For over a decade leading up to November 2022, journalist Brian Lyman served as the Montgomery Advertiser’s Capitol reporter, covering all things politics and government in Alabama.
Now, he’s leveraging that expertise to lead the Alabama Reflector, a nonprofit news site dedicated to making sure Alabamians know exactly what’s going on inside of the Statehouse every day.
The Reflector is an affiliate of States Newsroom, an organization that funds political reporting in 34 states across the U.S. with the support of donors.
“A lot of newspapers, for whatever reason, feel they don’t have the resources to commit to state capitol coverage. As we’ve seen in recent years, though, some of the most interesting legislation, and also some of the most destructive legislation, is coming out of the state capitol,” Lyman said. “When you lose that, you create a news desert. States Newsroom aims to fill in that void.”
How the Alabama Reflector operates
The Reflector publishes its articles online under a Creative Commons license, making them free to share and republish across platforms. Established news organizations like the Advertiser, AL.com and even outlets outside of Alabama have republished articles from the Reflector since its launch on Feb. 7.
“My goal for this has been to connect people to the state Capitol,” Lyman said. “I hope other news outlets see us as a support system for that.”
Since Lyman started covering Alabama politics in 2006, he developed a reputation for delivering timely, comprehensive reports on the nuances of Statehouse decisions and the powerful people involved in them. He grew used to people approaching him and asking, “What’s really going on?” And every time, he would answer: “Everything I know is in the newspaper.”
Lyman is the editor of the Reflector, overseeing coverage from three reporters on staff. He also regularly authors commentary pieces when he wants to highlight a piece of news or share his perspective on legislative issues — like when U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville recently commented on white nationalism in an interview with WBHM.
Meet the reporters
When Lyman signed on to start an Alabama affiliate of the States Newsroom in fall of 2022, the outlet didn’t even have a name. He said leadership at the national level essentially gave him free rein to design the newsroom he thought would best serve the audience in Alabama.
He quickly narrowed the focus to three areas: education, healthcare and criminal justice.
“Getting the criminal justice landscape of Alabama and figuring out what it’s like throughout the South has been the legwork that’s taking the most time,” senior reporter Ralph Chapoco said. “People have to trust me, and they don’t do that unless they get to know me.”
Chapoco previously worked as a politics reporter at Florida Today, a daily paper in Brevard County, Florida. (Like the Montgomery Advertiser, Florida Today is part of the USA Today Network.) Before that, he earned his master’s from the University of Missouri and reported in New Mexico, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Arizona.
“This is truly a different atmosphere when it comes to how we think about issues and its history,” he said.
State government and health policy reporter Alander Rocha has found this to be true as well. He hosted a health-focused podcast in northeast Georgia while earning his master’s from the University of Georgia, and he reported for Kaiser Health News before moving to Alabama.
Since joining the Reflector in January, Rocha said he’s been able to see the direct impact of his work. For example, he was the only reporter in the room when the Alabama Democratic Party eliminated its youth, LGBTQ+ and disabled caucuses earlier this month.
“I feel like if I wasn’t at that meeting, it would have been a lot of ‘he said, she said.’ It was cool to be the person to break that story,” Rocha said.
After that article was published in the Reflector, the Democratic National Committee acted, informing the Alabama Democratic Party that its actions appeared to create “the unequal treatment of minority groups.”
The Reflector’s education reporter, Jemma Stephenson, said it’s not uncommon nowadays for officials to make changes to bylaws or even state law without many people noticing. That’s why she thinks the Reflector’s focus on policy coverage is important, emphasizing that outlets across the state are able to republish it at no cost.
“We’re not competitive policy coverage. We’re collaborative,” Stephenson said. “We’re able to tell these stories about policy that impacts people’s lives, but then we’re also able to help free up time for other reporters around the state.”
Stephenson earned her master’s from Columbia University and covered education issues at the Montgomery Advertiser before joining the Reflector.
What’s coming next
From obtaining his master’s at Columbia University to earning his political prowess in Alabama, Lyman said he’s been grateful for all of the mentors and editors who trusted him to know his beat. When he would come to them with a story, they believed it would be worthwhile.
That’s the approach he is taking as the editor of the Reflector.
“It feels almost obvious, but you will write better when you’re interested in a subject than when somebody gives you something to write about,” Lyman said. “We’ve hired some very good people for the Reflector.”
With only a few days left in the current legislative session, Lyman and his reporters are ready to travel outside of Montgomery and report on the visceral impact of new legislation.
“I’m really hoping to see a lot more in the way of longform reporting, features and really getting out from the Capitol and just talking to people,” Lyman said. “If nothing else, if we can make people feel that they’re being heard, I feel like we’re doing a small service to them.”
Source: Montgomery Advertiser