H. Brandt Ayers JSU lecture
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H. Brandt Ayers JSU lecture - Part 1

H. Brandt Ayers JSU lecture - Part 2

50 SHORT YEARS IN JOURNALISM

AYERS LECTURE

March 25, 2010


Journalists are shaped by family, education, chance, circumstance and by the rise and fall of the great seas of history. They are the drivers, not technology, which is a platform from which journalism is done. A new technology has arisen today, which raises the big question: Will newspapers survive the digital age?

I’ll take a shot at that question later but first let’s focus on the making of a journalist, and some lessons he learned along the way.

My career really began in a Tuscaloosa bar, where the legendary Gene Patterson, then editor of The Atlanta Constitution, had accepted an invitation for a nightcap from a cheeky young college boy. We closed the bar, and in the process he gave me the essential reading list for a Southern journalist. Before jumping out of The Star’s nest and landing a reporting job on The Raleigh Times, I was lucky. Every reporter has to have a juicy murder and mine was a doozy. Viola Virginia Hyatt killed her two lovers with shotgun blasts, then took an ax to them and left parts of them all over northeast Alabama. When the sheriff brought her back from her sanity hearing and put her in the jail’s tiny elevator, I walked in with them and found myself belly to belly with an ax murderess. All I could think of to say was how I felt, “Are you scared?” After prison, she led a quiet, blameless country life. I learned from Viola something about human nature: the one violent act in her whole life was triggered by being shamed, demeaned.

My assignment in Raleigh was more uplifting; I covered North Carolina governors Luther Hodges and Terry Sanford who met the civil rights crisis with reasoned calm, made the Research Triangle Park into a wealth fountain which elevated and broadened the state’s world view, and rationalized its system of universities under a single president. I was so green I thought they were doing what governors normally do. I didn’t realize they were models until Alabama elected a succession of dimwits, dumbbells and demagogues with one exception, Bob Riley.

Next stop was Washington during the Kennedy years where I covered Bobby Kennedy’s Justice Department. Bobby was not a beloved figure in Alabama at the time. When I told him mother had written me that her friends thought it “interesting” that he and I had become close personal friends, Bobby responded, “Waal, Braaandt, that must work a considerable haadship on you.” One of my last stories was the 1963 march on Washington where, even more than Dr. King’s famous speech, I was impressed with the power of a movement whose stirring anthem declared: We are not afraid. We will overcome. I knew then that there would be trouble and violence ahead.

Having witnessed a New South aborning in North Carolina and statecraft at a high level in JFK’s Washington, I wasn’t prepared for the call to come home, which was on Old South time. Back home, views that were conventional in North Carolina and Washington were radical in George Wallace’s Alabama. It is an extraordinary experience that very few people have to be a liberal-minded native son in a civilization that is undergoing violent death throes. It is to be inescapably, even willfully, one with a people whom you love but who disappoint and hurt you; it is to simultaneously love and despair of your home state. To understand these people, my people, as I did in time, is to know that they have been stifled by lousy schools, gulled by demagogic politicians and scorned by elites North and South. In important ways, they did come around but the totality of the experience has produced a political culture of fighting-mad resignation: I’m mad as hell but I’m not gonna do anything about it; not another dollar in taxes!

Somehow we survived, as this ancient civilization, with its evil laws and its wonderful charms worth preserving, died and sank to the bottom of history. The death throes lasted five years, from 1965 and the Voting Rights Act to 1970 and a brilliant class of New South governors, Jimmy Carter’s class. I had something to do with spreading the New South gospel and with the Carter presidency but that’s another story for another day. Alabama was absent from the roll call of progress in 1970. We reelected George Wallace.

Coming home when we did in the mid-1960s put me on the ground in the middle of one of the most exciting and meaningful stories in the nation’s history but it was a centering influence in other ways, too. As a Washington correspondent in the glamorous Kennedy years, I hated the drudgery of digging out water and sewage projects from the federal budget to write short stories for papers my news bureau represented. That was boring or so I thought until I came home and learned about a woman in Eastaboga. She was so thrilled that water and sewage would be extended to her area that she got carpenters and plumbers to build her a bathroom. Every day she’d open the door and look in, anticipating the day she’d be hooked up. When Congress cancelled the appropriation, it was a crushing disappointment for that lady. She taught me something about the ultimate meaning of what they do up in Washington.

