Monday, April 26, 2010

Goodbye, Magic City, it's hard to die

It's not surprising that The Birmingham News spiked a column about what the latest round of buyouts will mean for the newspaper -- and its readers.

First off, no one likes to air the family's dirty laundry.

Second, more and more newspapers nowadays have a policy of not reporting teen-age suicides for fear of prompting copycats. And to be sure, these are days when newspapers -- the News is just one amid a legion -- seemingly are being led by adolescents hell-bent on "showing the world" by doing themselves in.

How else to explain an John Q. Editor's decision to, in effect, pull the beater into the garage, close the door and just sit there . . . for almost 30 years. Three decades. More than a generation of knowing what was coming down the pike -- what logically
had to come down the pike -- and knowing that if he sat in the car, in the closed garage, for long enough, he and everybody else in the car eventually would leave in a hearse.

Perhaps what's happening to the newspaper industry is just a "cry for help." But to qualify as a cry for help, it seems to me that
you can't keep hanging up the phone every time somebody tries to call 911.

Talk about "teen-age stupid."

IN THAT CASE, maybe it's more instructive to show, before the exhaust fumes have finished their deadly work, what will happen to the loved ones. What is happening to the would-be suicide's innocent friends, passed out drunk in the back seat.

Maybe knowledge, in this case, indeed would be power. Maybe someone would check the garage. Maybe the next angst-filled teen would think twice before "showing the world."

That, I think, is what Birmingham News columnist John Archibald was trying to do. Maybe it was a cautionary tale. Maybe it was something more urgent, like a call to 911.

Whatever the case, Editor Tom Scarritt hung up the phone.

I guess the management of the News, like all the rest of the pissed-off newspaper adolescents out there, would rather you find out what happened from the suicide note. In the ink-stained universe, this is known as the final edition, when the suicide gets to tell the world it used to be a contender.

That "we had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun. . . ."

The suicide never hurts just himself. The suicide is going to drive a stake through your heart, too. And you have a right to know.

Here's John Archibald's column . . . before you get to read another suicide note from the mainstream media.

John Archibald: You have a right to know about News buyouts

It’s hard to look at Ginny MacDonald today and not hear the Neville Brothers in my head, singing their version of that old hymn, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

Undertaker, undertaker,
Won’t you please drive real slow?
That Miss Crazy, that you carry,
I sure hate to see her go.
I hate to see her go.

Plus, I want to see the bumper snicker on her hearse. What does it say?

Reports of her death have been greatly exacerbated.

No. Ginny Mac — Birmingham News transportation diva and Driver’s Side columnist — is not exactly dead. Not to you, anyway.

But today is her last day as a full-timer in the newsroom. She’ll keep writing a weekly column on Mondays, but no more front page stories from her about bridge collapses, speed traps or trooper madness.

Why do I tell you this? Because you buy the paper, most of you, and you know Ginny. You have a right to know that she, like so many experienced and trusted news gatherers, has taken a company buyout.

Today is a dark day at The News. It marks the last day not only for Ginny, but for health writer Anna Velasco. By May veteran political writer Tom Gordon — with more stored memory than an iPad — will be gone. So will young Erin Stock.

It’s not just a News thing, it’s a news thing. They tell us, in fact, that our readership is good and ad revenue is rebounding. But technology and economics have worn on profitability in all news operations. Ours is no exception.

But it hurts. In all, since buyouts were offered in 2008, The News has lost more than 500 years of reporting experience. Decorated reporter Dave Parks — who pretty much discovered “Gulf War Syndrome” — went. State editor Glenn Stephens, who could pilot a newsroom through a storm with an even keel, is gone. Food writer Jo Ellen O’Hara left us, as did outdoors writer Mike Bolton.

We’ve lost 32 people in the newsroom. Twenty were reporters, the real workhorses.

That may look small next to losses at the Raleigh News and Observer, which has seen its news staff fall from 250 to 115, or the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which cut 93 news staffers in one chunk last year. But it hurts.

If there is good news, it is that The News still has 125 people working to gather the news in Alabama’s largest newsroom.

Still, we mourn the losses to the News family. We mourn the loss to readers, to this community, to the republic.

As legendary editor Gene Roberts told a group of journalists last week in New York, journalism job cuts are more than economic news. They’re a matter of public interest.

“This not just a problem for journalism, this is a problem for democracy,” he said. “What a democratic society does not know, it cannot act upon.”

He is right. You need to know. Think of what you know of your government, and try to separate it from the news. Alabama’s most notable corruptions — Don Siegelman, Guy Hunt, Larry Langford, Jeff Germany, the 2-year college system — all started with reporters on the ground. Issues such as the county’s bond debt and crime in neighborhoods bubble to light in the press.

Those of us left in the newsroom will keep digging. For readers. For the republic. For ourselves, for Ginny and Dave and Anna.

We believe there will always be a need, and a market, for news.

There better be. News, as Roberts put it, is “democracy’s food.”

“If we are going to come up with solutions, then democratic society has to understand that there is a problem,” he said.

It’s not just our problem.

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