My Birmingham News appeared on the driveway this morning, bearing the expected news of Auburn’s win over Missouri in the SEC Championship.
But the bigger Page 1 story was about woman who collects Santa dolls. It “jumped” to the formerly precious Page 5, where it shared the page with a column about potholes and traffic. Page 2 offered up celebrity birthdays. Page 6 was “this day in history.” Page 7 was dominated by a story about UAB needing volunteers for a diabetes story.
And then there was the biggie on page 10 – the Weinermobile visiting Gardendale.
All I can do now is sigh and remember when I was a kid (I was just 30 when I exited the business in 1984 for a public relations career and a bigger paycheck). The second floor at 2200 Fourth Avenue was a busy, noisy place filled with people who felt they were doing something that mattered. We had dropouts and Ivy Leaguers. Hard-bitten old guys who drank too much and got too chummy with sources. Idealist kids who still hadn’t started to figure things out. We weren’t in it for the money, and we didn’t get much of it.
But we had something today’s reporters don’t have: A world – and a management – that believed that news mattered. A beautiful, ugly world where elbows and other things occasionally got thrown, and where we laughed and sometimes cried. There would be a shouting match now and then when a reporter and editor (shall we say) worked through their differing visions of how a story should shape up.
And the truth is that we had an extraordinarily well trained, talented and committed group of folks. Many moved on to the big time. (I had a long list of names here, but I deleted it because I’d never get the list right.)
To be sure, there were problems. The paper had shamelessly fought the civil rights movement and relegated news about black people to what one black co-worker called “the black page,” right next to the obituaries. We carried the water time and again for the local powers that be.
But at least the Newhouse family (which still controls The News and AL.com through Advance Publications) – kept its paws off and let the local publishers (the Hanson family) run it as long as the paper made money – which it did.
Most importantly, we had something the newsroom has lost: A knowledge that when the chips were down, we’d get the resources and the backing to do the right thing. If there was good enough evidence of corruption, they’d turn loose a reporter on it long enough to work the sources, look through the files, and get the story. If the city council or school board tried to shut the doors of public meeting, our lawyers would back the reporters and, if necessary, go to court. When a major advertiser, or bank president, or the family member of the publisher got arrested, the story would usually find its way into the paper. Not always without a fight, but in the end, our beliefs in what we were doing won out.
We let people cover their beats. Sure, reporters goofed off. We wasted time. But that was part of the game. Sometimes you had to spin wheels to find the tidbit, or gain the perspective, that lets you really understand and explain a story. Nobody was telling us we had to file four stories a day, shoot our own photos, and post some video to Facebook. Not every story can be covered properly with two interviews and a cloud of dust. If you goofed off too much, you got a bad reputation and somebody tightened your leash. You got to write stories about garden clubs and such. The system worked.
We wrote our share of mindless trivia and soft features. Young and underperforming reporters got a steady stream of mundane assignments. (My story on a lady’s crusade to establish a rhododendron garden at the Botanical Gardens is a painful reminder of my own rookie season.) For years, I wrote a useless weekly column about food prices. The job consisted of calling the same people every week – a grocery guy, a produce guy and a meat guy – and having them say “yeah, prices are going up on buttermilk.” People still remembered that stupid column 20 years later.
We had stars, ass kissers and assholes. Some of us got to play most of those roles from time to time.
But that’s OK. We had a big paper to fill, and most days we went through four editions, with deadlines from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. It was a massive job, and our idea of technology was an electric typewriter and a pneumatic tube to carry stories upstairs to the typesetters. Somehow, we got it done every day.
Today’s paper made me sad. There are still very good people trying to produce a good product. People who are better trained than we were, who believe in the same things just as passionately.
But there are far too few of them, and they are spread too thin to do much. So we settle for weinermobiles and celebrity birthdays.
To this day, the greatest job I’ve ever had was that of a reporter. If I could wake up tomorrow and do whatever I wanted for a living, I’d gladly put on a cheap suit and drive downtown to do it all over again.