Last week, the national news media granted Alabama’s self-proclaimed “major” newspapers — the Press-Register, The Birmingham News and The Huntsville Times — some much-sought attention for their front-page special election endorsement.
Unsurprisingly, all three papers gave a full-throated condemnation of Roy Moore and endorsed his opponent, Doug Jones. The reaction from the national media was as if Jeff Sessions, George Wallace, Bear Bryant, Bo Jackson, Hank Williams, Sr., and Harper Lee endorsed Jones, which was hardly the case.
Even if you accept that the polling that favors Jones, Alabama is pretty evenly divided on the question of Roy Moore’s virtue and adequacy as a U.S. Senator. The fact that the Alabama is split, however, was not the tone of the headline-grabbing endorsement editorial.
If you take a step back from the Moore-Jones circus, you’ll find this is just symptomatic of Alabama’s newspapers of record. They simply do not offer accurate or even adequate readings of the state’s local metaphorical temperature, i.e., they are out of touch.
The local media’s inability to connect with the average Alabamian is not just the usual run-of-the-mill liberal bias you find at most media outlets — where the reporters see journalism as social work. The problems impacting Alabama news media is a more significant institutional problem.
The late Andrew Breitbart coined the phrase “politics is downstream from culture,” and it applies here. Upstream from J.D. Crowe’s political cartoons, John Archibald’s blog posts and preachy AL.com editorials is the embrace of a culture that is foreign to most people inside the state’s borders. The reporters and editors who work for Alabama’s local papers embrace a view of the world that strives for the cosmopolitan and cultured.
Once you get past the high school football scores and police blotter coverage, the editorial direction takes a left-of-center tack but disguised by a folksy, down-home façade. Think of it like this: When you go to one of those restaurants that advertise southern-style cuisine in a trendy part of Manhattan. The collard greens are organic. The coffee is fair trade. The “fork-and-knife” fried chicken is free-range hens.
Sure, it’s got all the stuff on the menu that checks the boxes of “Southern Cuisine.” But it is obviously catering to an entirely different customer than the blue-collar worker on a lunch break getting his meat and three at the greasy spoon diner off Moffett Road in Semmes.
That is in the realm of where we are with the group of newspapers under the umbrella of Alabama Media Group’s AL.com. It’s a newspaper that wants to be in the NPR “All Things Considered” genre when most people in the state want family-fun slapstick “Rick & Bubba.”
While the editorial direction of the paper tries to find a down-home angle for the latest art gallery, it ignores entire swaths of audiences. For example, a lot of Alabamians are outdoorsmen. There was once a time when the papers had reporters solely dedicated to hunting and fishing beats. Now, unless there is some tree-hugger angle, rarely, if ever, do you see that coverage.
There are also people in Alabama who like motorsports. All over the state, there are local asphalt and short tracks — in Mobile, Opp, Birmingham, Loxley, Phenix City — that host races. You would not know it by reading the self-proclaimed “major” newspapers.
The modern incarnation of these newspapers and its website AL.com is not Alabama. If people are supposed to accept a front-page editorial slamming Moore as reflecting the sentiment of the state, how about starting with some other things beyond politics.
Last year in the throes of the presidential election, the Alabama Media Group newspapers endorsed Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. In an Oct. 9, 2016 editorial headlined “We’re with Hillary Clinton. Frankly, Donald Trump’s dangerous,” that same editorial board called Trump “dangerous” and said he was “a narcissistic, childish bully.”
Alabama voters went nearly 2-to-1 for Trump.
Days after their editorial, the media group’s Vice President of Content Michelle Holmes dismissed concerns about the papers’ disconnect with Alabama voters.
“We’re not out of step with the multitudes of Alabamians who stand for decency, who stand for loving their neighbors,” she said in an interview with NPR. “One out of three people here voted for Hillary Clinton. That’s certainly not going to win any election. But in terms of the fabric of society, we are not the monolithic right-wing state that many outside of Alabama see.”
Here is what the people who are running the Alabama Media Group need to figure out: You are supposed to be the local paper of record. You are not the Huffington Post. You are not Salon. You are not supposed to be the niche NPR/Slate-style laboratory that steers Alabama to being a bastion of progressive idealism.
No, Alabamians are not “hungry for smart, inspiring stories,” (as Holmes said in a tweet touting her outlet’s coverage of the U.S. Senate special election) if “smart” and “inspiring” is defined by your narrow, allegedly cultured, and surely leftwing perspective.
A lot of Alabamians just want the news. They want to know what kind of shady behavior their local politicians up to or why traffic on Airport Boulevard has been horrendous for the last 40 years. If they wanted to know why Donald Trump is a nincompoop, they would just turn on CNN for an hour.