A Word from Woehlk: We will miss you, Phil

We at The Forum, and in Maryville, say goodbye to Phil and Chaundee Cobb as owners of our newspaper this week. I can’t put it any better than new owner Ken Garner did on our front page, so I won’t try. We all owe Phil an incredible debt as a community, and I, personally, as a particular beneficiary of his work to build a small-town journalism product that is unmatched across the state.

Part of what drew me to The Forum in the first place was that I felt Phil was a bit of a kindred spirit in that regard. His stick-it-to-the-man success story of wrenching control from GateHouse is practically a movie waiting to be made (I hear Amazon is buying up content, Phil!). It’s the kind of thing every disgruntled employee who believes in a better way of doing things dreams of. And when I fled my job in television, leaving behind an even larger corporate overlord, the possibility of sitting 20 feet away from the person with the final word on everything was certainly tantalizing.

Although Phil’s ragtag takeover of The Forum was certainly a big part of what drew me here, it’s really not one of the things I would ever think to bring up if someone asked me to describe Phil Cobb (which people frequently do, just randomly on the street).

What defines Phil Cobb, to me — if one thing can really ever define someone (which it can’t, but let’s just keep rolling on anyway) — is his kindness.

I’ve never once seen Phil treat someone like they were less than him, like they or their voice were somehow not worth hearing or taking the time to understand. Even in private, I can’t recall ever hearing Phil make such a remark. Oh, sure, he probably likes some people more than others, and I’m sure he even thinks some people have some dumb ideas — who doesn’t? But dismissive? That’s just not something I’ve seen in Phil’s repertoire.

Belief that some other people are, for whatever reason, just not worth listening to or caring about as human beings with the same thoughts, feelings and needs as anyone else permeates our discourse as a society in ways both big and small. Not just in obvious places like in politics, but in our day-to-day interactions with people we may just not like. They start to become less-than, and our compassion for them wanes, or maybe never materializes in the first place. And let’s not pretend it’s something new that we’ve just come up with or that some young generation started — it is and has always been human nature since a Cro-Magnon first gave a Neanderthal the side-eye.

Part of journalism, though, is in amplifying the voices that need to be heard, and aren’t.

One of the most difficult parts of my job when I worked in television was answering the newsroom phone. Not necessarily because it meant I dealt with all manner of angry people with nothing better to do than to call the newsroom and demand an explanation for why the anchor had the audacity to wear a different pair of glasses, but because it meant I dealt with all manner of desperate people who had nowhere better to turn for help than the television newsroom.

Some of their stories we got to tell, and it helped. Some of their stories we told, and it didn’t help. Too many of their stories won’t ever be told, because it wouldn’t have helped the ratings.

That has never, ever, been an issue at The Forum for as long as I’ve been here, because as far as I can tell, there is no one Phil Cobb thinks is not worth hearing out. As a journalistic ethos, it doesn’t mean that we only write stories that will make readers smile — but it means we do our best to make sure that if it’s in our paper, it’s a story worth hearing.

But much more than what’s on the page, Phil — and Lana, and Rita, and Twyla, and Jerry, and Skye, and Jon, and Ken, and everyone else who is and has been a part of The Forum’s family — has built an organizational philosophy around treating each other with kindness and respect. It was evident the first time I walked into the office for an interview in 2018, and it has rung true every single day since. Maybe it’s not something that’s easily noticeable after a while, it just becomes the normal way of doing things — and maybe that’s the way it should be.

But in too many places, both in newsrooms and in any other rooms, demonstrations of the value we see in others is a rare thread, so rare that it’s hard to notice it’s missing.

Thanks to Phil, kindness, respect and a commitment to quality community journalism are part of the fabric of our community now, as defining of The Forum as they are of Phil himself.

And thanks to Phil, it’s hard not to make that a part of our own fabric, too.

Geoffrey Woehlk is a reporter at The Maryville Forum.