After 36 years on the editorial staff of Business Alabama, most of them as editorial director, Chris McFadyen has opted for retirement.
Alec Harvey, a veteran journalist with the Birmingham News, AL.com and most recently at Auburn University, is taking the helm of the magazine as of September 1.
While McFadyen was based in PMT Publishing’s Mobile office, Harvey will work from the firm’s Birmingham office. Erica West, Nedra Bloom and Brittany Kenny round out the Business Alabama editorial staff with much of the feature content prepared by a group of experienced freelance writers and photographers.
A Sheffield native who grew up in Birmingham and graduated from Mountain Brook High School, Harvey had no thoughts of a journalism career when he headed off to Auburn University, even though his mother had a career with Oxmoor House, editing books for Southern Living, Cooking Light and related publications.
But in his early days at Auburn, an older fraternity brother drafted several pledges to handle an emergency at The Plainsman. At the time, he admits, he didn’t know what The Plainsman was, “But I got there; I loved it, and I never left. Now that would be considered hazing, but it was ok back then, and it set me on a career path I had never thought of.”
“Now I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
He worked as a stringer for the Birmingham papers while at Auburn, but took his first job with the Meridian Star in Mississippi, writing everything from business to crime to features. He left for graduate school at the University of Alabama, but stopped before earning his master’s because he had a job offer from the Birmingham News.
For one day — less than enough time to complete a single story — he worked as a county government reporter, before being transferred to the higher education beat. When the opportunity arose to become TV critic, he jumped at the chance — and for the remainder of his time at the News, his titles were within the features department, culminating in 15 years as the features editor. In that role, he created the award-winning weekend entertainment section City Scene.
When the News and other Newhouse papers in Alabama joined AL.com, the company’s digital venture, Harvey became managing producer for business, entertainment and sports. That’s just another term for “editor,” he says, and once again he loved it, later becoming statewide entertainment and feature producer.
But his alma mater was restructuring student media, and in 2015 he went back to Auburn as editorial adviser for the newspaper, TV station, radio station, yearbook and literary magazine.
“It was full circle because 30 years after editing the Auburn Plainsman, I became their adviser. I loved getting back to Auburn and working with students and training new journalists,” he says.
A former national president of the Society for Features Journalism, what he missed most at Auburn was writing, a yearning he filled with freelance assignments for various publications, including a number for Business Alabama.
But Birmingham and family called. He was looking for an option to get back home when the editorial director position opened, and he knew it was time to make the move.
He is looking forward to the challenge.
“One thing that really intrigues me about business coverage is that it overlaps everything,” he says. “It’s part of everything we do. There’s always a business angle.”
So Long, Chris
Several decades back, Chris McFadyen started his journalism career at the old Azalea City News, owned at the time by current PMT Publishing owner T.J. “Jocko” Potts.
But Potts sold the weekly newspaper and McFadyen, a Mobile native who graduated from McGill High School (now McGill-Toolen) and the University of South Alabama, went looking for other work. He landed jobs as a two-way radio tower steeplejack — he has clear memories of hanging by a safety belt 2,000 feet up with a can of orange paint in hand — and as a petroleum landman, checking ownership of mineral rights in the quiet of county record rooms.
Until Potts called. Impressed by business magazines in neighboring states, the publisher was planning a statewide business magazine in Alabama and he wanted McFadyen on board. He took on the role of assistant editor under editor Rebecca Paul.
“We didn’t have as much to cover as Florida or Atlanta, for goodness sakes, but we had the port in Mobile, and construction and banking were strong in Birmingham, and the space program in Huntsville, so we had plenty to cover,” he recalls.
He took a break to earn a master’s in English at Louisiana State University, but headed back to Mobile and the world of magazine, just about the time the company bought Alabama Magazine. He was working for that statewide lifestyle publication when he tried to arrange an interview with renowned and reclusive author Harper Lee. He still has the letter she typed turning down the interview.
Potts added Mobile Bay Magazine to the mix, and for a time McFadyen edited both Business Alabama and Mobile Bay, before turning almost entirely to the business magazine just before 2010.
“What a great job!” he says. “I like learning, like all reporters do. They’re not experts but they become to some extent knowledgeable. Every time you pick up the telephone and talk to somebody new, even in just 30 minutes, you learn a whole lot.”
And the variety has been amazing over the past 36 years.
Among his favorite stories was a trio about questionable deals, hare-brained schemes and dirty elections. “It’s always fun to look on the dark side of things and remind ourselves of what can go wrong,” he says.
But watching the changes in business has been fascinating in and of itself.
“Covering Huntsville back when it was primarily the space program; getting to see the early mockups of the International Space Station being built by Boeing and tested in Huntsville and talking to Teledyne Brown and those pioneers of American enterprise was remarkable.” Even just watching Huntsville grow so fast that it could outstrip all the state’s other cities has been fascinating.
Landing the Mercedes-Benz U.S. International plant “was a surprise to everybody. I still don’t know what the secrets were in getting that plant located here. But I’m sure every state in the Southeast was competing for it. And seeing, every two or three years after that, another automotive plant coming to Alabama (and the whole Southeast) and seeing the pattern emerge in manufacturing in the U.S.
“When the older industries were being decimated by the enterprises going to Mexico and overseas for cheaper labor — we covered that as well.”
“If you stay there long enough, you get to see everything swing the opposite way.”
Despite all the changes he’s witnessed, he says, “I have never seen anything like what’s happening in the economy now. The disruption is unprecedented.” So you can bet he’ll still be watching, even if not editing the magazine.
In the meantime, he plans to do a lot of reading and listening to music and podcasts and not watching TV and not surfing the internet. And he’ll definitely keep up with his yoga — not the “gymnastics” but the stretching of body and mind with its discipline, philosophy and spirituality.
But as for writing?
Well, maybe, “the great American paragraph.”