In recent history, Alabama has had little influence on presidential politics. As virtually a one-party state, Democratic and then Republican, both parties ignored the state during presidential elections. The state’s traditional June primary date was too late to have an effect on the nominating process.
But in 2008, the race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton was so close that the Alabama Democratic primary mattered, even in June. And during this year’s primary, moved up to March, the state was bombarded with robo-telephone messages and TV ads; three of the four Republican presidential candidates campaigned in the state.
The Star’s coverage of the primary focused on the state and local races. On March 11, The Star ran a useful pre-election section including sample ballots and photos and brief biographies of the candidates. Coverage was limited to primary races in Calhoun and Cleburne counties.
The coverage of election results, March 14, represented a lot of hard work on deadline. It included a box-by-box tally of all Calhoun County votes, with interviews with most winners. The total Star news staff was involved, supplemented by Piedmont Journal News Editor Eddie Burkhalter, Joe Medley from The Star’s sports staff, and Jacksonville State student journalist Brian Woodham. There were no analyses of the Calhoun County vote for the GOP presidential nomination or of the voter turnout compared with past primaries.
The March 18 Sunday Insight front carried a fine color map of the presidential primary results by county, with a good discussion of the state results. The Star’s Deirdre Long was credited with putting the map together. The writer of the information was not identified.
The Star could do a better job of covering the current legislative session. There have been locally written stories on some key issues: the sex-education bill, by Tim Lockette, March 18; the possible repeal of the handicap exemption from property taxes, by Laura Johnson, March 19; and a measure to cut school class sizes, by Johnson, March 28. These stories were helpful to an understanding of the issues.
The Star could do more to keep readers up with the progress of local and important state bills. Much information is available on state websites. There could be more interviews with area legislators and reports on their votes and positions on pending bills. A staff writer could attend occasional legislative sessions when issues of particular interest are under consideration.
An important part of putting a newspaper together is how to “play” the stories. The most important, or most interesting, stories are played at the top of pages or on the front page. The best stories go “above the fold,” the top half of the front page. Play matters. The stories “out front,” and those with the largest headlines, attract the most readers. How to play a story is a judgment call. Which are the best stories? Often it is not obvious.
Last month, I questioned The Star’s judgment in giving major prominence to a story about a sexual-harassment suit filed against a local public official. In March, I believe The Star made a poor call playing down a very important story. On March 9, The Star carried an Associated Press story about a reported FBI investigation of alleged point shaving in basketball games by an Auburn University player. The university passed information about the allegations to the Southeastern Conference, the NCAA and the FBI. The player was suspended for the final three games of the regular season and the Southeastern Conference tournament.
This story, about possible corruption in a major sport at one of the state’s two flagship universities, is important to Auburn students and alumni and to a public that closely follows major college sports in Alabama. It deserved prominent play. Instead, it didn’t make the front page or even the front sports page. It was carried at the top of Page 4B. It was mentioned on the sports first page.
In contrast, the story was carried as the leading story on the front page of the Birmingham News that day. Does this mean The Star should follow the news judgment of The Birmingham News? Not at all. But on that day, The News had it right. The comparison is not entirely fair. The News was carrying a locally written story on the Auburn situation.
Star sports columnist Joe Medley addressed the issue in his column the next day. There has been no other follow-up story in The Star.
Paul Rilling is a retired former editor at The Star.