Originally created 09/25/06

Madame muckraker

WATKINSVILLE, Ga. - Vinnie Williams digs through a crinkled folder of white papers and frayed notes, until she finds a copy of the front page that she counts as one of her finest moments.

The headline beams news of the imprisonment of a local con man, and Ms. Williams beams right alongside it.

"This was a man I contrived to drive out of the county. And now he's roosting in jail," she says. "We put on the publicity so hard, we finally managed to get him."

She looks up for a second, before adding with a faint smile, "I feel that is my contribution to the world."

Newspaper circulation in large cities might be declining, but in many small towns and rural counties, the weekly paper pulses with local information on school plays, church fundraisers and land deals.

Between the lines of the Oconee Enterprise, though, is the story of the complicated relationship between the east Georgia community and the colorful personality who runs the paper. Love her or hate her - and some residents do hate her - Ms. Williams' newspaper has outlasted two upstart competitors and hopes to fend off a third now threatening.

A proud Democrat in a solidly Republican county, Ms. Williams is a publisher who acts more like a politician, donating to political campaigns she favors, skewering those she doesn't and campaigning at local churches where she glad-hands her constituents. At 86, she's surely one of the nation's oldest working journalists.

At the Enterprise's office, she bashes enemies and critics with gusto.

In print, she seems to dare the hated con man to test the newspaper's coverage in court, crowing in a front page article, "He wouldn't have the nerve."

In an interview, she brands a past editor who tried to start his own paper as a "slob." In a column, she calls a University of Georgia journalism professor who criticized her reporting "clearly one of the most miserable of men."

"She's a sweet, little old lady," says Jeff Cochran, the paper's sports editor. "But when someone gets on her bad side, she's tough as nails."

Quips state Rep. Bob Smith, a local Republican: "You know the old saying, 'You don't get mad at those who buy ink by the drum?' And you're asking me to comment?"

A FORMER NEWSPAPER reporter, including a stint at The Augusta Chronicle, Ms. Williams made her name writing four novels, including 1957's The Fruit Tramp, about an orphaned fruit picker who leaves a Georgia farm to travel the seedy South.

After her husband died in 1978, she grew restless. She moved from Thomson, where she worked as a correspondent for The Chronicle, to become the Enterprise's editor in 1981. Five years later, she bought it - and some grumbled at the thought of an outsider running the paper.

Soon, her style would give others reason to complain. Some bristled that Ms. Williams, with her eccentric personality and bright outfits, always demanded to be the center of attention. Others questioned why she focused on an infamous, unsolved 1946 lynching in a neighboring county. The killings of two black couples generations ago at the nearby Moore's Ford bridge drew no coverage from the Enterprise back then. After Ms. Williams became publisher, she ran 15 consecutive columns on the killings.

Her credibility was put to the test in the late 1980s when she used the paper to lobby against Sheriff Terry Roach, who the feds had fingered for a civil rights violation. Ms. Williams was relentless in her coverage, while Sheriff Roach's powerful friends and family loudly rallied behind one of their own.

"The Roach crowd hated her," said Wendell Dawson, a former county commission chairman. "And she put the hatchet in him."

As a federal judge read Sheriff Roach's one-year sentence aloud in 1989, two FBI agents flanked Ms. Williams, guarding against any threat.

Over the next few weeks, Ms. Williams' office was barraged with angry phone calls. A third of the paper's readers canceled their subscriptions. A group of the sheriff's supporters created a rival newspaper, the Oconee Arrow, with a bullseye on the Enterprise. Someone scattered roofing nails across Ms. Williams' driveway.

She fought back, pumping her personal fortune into the paper and spending each Sunday at a county church. She'd snap a picture of the preacher, drop money in the collection plate and get story ideas from the deacon.

Sure enough, the Arrow fell.

"I took Sunday off, and she headed for the churches," said Rich Rusk, the Arrow's editor during its final months. "I knew right then I was done."

IN THE YEARS SINCE, Ms. Williams' grip on Oconee's information flow has gone largely unchallenged, and that's worried some. Mr. Dawson, the former county commission chairman, said he's seen the Enterprise transformed from a hometown paper into Ms. Williams' personal soapbox.

"Publishers and newspapers carry a lot of clout," the 66-year-old attorney says in his law office in nearby Bogart. "But they also, like politicians, carry a lot of baggage."

He's started his own blog, called Another Voice From Oconee County, to offer opposing views, but it takes hours of work each week. Mr. Dawson now looks hopefully to the Oconee Leader, a glitzy tabloid full of lifestyle stories that started this summer.

"Maybe they'll give me a rest," he says, fingering a copy. "That new paper is going to help straighten Vinnie out more than I can."

The Enterprise, though, is gearing up for a fight, armed with annual subscription rates of $19 and civic involvement.

The paper claims a 10 percent increase in its weekly circulation this year, bringing it to 4,500. That's almost one out of every two households in the county.

At her corner office, Ms. Williams writes stories on an aging computer and talks of working for years to come.

"I am not a good reporter and I am not a good editor. I was always easygoing and I just hoped for the best," she says. "But that's not to say I'm not creative and have a way with words. And I've never had any problems with walking into a hornet's nest."


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