Tag Archives: Montgomery Advertiser

Montgomery Advertiser: The Sunday Paper

Here is a look at the Sunday paper, taken out of its protective driveway condom and laid on the floor:

The Sunday Montgomery Advertiser

The Sunday Montgomery Advertiser

Looks like a newspaper, right?

Well, once you appreciate the heft of the thing, you start to unpack it. It’s a lot of news! The most important newspaper of the week! The heavy-hitting investigative journalism gets saved for the newspaper that costs the most, right? It’s the paper that has everything: news, opinions, sports, maybe some recipes, the all-important color Sunday comics, the obits, maybe a little booklet of some coupons.

Once you unpack the newspaper, this is what you get with all of the sections laid out individually:

Sunday paper deconstructed

Sunday paper deconstructed

Now, it is important to note that only the top 4 sections are actually content that counts as “news.” You’ve got two all-purpose “news” sections, a “Metro” news section, and a sports section. You could reasonably contend that the metro section is the most important because that’s the only section where you are getting local news that you couldn’t get from other sources. News about international relations? You can get those on, say, the Internet. Local reporting is only going to come from your local reporters.

The rest of this shit? Well, it turns out that the era of the coupon booklet has been replaced by the era of Store-Specific Advertising Circular. Not only do these not include discounts, they are not generally-applicable in the sense that manufacturers’ coupons are. They merely tell me about things happening in stores that I don’t shop at. And this is useless information destined directly for the recycle bin.

It is astonishing to strip the Sunday paper of all its advertising inserts. The reassuring heft and weight of the best newspaper of the week is reduced to an emaciated husk of a thing, a flimsy scrap for the cats to curl up on.

Flying Out

There’s a lot to be said in recent weeks, about the direction of the city. A lot of questions have been raised, worth asking in public:

  • Will the departure of (Deputy Mayor) Jeff Downes and (Development Director) Chad Emerson fundamentally change the direction of the city’s development? Downes split for Vestavia and Emerson for Huntsville, both of which are richer (and whiter) than Montgomery. Who will replace their talents? Will the city keep doing the same stuff with regard to buying up buildings downtown and selling them at a loss to motivated developers? What about smart code? Will the city remain committed to spreading re-development to non-downtown areas (especially West Montgomery)? Will Mayor Strange replace these guys with visionaries or with functionaries?
  • What effect will the summer heat have on our skyrocketing murder rate? The Montgomery Advertiser has been doing something that closely-resembles journalism by running a three-part series on our violence-spike. But we need more than PR from the police chief and a college professor keen on blaming rap music for everything. We get it: Some popular music promotes criminality. But that music wasn’t just invented. So all this cultural stuff doesn’t explain the spikes. Solutions involve investing in communities and not treating them as source of potential athletes.
  • When does the substance take hold? It’s perfectly fine that the city is talking about a Wright Brothers sculpture to adorn the Wright Brothers park before we pay money for some weirdo’s private (and terrible) “Wright Brothers collection” to turn it into a Wright Brothers museum. Or bowl games. We might get some Sun Belt team to play in the Nobody Cares Bowl, which is not to be confused with the college football all-star game we launched last January. These are all terrible topics of conversation, especially if we’re not talking about anything below the surface. Does the city need some tourism stuff? Sure, the Chamber of Commerce has its place and we’re glad to attract visitors and all that. But is the newspaper doing any digging beyond helping the city publicize its various schemes? In a world where we don’t have a real alternative weekly (going, for example, to city council meetings), I expect more from our civic voices.

Just a few stray thoughts while sitting delayed in the Montgomery Airport. Speaking of which, it would do a lot for Montgomery tourism and our general reputation if they could do something about all the delays to and from Montgomery. This place should seem like an inviting destination, not a prison from which it is impossible to escape. Our sleepy, broken, lazy airport adds to the perception that nobody is in a hurry to help anybody get anywhere, certainly not if you’ve raised up the audacity to try to get on a flight out.

The Slow Death of the Montgomery Advertiser

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.

Some specifics:

• 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.

Grandma Advertiser Strikes Again

Here’s today’s featured blog from the Advertiser’s website. Now that they’ve fired most of their staff, those expecting user-generated content to replace journalism might have more of this to look forward to:

The Readers’ Choice

I filled out Grandma Advertiser’s 2010 “Reader’s Choice Awards” form. It took an excruciatingly long time – some kind of paleo-Internet form software that required you to write in nominees in dozens of categories – as if everyone who lived here would have an opinion on everything from the best nursing home, church, or wine shop. I gritted my teeth and clicked through page after page of stupid categories, but I did it. Despite my professional training, I believe that there’s something to value in democracy, in the expression of the voice of the populace.