The New York Times did a piece about the institute we’ve created that allows us to maintain our papers as community institutions for as long as fate allows and asked, “Why did you do it?” I said I didn’t want an impersonal, uncaring chain running the paper, but there was another picture in my mind. You’ve been to expensive restaurants and seen wealthy, bored couples dining wordlessly? They have nothing to say to each other because they haven’t done anything for 10, 20 years. Josephine and I didn’t want to be one of them.

If we’d sold we would have missed knowing some great characters, a lot of fun, some danger and more than a little excitement but that’s in the past, the important question now is where are we in the technological parade. Pushing the rewind and play buttons on 50 years in journalism is to watch a jerky replay of one technological revolution after another leading to…what? That is the main question, technology is driving somewhere but will we like the destination when we get there?

For me it all began in the sweaty back shop of the “old” Star building, a two-story structure on 11th Street. My first job was pouring “pigs” for the linotype machines. Bear with me as we return to the dawn of newspaper technology. It was a simple job: dipping a ladle the size of a normal head into a vat of molten lead and pouring the lead into long, slender iron forms which, when cooled, would be hung so they melted into the “hell box” of the linotype machines.

These are the extinct behemoths of newspapering: 2,645 pounds of steel, nearly seven feet high with arms moving like praying mantises. An operator typing on an oversized keyboard with each stroke squirted drops of molten lead into tiny forms, a process that sent words racing along tracks and gave off clicking, clacking sounds as if the steel insects were communicating with each other. A semi circle of the arm-pumping, clicking, clacking steel insects produced columns for the day’s paper, which would be cast in lead and put on the press. In time, perforated tapes came into use, which allowed one operator to run the entire semi-circle of linotypes. Then came photo offset printing, which sent the behemoths off to a Jurassic Park of extinct technologies, and finally computers, which allowed reporters and editors to do all of the work that once was done in a loud bustling back shop filled with craftsmen and characters and archaic rules.

New laborsaving technology and the lift of a rising Southern economy from the 1960s on meant that The Star and newspapers everywhere in the region were making money. But the family paper, which at the end of World War II was the dominant form of ownership, was disappearing, too. There are now fewer than 250 family newspapers out of roughly 1500 dailies. Their disappearance is part of a vast and growing depersonalization of society. Large families clamoring for bigger and bigger dividend checks made it difficult to run a good paper. Crippling federal inheritance taxes made it next to impossible to pass the paper on to another family member. Too many family publishers simply threw up their hands and sold to big corporate newspaper companies or private investment firms. Years ago one such investment firm with an excess of profit it didn’t want to pay in taxes made a cash offer of $50 million for our company. We said thanks, but no thanks.

When a family member or at least a publisher who makes a career in the community is no longer head of the local paper, the intensity of the paper’s commitment to community pales and withers. Investment banks don’t know how to run newspapers and great corporations can’t or don’t take into account relationships between a local paper and its community. At professional seminars, I have described the relationship in these terms: “The human dynamic of the relationship between one family and an entire community is unusually close and caring, but sometimes jarring and painful… It is precisely that sensitivity that gives a family newspaper its unique personality. It may be less objective in its editorial voice than a chain newspaper, but it is more caring. It scolds, supports, consoles and chides. It hurts and is hurt, and it loves -- like any slightly dysfunctional family.”

Metropolitan papers in such cities as Atlanta and Chicago harmed themselves, I believe, by an arid, depersonalized distance from their readers, and in the 21st century’s digitized universe, the metros also suffer from a multitude of wounds: Free online classifieds killed the golden cash cow and offered a galaxy of competitive sources for information about anything from autos to international reporting. I measured the distance between Chicago newspapers and its people in 1976 when I went there to do a column about Jimmy Carter’s problem with ethnic Catholics. They had reporters covering everything from autos to zoos, but when I asked editorial colleagues at The Sun-Times for sources such as parish priests or neighborhood organizations the editors were clueless. I concluded that in Chicago if you weren’t raped, murdered, involved in a sex or political scandal, you didn’t exist in the consciousness of the local papers..

As metros began to lose advertising and circulation, they began to discover their readers and had fits of “hyperlocalism.” If their fitful search for connection with local readership produces more community journalism, the divorce may not be final. I hope they reconcile. We need them to keep big city politics clean and metropolitan civic and cultural life vital. But these are parlous times for journalism; big city newspapers and networks such as ABC are disgorging so many reporters that the profession looks like a scene from the sinking of the Titanic. ABC is shrinking fast, so is CBS, which is considering partnership with CNN. Cable news, which is both tiresomely repetitive and increasingly opinionated, has eroded trust in media generally. When you have the angry liberalism of Keith Olberman erupting from MSNBC on the left and on the right is the selective journalism of Fox News starring the loaded irony of Sean Hannity. When both of these propaganda organs are billed as news, no wonder the public is confused and cynical. Recently, the great Wall Street Journal fell from family control into the tender hands and sensibilities of Rupert Murdoch, who ruined the great Times of London and wrapped his political philosophy in a television network, Fox News.

