Let’s touch first on the making of a journalist because journalists are the drivers, not computers or any other “thing.”
My career really began in 1960 in Raleigh, which became a touchstone for sizing up Alabama. I covered North Carolina Govs. Luther Hodges and Terry Sanford, who met the civil rights crisis with reasoned calm, made the Research Triangle Park into a wealth fountain, elevating and broadening the state’s world view, and rationalized its system of universities under a single president.
Next stop was Washington during the Kennedy years, where I covered Bobby Kennedy’s Justice Department. One of my last stories was the 1963 march on Washington where, even more than Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous speech, I was impressed with the power of hundreds of thousands singing their anthem, which I heard for the first time: “We are not afraid. We will overcome.” I knew then that history was on the march.
Having witnessed a New South birth 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 was here I had a front-row seat to witness the death throes of an ancient civilization, the Old South, which lasted five years, from 1965, Selma and the Voting Rights Act, to 1970 and a brilliant class of New South governors, Jimmy Carter’s class. That was an epiphany year for me as I became president of my generation’s New South movement, learning what was possible for the South at the feet of some of the best public men of the South.
So it was then I realized what models of leadership Govs. Hodges and Sanford were as I witnessed Alabama elect a succession of dimwits, dumbbells, demagogues and disappointments — with one exception, Bob Riley.
But Anniston’s story during those tumultuous years was a success story. Yes, we had a bus burning, a Klan march, racist rallies on the courthouse steps and a nightrider murder, but our leadership met the crisis with calm and effective action, endowed as they were with the founders’ civic ideal. Anniston stood tall.
Being here on the ground in
the mid-’60s was a helluva story, but it was a centering, too. It
taught me the connection between sewage grants in the federal budget and the desires of a lady in Eastaboga to have an indoor toilet.
It is this place and these people that are the primary focus of our paper.
As most of you know, we have created a foundation that will preserve a community-owned and managed newspaper for as long as Fate and technology allow. The family paper, once the dominant form of ownership, is disappearing. There are fewer than 250 left out of roughly 1,500 dailies. Their disappearance is part of a vast and growing depersonalization of society.
Let’s talk about the difference between a corporate chain paper and The Star. A corporate publisher is a manager dangling at the end of a long corporate chain; he or she either doesn’t care or can’t act independently.
I care, deeply. I was born here; The Star is a family legacy. Bob Davis and all our experienced and talented editors care, too; it is their home. You know us, and you are happy to point out our shortcomings … bless your hearts.
The Wall Street Journal isn’t going to cover Anniston’s colorful city council and The New York Times will not follow the rising football fortunes of Oxford or Wellborn. If we were gone, there’d be a near-total news blackout. Radio news is dead, Birmingham TV doesn’t cover us. We’re the only game in town.
That is profoundly important because our society is becoming more isolated and depersonalized and suffers a deficit in leadership. The presidents of local banks were generals of a civic army; their officers and directors were the officer corps of that army. That army is gone, replaced by massive corporations who do not see or care about the civic health of a city. The Victoria Inn is the last act of civic entrepreneurship by a local bank.
Today, Wall Street and Big Banks don’t care about communities; Wal-Mart and big-box stores aren’t gathering places that foster community.
We try to foster community, for instance, by using 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’re reviving an intense form of local reporting, neighborhood reports that we now call “Places.” 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 and good works, where whole towns can share the joy of their team winning a state championship.
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 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.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.