You have not disappointed me, Montgomery. I know now that there is something to the process, and that something is revealed in your horrifyingly bad taste. There. I said it. I have defended you against all comers, against the people who moved away; against the people who are scared to walk your streets during the day, much less at night; against the Homewood snobs, Wiregrass purists, Tuscaloosa hipsters, the South Alabama gin-and-sun crowd. I once cornered an unfortunate lawyer on a cross-country flight and berated him about his decision to move his family to Auburn because your “schools were bad” – I simply observed that the flight of people like him were why the Montgomery schools were bad and waited for his half-assed and quasi-racist response.

I have staked my good name on your gentle charms, Montgomery. I have talked up your surprisingly good taste, your aspirational spirits. And how did you repay me? You have declared the Olive Garden to be the town’s best Italian food, Montgomery, and Books A Million the number one bookstore, and Hardee’s the best milkshake. That’s right, Grandma Advertiser has again come out with her annual Readers’ Choice awards (When you are thankful they got the apostrophe in the place, you know your standards have been irreducibly lowered). And if you can make it through their 1995-era Internet display function you’ll be able to discern the “tastes” of your fellow citizens.

Hardee’s? No wonder you are fat. Is this a cause or effect of your overmedication? What else could explain your persistent love for a milkshake with a flavor profile somewhere between Bhopal and BP? What explains your preference for Italian food notable for its abundance of salt, or for a bookstore that reliably stocks all the latest Tony Robbins and Joel Osteen but whose fiction begins with Grisham, dallies at Meyer and ends with King?

I did consider that perhaps your metrics were off, Montgomery. That maybe you found Olive Garden to be more reliable than Sa Za (fair enough), Books A Million more wide-ranging than Capitol Books and News (sure, if a fully articulated selection of self-help minutiae is your idea of a sufficiently wide range), that Hardee’s … well, nothing justifies Hardee’s, Montgomery. And as for the others, if those are your metrics, you are obviously doing it wrong.

Look, we won’t hassle you about saying Ixtapa offers the town’s best Mexican food. Sure, we thought it was basically a terrible grease pool papered over with bad margaritas, but it has its charms. Why bother you about that choice when we can be positively apoplectic about your decision to declare Papa John’s to be Montgomery’s best pizza? Honestly, in a town where we are hard pressed to choose between Tomatino’s, Sa Za and Sal’s, the idea that we would even discuss the home of “garlic sauce” and the specific ennui engendered by a lone symbolic pepperoncini rattling against a cheese-rinded cardboard box makes me want to vomit. In terror. Which deserves a name of its own and will be henceforth called “feargurgitation.”

Yes, we get it. We’re transplanted big city outsiders unfamiliar with your simple middle American ways. Except, um, that we aren’t. One of us is from an Alabama town that makes Montgomery seem like Manhattan, and the other of us hails from a state where people count themselves lucky to be in the same area code as a Domino’s Pizza (the state has one area code). We were also raised in families that valued the local and unique, among people who thought that handmade was good. Which is not to say that we didn’t eat plenty of bad food. Hell, just tonight we ate at Ming’s Garden. On your recommendation, Montgomery (much good that did us when we ate at East China and regretted it for days afterward – word to the wise trying to follow this year’s awards’ multiple inexplicable East China recommendations). Thanks a lot; no telling how much hot yoga it will take to make ourselves feel better after eating all that “brown sauce.”

Not that we weren’t prepared. Like all self-respecting digital literati, we get Netflix. Which means we can see what you rent. The Montgomery Favorites section, full of Tyler Perry and prominently pimping Aloha, Scooby-Doo!, set the stage for the larger curtain-pull on your profoundly bad taste. But still, we’d hoped for better. Despite our more cynical natures, we’d hoped to see you repping the Tomatino’s incomparable crust, Martin’s fried pie, Thomas’ divine buffet…but perhaps we are less gourmands than gluttons for punishment. Or perhaps we are unredeemed elitists, overdue to be hoisted with our own petard and hurled backward unconscious into a neverending sea of breadsticks and salad.