But we still have community papers that, whether delivered on paper or dots on a screen, are more accountable because their owners go to the church or grocery or movie or restaurant that you do. They are accessible, their numbers are in the phone book and in the paper, and because they are accessible, they are more believable. Jayson Blair, the reporter who made up stories for The New York Times, wouldn’t last long at The Star. We had a Jayson Blair, but local people help us by quickly pointing out our inaccuracies or inventions, bless their hearts. As I recall that reporter was gone in a matter of a few weeks.

The conditions faced by newspapers in the early years of the 21st century has lead some informed people to doubt that community newspapers would survive. The drought of advertising caused by the Recession took its toll on the economics of all media, including our family newspaper and tested the spirit of its leaders.

Which brings us back to the beginning question raised by the latest turn of the technological kaleidoscope: it is leading to…what? Readers will not rely on our print or digital editions as their only source of national or international news or to feed their interest in, say, antique cars or coin collecting, there are online sites to satisfy those interests. But the Wall Street Journal isn’t going to cover your mayor’s race and The New York Times will not follow the rising football fortunes of Oxford or Wellborn. Only our printed papers or web sites will do that. In fact, we like many regions across the nation, would be in a news blackout zone if it weren’t for us. There hasn’t been radio news in years, our local network TV station was lost years ago and the Birmingham TV stations devote scant attention to news of our area unless there happens to be a train wreck or a tornado. We’re the only game in town.

That is profoundly important because our society is becoming more isolated and depersonalized. We used to go to the same movies, have a coke after the show at a local drugstore, watch and talk about the same shows on three TV networks; the three local banks provided civic leadership. Today, Wall Street and Big Banks don’t care about communities; Wall Mart and Big Box stores aren’t gathering places that foster community.

We try to do that, but I have to admit that when the internet first loomed, we did a dumb thing. We put everything we had on our web page, everything created by educated, experienced, salaried and insured journalists; we put it all out there absolutely free so that we could get “hits” that would convince advertisers to support what we were doing. Circulation shrank, and why not. Why pay for it if you can get it free? We wouldn’t think of giving away the product produced by our expensive mechanical presses, why give away the store just because the new printing press is electronic?

When the light bulb of insight finally dawned, it occurred to us that we can use the new press to cover one of the great neglected stories, normality, life as it is lived. News is by definition abnormal: it chronicles the very good, the very bad, the interesting, entertaining or bizarre. But it is the tidal flows of normality that give context to the news. We can and do, for instance, use the new electronic press to allow mothers to chat with other mothers about their children and their lives; to offer each other encouragement and exchange pictures and tips. We couldn’t do that with our mechanical press, which prints on paper that is priced like gold. We’re reviving an intense form of local reporting, neighborhood reports that we now call ”Places.” We hope reporters flooding a neighborhood like the recent series on Wellborn will locate volunteer reporters in each neighborhood to talk to us on our free web page about even mundane things: a blocked drainage ditch causing flooding or the good news of a young family with children moving in to add new vitality to the neighborhood. Over time, we would like to encourage readers to use our web pages as a town square or back porch where people can drop by and pass the time of day about local affairs or cordially argue with each other.

Until somebody repeals human nature there is only one platform – print or electronic -- where 4-H Club winners can be seen by their parents and friends, where the United Daughters of the Confederacy can display their outrageous hats, ample bosoms and good works, where whole towns can share the joy of a high school team winning a state championship, homeowners can learn if crime has touched their neighborhood, whether the local schools are achieving or falling behind and find out what city or county government is up to.

As long as there are mothers to cry at their daughters’ weddings, as long as there are fathers to swell with pride at their sons’ exploits on the football field, as long as people fear crime, are suspicious of local politicians, cheer for the economic boost of a new industry, want to know what’s for sale at the mall or mourn the death of a beloved citizens, as long as people want to share with others, there will be a need for someone to connect them. So, no, newspapers aren’t dying. Regardless of whether the paper is delivered on paper or by pixels, human nature is a constant: it is a centripetal force, constantly drawing us to a center. Call it the town square or the back porch.

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