Journalism is just as important to communities as clean air and good health, according to Otis Sanford, a commentator, columnist and professor, who spoke to LeMoyne-Owen journalism students recently.
“You can reach people, you can touch people, you can make a change in the world,” Sanford said. “Journalists are just as important as policemen, and without news and journalists, communities would be adrift.” Sanford also told the class they were all “people persons.”
Sanford said he first started writing at the age of 7 when his mom and dad gave him newspapers to read. His continued interest in writing led him to study journalism in high school and college. He first attended Northwest Community College and he was the first African American to secure a journalism scholarship to Ole Miss. In recent years, he was awarded the Distinguished Alumni Award from Ole Miss.
While still in college, Sanford’s first journalism job was as a copy boy at The Commercial Appeal. After graduation from Ole Miss in 1975, he worked as a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss. Early in his journey through journalism, Sanford’s hard work impressed his soon-to-become long-term editor, Angus McEachran, who hired Sanford as a reporter at The Commercial Appeal in 1977.
Later in 1987, he worked for the Pittsburgh Press as assistant city editor, hired again by McEachran who had become the editor of that large newspaper. During his time in Pittsburgh, the newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize for a story called “Flying High” about airline pilots under the influence of alcohol and drugs.
“The story cost the paper millions of dollars in advertising because some of the airlines stopped advertising at the paper,” he said.
When the Pittsburgh Press closed after a Teamsters’ strike, Sanford left for Detroit where he worked for the Detroit Free Press, and in 1994, McEachran, who by then was editor and publisher of The Commercial Appeal, hired him as deputy managing editor of the newspaper and later promoted him to managing editor.
After his boss retired, Sanford said he was one of the front-runners to become editor at The Commercial Appeal. While he was not chosen for that position, today he enjoys a varied career as a columnist for The Commercial Appeal, a WREG-TV commentator and as the Hardin Chair of Excellence in journalism at the University of Memphis.