/Poetic focus with Pulitzer winner 
John Archibald delivering the Hallie Farmer Lecture. Photo by Britton Wade, Photography editor.

Poetic focus with Pulitzer winner 

By Cady Inabinett, Editor in chief 

“It’s always embarassing for me to get up and talk about, you know, writing at prestigious institutions of higher learning,” writer John Archibald began the biennial Hallie Farmer Lecture on March 6 in the LeBaron Recital Hall, “I’m the only person who will ever come to lecture on writing who flunked Language Skills 2 in high school.” 

Archibald is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist—most recently winning the Pulitzer for Local Reporting in 2023 for his coverage of policing in Brookside, Ala. Archibald’s work extends beyond his news writing, however. The multi-hyphenate is also a columnist, podcaster and author of memoir, “Shaking the Gates of Hell: A Search for Family and Truth in the Wake of the Civil Rights Revolution.” Tying his work together is a focus on Alabama and the Deep South. 

Archibald’s lecture, titled “The Future of Writing (and Truth),” focused on the status of writing-based industries, such as journalism, in a future that seems increasingly more unwilling to value the importance of writing.  

Archibald began this discussion by zeroing in on the way his job as a journalist allows him to connect with other people, saying, “One of the coolest things about my job is that people, over the course of time, begin to sort of think they know me.” 

Readers often correspond with Archibald, and several, he said, like to send him poetry they’ve written.  

“Some of it is fantasic, and some of it is not so much,” he said. 

Archibald went on to say that, recently, he recieved a poem from a filmmaker, Billy Fields, that encouraged him to see the poetry in life and in writing, even when he feels like he has lost the plot. 

“That hit me kind of hard because, you know, I believe in words,” said Archibald, adding, “I love the rhythm of them, you know, the way they can sing even when there’s no music involved. And that’s the poetry that he’s talking about.” 

Archibald then transitioned into discussing an increasingly more fraught social and political landscape that affects media, saying that we have forgotten how to disagree with one another. 

“You know, we’ve banned the study of important-to-read history in a lot of our schools because we don’t want to make a kid feel uncomfortable,” he said, adding on, “I should point out that I was very uncomfortable with the subject of algebra when I was in school, but they sent me to summer school to learn to cope.” 

Archibald pointed towards this outrage culture, as well as the advent of AI writing and algorithmic newsfeeds, as negativly impacting the “business of words.” 

“All of those people who use, you know, reason and words and evidence and such to provide, sort of, sanity in the world are under, sort of, siege,” he said. 

“It scares me to death,” Archibald said about the advent of AI, saying he worries about the state of a society that does not value creative work, adding, “It takes a lot of confidence to simply say what you think needs to be said and to stand behind it no matter what people say.” 

While Archibald is wary of the path journalism and writing-based industries seem to be on, he made it clear that he is not nostalgic for the “golden age of journalism.” He expressed concern that being overly nostalgic will stymie progress in the industry, “As if the death of media is an inevitability and like it’s a funeral.” 

He added that journalism has historically also played a role in upholding systems of oppression, saying,“All of this good old day stuff is based so much in false memory and lies and privilege. The golden age of news was the golden age of the journalism jobs, maybe, but it was not the golden age of journalism. Newspapers, you know, for generations were megaphones for the status quo, and the status quo was white supremacy and segregation.” 

But Archibald admitted that there were facets of journalism from the past that he misses in today’s industry, reflecting on his feelings after a slate of state newspapers, including “The Birmingham News” where Archibald worked as a metro columnist, switched to digital-centric coverage—prompting mass layoffs in these newsrooms. Archibald was not laid-off, but felt as though he was working in an unfamiliar landscape. 

“The change just really sort of crushed me, and I remember, vividly, lying in bed thinking, ‘I can’t do this,’” he said. 

Archibald worried that he would no longer be able to write news in a way that connected to his readers, and admitted that he considered giving up on his job.  

But then, he said, he gradually began to draw inspiration from a new generation of journalists entering the workforce who lacked some of the inhibitions that many veteran journalists had.  

“Somehow, I’m the oldest guy in the room talking to these younger people about what the possibilities might be,” he said. 

Archibald pointed to collaborating with younger journalists as part of what allowed him to pursue new projects in new mediums, including podcasts, videos and cartoons.  

“All of a sudden, while all of the people I had grown up with in this business—many of them had left or were just mad because we didn’t do things how we used to do them—had gone and found other things to do, and I was somehow being pulled along on this sort of journey of trying to reach people in different places,” he said, adding, “It saved my life so much because all of a sudden it was fun again.” 

Archibald admitted that breaking into writing-based industries can be difficult, but added, “But these crazy times provide a whole lot of crazy opportunities too.” 

These opportunities allowed Archibald to continue to pursue writing stories that spoke to people’s lived experiences. In talking about his work covering the over-policing of Brookside, he said that the response from town residents reminded him of why he does his work.  

“I’ll never forget, one woman, she came and said, ‘I got my life back.’ And, you know, people ask me why I do this and that’s — that was about as good of an answer as I could ever hear,” he said. 

As for the future of journalism and writing, Archibald is not letting change daunt him. 

“I’m not known as an optimist. I don’t know if y’all know that,” he said, “But, I’m fairly optimistic because the people who want to do this kind of work have got to be a certain type of person who is bold and willing to take chances and willing to risk doing it to do the work. And if those are the people who get into the business, the business is going to be okay.” 

Tying it back to Field’s poem, he concluded, “As long, I think, as we focus on the poetry, you know, we’ve got a chance of pulling it off.”  

Following his lecture, Archibald fielded questions from audience members in a Q&A session. Topics of discussions included Alabama politics, advice to aspiring journalists and anecdotes about his time working in newsrooms. 

The Hallie Farmer Lecture Series occurs every two years, and seeks to honor the legacy of former UM faculty member Dr. Hallie Farmer. Farmer served as chair of the Department of Social Sciences at Montevallo from 1927 until 1956. Farmer was also an advocate for social reform in Alabama, campaigning for prison reform, repealing poll taxes and improving legislative processes.  

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Cady Inabinett is the editor in chief of The Alabamian. She’s majoring in English and double-minoring in political science and peace and justice studies. She enjoys reading, watching movies, caring for houseplants and generally just being pretentious in her free time.