There was a time when I was a young high school journalism student, so many years ago, that I thought the Montgomery Advertiser was an impressive newspaper.
That was long enough ago that I can’t say whether the Montgomery Advertiser really was once a good paper, or whether, as is often the case, the lesson is that children are idiots. But I sure did think it was good. I would read every issue I could find, devoting extra attention to the opinion pages, the columns of Alvin Benn, and local sports coverage. It had some heft. It made our small town daily, with its two or three “news” articles each day, look like tissue paper.
Since that time, I grabbed myself a fancy journalism degree from a top college of journalism and learned a lot more about the economics of the newspaper industry (see also: implosion). I began to develop opinions about Pulitzers and the companies that own the newspapers. Even as I veered from practicing journalism into law school, I still read a lot of books about things like media consolidation, and devoured all of the navel-gazing stuff from Romenesko and Brill’s Content.
And honestly, all that is a long and roundabout way of saying that I’m totally qualified to say that the Montgomery Advertiser sucks … and it’s a damn shame. Hell, any reader can see it. You don’t need to know jack about journalism to know that the Montgomery Advertiser is a shadow of something worth reading.
Big cities need daily newspapers. It’d be great if they had more than one, since the competition inspires excellence. And those days are almost certainly gone forever. Most startups, even weeklies, seem doomed to fail. Advertising dollars are scarce as the economy
collapses suffers. Print editions are increasingly expensive to produce and deliver, while online content still, after all these years, has yet to find a proper profitable niche (or replicable model).
And capital cities need daily newspapers more than other cities. They have a special duty to cover politics that dramatically impact the rest of the state (papers in other cities are cutting back on their statehouse political reporting for all of the above reasons). And any proud capital city worth a damn ought to take pride in covering local politics with a relentless tenacity, setting themselves up as a model for other papers around the state.
Sadly, the Montgomery Advertiser is only a model for how not to run a newspaper. The few people that haven’t been fired (or quit) can unleash a staggering torrent of details about their sorry working conditions: low pay, forced furloughs, low morale, lack of pride in the finished product. I don’t know a single friend that actually subscribes. The only time we even look at the website is to make fun of the laughable attempts at getting “page views,” (the coveted currency of the Internet era). I refer here to the “Spotted At” feature, where the Advertiser sends a (likely ashamed) photographer out to some local nightclub, where they document bar patrons in a series of unflattering photos. The idea, I guess, is that people will click on the site the next day to see their photos (or to see if they know anyone), but the result is to make our town look like a backwater of bad fashion and hair gel — and our newspaper look like a sad gossip rag.
The Advertiser has been owned by Gannett since 1995, and last won a Pulitzer in 1988. The Tuscaloosa News won a Pulitzer this year for reporting on the tornadoes that decimated that town. Grandma Advertiser (as it was once charmingly called nearly a century ago), is meanwhile struggling to provide even basic news coverage of city council meetings. I honestly can’t even think of the last important news story that they broke, compelling me to read along each day to find out more details.
• The Downtown Plume: Did you know that a huge chunk of downtown is a toxic Superfund site? It’s because of chemicals dumped over decades by state agencies and, well, the Advertiser itself, which once had printing presses downtown and used poisonous solvents to clean them. I understand you might not want to spread news of your own pending tort liability, but this is also a public health story that a) concerns the public and b) is still developing. The feds are involved and it’s impacting downtown development. Fortunately, nobody is writing regular articles about it.
• City Council: Do you have any idea what your city council member has been doing lately? Ours got elected to Congress and we rely on our neighborhood association for info about her replacement. We understand that the Advertiser’s best city beat reporter recently departed for greener pastures (Norfolk, Virginia), but things were tough even before she left. She broke a really good story about the tragic fiasco at Lincoln Cemetery (and executed great follow-up), but the fact that I can’t name the reporter who replaced her isn’t a good sign. Remember how in 2010 City Councilman C.C. Calhoun voted against a distracted driving ban and then tragi-comically told the press that he was personally planning on talking on his cell phone as he drove home? And then remember how he just recently got a DUI? Yeah, neither does anyone else. Because city council gets treated with kid gloves and no actual investigation into, say, primary documents or budgeting decisions.
• Context: Do you know anything about the city school system? We certainly try to, but since all the reporting about it is framed in ahistorical context-free terms, it comes off as a political pissing match between personalities, with little sense of what policy issues are the basis for the disputes. Yes, we know that there’s talk of pushing for a new city school system (apart from the county system). But the quality of reporting on this important topic is laughably poor. On the plus side, some of the paper’s reporting on this subject isn’t behind a paywall and instead lives on the Daily Siftings blog. On the minus side, the blog went nearly all of February without being updated and has lost the aforementioned city beat reporter that provided much of the content.
• Archives: Look, we understand that you can’t just open all of the paper’s entire history of articles to the general public for free. Fine. We get it. The paywall or subscription wall must go up at some point. But if a person wanted some journalism on, say, public health reporting, the Advertiser has nothing to offer other than an exceptionally shoddy search engine and some paywall articles to sell you. Compare that to the Philadelphia Inquirer series on violence in schools or the Austin American-Statesman series on dangerous pipelines. Oh, and that last one was published more than ten years ago and is still up for free on their website. Some papers are proud of the journalism that their employees do.
Would it kill the Advertiser to do some reporting that would appeal to someone wanting a bit of a bird’s eye view of our town, then put it on their site for free? What’s the deal with Maxwell Air Force Base? Is there an archive of all the articles about the Jubilee Cityfest? Who runs the city zoo and how much money does it make? I’d read that. What about a sub-site with a bunch of articles about the Biscuits, including the articles surrounding the team’s arrival in Montgomery and the construction of the stadium? How about an evergreen page highlighting famous people from Montgomery? What about a map, showing every part of town that got federal stimulus money? What about insight into how the city’s Latino community has reacted to HB 56?
Bottom line: They’ve got at least one good reporter over there (Bryan Lyman, who covers state politics), but not a single columnist I’d consider must-read. Ken Hare is gone. Jim Earnhardt is gone. Others, whether gone or merely playing out the string, really aren’t worth mentioning.
But our city, our proud and beautiful city, is information starved. We need and, yes, deserve better from our daily. We can’t be nourished by the free magazines that people pick up at local restaurants. And don’t suggest that blogs like this one (sporadically compiled as a hobby) can ever compete with professional journalism produced by paid experts.
The information spread around Facebook and Twitter has to come from somewhere. Somebody’s got to turn over the rocks and give people the journalism (investigative and otherwise) that makes democracy function. Because, ultimately, I think that adolescent version of myself, scanning over the pages of the Montgomery Advertiser, was probably right: That paper used to be pretty good.