July 26, 2017
Jim Walls became a journalist by chance.
In 1972, at age 18, the high school graduate answered a newspaper advertisement for a lab technician without college experience in Virginia. At the interview, Walls was told they were looking for college-educated candidates.
When asked what he would like to do instead, Walls said he wanted to try newspaper writing. He grew up reading the Washington Post and was inspired by the Watergate scandal.
Fast forward 36 years, Walls went from being one of two reporters for Virginia’s weekly Globe Newspapers to working at the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Walls said working for Globe newspapers was a great way to break into journalism and learn what to do by reporting and writing week after week. He covered a fatal construction accident for a year and a half, looking at the causes and issues with the county inspectors.
Through that experience, Walls learned how to use public records to figure out how to find the next story.
“I learned on the job,” he said.
Walls eventually moved to Atlanta and took a job at the AJC, eventually becoming its investigative editor. After 28 years at the AJC, Walls took a buyout and used the money to launch Atlanta Unfiltered, a website consisting of investigative news.
Walls initially had the idea while still working for the AJC, though he decided to do it on his own after receiving the buyout.
“I thought, well, maybe I could see if I could get that going on my own,” Walls said. “I didn’t have anything to lose because I was still on a buyout from the paper.”
Laying the groundwork
He took six months to gather information and enlist help in writing the code for his website before finally launching Atlanta Unfiltered in March 2009. He said he writes about 99 percent of the articles, though he sometimes takes in people who want to learn from him.
On Atlanta Unfiltered, Walls mostly covers state government affairs.
To demonstrate impartiality, he posts the documents he reports from along with his articles for the public to glean from.
“I felt like that was something that was sorely needed, where people would have to back up what they were saying,” Walls said.
Walls started Atlanta Unfiltered because he saw a need for unbiased news content. He saw content on blogs that he said was clearly commentary, and he said there needed to be some reporting online that was demonstratively unbiased.
Though he has not published in recent months due to a lack of financial support for the site, Walls said when he started Atlanta Unfiltered, he thought he was combating the fake news mentality by preserving documents and allowing the public to read direct sources.
“Fake news has become, to a large segment of the population, sort of a rallying call,” Walls said. “In a sense it’s not just an attack on journalism — it’s an attack on the intelligence of the American people, to think you can just say it’s fake news and have people believe it.”
Walls believes some traditional news media miss opportunities for stories. Many traditional news outlets will publish stories that are a mile wide and an inch deep — a reporter will write about a topic, but won’t go deep enough to get at an underlying problem.
“In some cases, they don’t go deep enough,” Walls said. “I’ve gone ahead and gone a little deeper to show what was there — where they could have gone.”
He also said some traditional newspapers are reluctant to cut off sources they may need for the future, so they won’t publish alienating pieces or go deeper.
He has also seen that newspapers in smaller communities he visits don’t have the will to write anything negative about their local governments.
Some serve as the legal organ of the community, giving both the paper and the reporters a steadier source of income.
Because he worked in the profession, he is not sure the title “citizen journalist” should apply to him. He said he thinks citizen journalists are motivated by stories that need to be told and don’t have any hangups getting in the way.
“I think citizen journalists, in that sense, are keeping professional journalists honest,” Walls said.