwinnett Daily Post. He later joined Morris Multimedia Inc., which acquired The Times in 2004 from Gannett.
“I’ve been working out here since then, still staying involved with Dawsonville, Forsyth and Winder until we sold it a few years ago,” he said.
Baggs, 67, was at The Times when Metro Market Media acquired the paper in 2018, along with Forsyth County News and Dawson County News.
“Probably the most difficult and turbulent time of my career was in 1987 during the civil rights marches and white supremacy protests in Forsyth County,” he said. “I was publisher of the Forsyth County News at the time. I had been involved in covering civil rights marches and had written extensively about the Klan before, but what transpired over about a six-week period in '87 was unlike anything any of us had dealt with.
“We tried to help keep local residents safe and calm during a time when our entire community was under scrutiny by news agencies nationally and internationally, while at the same time giving events the coverage they deserved and keeping our own staffers safe. It was a tough time, and the fallout lasted for years.”
Baggs has interviewed many notable people over the years, such as Jimmy Carter when he ran for president and several Georgia governors.
One of the most memorable wasn’t a power broker or politician but a woman whose family worked at one of the aristocratic homes on Jekyll Island.
“She grew up in this house where all these super-rich people came for balls and banquets, and she had pictures and stories,” Baggs said. “It was probably the most enjoyable interview I ever did.”
In another memorable moment, not related to a story, Baggs recalled a newspaper feud with the local sheriff that resulted in the sheriff “exercising a lien and seizing a bunch of our equipment.”
“I was sitting at the post office unloading papers and got a call … to take the company truck and drive it across the state line so the sheriff couldn’t get it,” Baggs said. “I sat over there for six hours until someone came and told me what was going on.
“Those kinds of things,” he added with a chuckle, “kind of resonate with you.”
Reflecting more somberly, Baggs said he believes his career is slowing on one particular down note.
“In my first job, I was writing about racial unrest and racial problems,” Baggs said. “I kept thinking we’d quit writing those kinds of stories, and we still are. It’s just disappointing that hasn’t resolved itself.”
Born in Blackshear, Baggs grew up in Forsyth County and now lives in Sugar Hill. He has seen much change in the communities he’s covered through his career.
“Every place I’ve been on the northside of Atlanta, what Forsyth has done, what Gwinnett has done and what Hall is now doing, it’s been a pretty remarkable place to be during all that,” he said.
One of the most significant moments in Baggs’ career was watching as the Gwinnett Daily News, a longtime institution, was closed by its owner, the New York Times.
“It taught me how valuable a newspaper is to a community and the negative effects of having one close down,” he said. “I always talk about newspapers being the string that holds communities together and when that string breaks, there’s nothing to hold it all together.”
Recent years haven’t been kind to local newspapers as advertising dollars have eroded and readers have turned to social media.
“The business model has been turned completely upside down by the digital world, especially in the last six or eight years,” Baggs said. “Whereas newspapers once depended on advertising for their revenue streams so they could stay in business, that advertising has by and large disappeared as result of digital changes.
“So now, they have to depend more on people paying for the content they produce, and that’s been a very hard metamorphosis for the industry. A lot of papers haven’t been able to make that switch.”
Studies have shown that in communities without newspapers — dubbed as “news deserts” — “local taxes go up, government malfeasance goes up,” Baggs said. “People just don’t know what’s going on around them and there’s no real way for them to find out.
“Much of that internet information, on the news side, begins with a local newspaper somewhere,” he said. “Places like Facebook and Twitter don’t employ reporters.”
Baggs “really believes in local journalism, that every community deserves to have a newspaper and a voice that speaks up for the people and keeps government officials and others in power under watch by an independent group,” said John Vardeman, president of Morton, Vardeman & Carlson, a Gainesville public relations firm.
“He’s always believed in that and always stood up for what is right.”
Baggs drew tributes from others in the community, especially colleagues, current and former.
Charles Hill Morris Jr., president and CEO of Metro Market Media, said Baggs “has been incredibly helpful to the industry, to our organization. He’s always the coolest head in the room and when he speaks, his comments are always on mark. He surveys the situation and always draws the correct conclusion.”
Referring to the Forsyth racial tensions, Morris said, “He had a heavy burden at a young
age and handled it very well despite very challenging circumstances.”
Stephanie Woody, Dawson County News’ publisher, said, “Norman has been an instrumental leader in our organization and industry for many years. There really aren’t any words that would express how appreciative I am for his willingness to teach me along the way and how much his leadership has meant to me. There is no doubt that his presence will be missed in our building each day.”
Former Times publisher Dennis Stockton, who has known Baggs for 30-plus years and worked directly with him for 15 years, described him as “the most balanced, common sense editorial person I have ever had the pleasure (to work with). We are truly losing an asset in the community. ”
Johnny Vardeman, retired editor of The Times, described Baggs as “an honest journalist who always puts the newspaper reader first.
“He is a hard-working man of integrity and deserves his retirement from the daily grind of deadlines and pressure that comes with the territory after many years laboring in the trenches as well as in leadership roles. Fellow journalists and readers wish him godspeed.”
Here are other comments from community leaders:
Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield: “Norm has proven to be one of the true journalists I have been blessed to work with in my career. No surprises, no spin, candor in a kind and approachable manner. He will be deeply missed, and our media world could learn a lot of wisdom from my friend.”
Kit Dunlap, Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce president and CEO: “Norman has quietly meant so much to The Times and held it together during the fruit basket turnover in the news media — in the media, period. He may be short on a whole lot of words, which is wonderful. He just tells it like it is.”
State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville: “Norman Baggs has provided stability, wisdom, discernment, compassion and judgment to The Times and community for as long as I’ve known him. I’m particularly grateful for his journalistic work in the field of foster care and grateful for his work in the area of public policy.”
Miller also joked about Baggs’ trademark flowing beard.
“He’s still a cross between Santa Claus and Jerry Garcia,” he said, laughing.
Baggs has a story about that, as well.
“In 1976, everybody and their brother was growing a beard because of the nation’s bicentennial,” he said. “I did not. After the Fourth of July that year, when everybody shaved their beards off, I started mine and have had it ever since. It’s been long, it’s been short, it was black, now it’s white, but it’s been there.”
And now as he takes his leave from “an adventure that started a long time ago with a typewriter”:
“I’ll still be working, still will be involved and know what’s going on,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it. I’ve got great-grandbabies to spoil, family to take care of and things to do.”