The observant reader may have noticed on page 4 we’ve run a threatening letter from a local politician’s lawyer demanding a retraction of part of a story run at the beginning of last month. You might also notice an accompanying editor’s note explaining why this letter is a baseless waste of time and resources directed by an elected official who doesn’t want to answer some very simple questions and, in fact, is trying to lawyer this newspaper into not doing its job.
Although I could explain in great detail why this case is legally pointless — the biggest reason being that nothing untrue was written — we have printed enough stories at this point about Baldwin County Commission President Chris “Doin’ the Right Thing” Elliott’s handling of his DUI last year for readers to understand exactly what he’s trying to accomplish. But seeing as this threat is coming from an elected official who ought to welcome honesty and openness, it got me thinking a little about exactly what Lagniappe does as a newspaper and what we believe this community wants and needs.
When Lagniappe started almost 15 years ago, we were just trying to fill the gaps left by the Press-Register and other major media outlets. We were the “alternative” newspaper and as such typically tried to focus on stories we thought weren’t getting enough attention. Over time we were able to grow and devote more resources to some investigative reporting, and we did work of which I’m very proud. For example, we worked for six years on the cost issues associated with Mobile County’s indigent defense program before any other local media wrote or broadcast a word. And I’m pretty certain former Spanking Judge Herman Thomas wouldn’t have ever gone to trial or been disbarred without our coverage. There are many others.
And even before the New Jersey ownership of the Press-Register fired most of its staff and rolled back to three days a week, we recognized a need in this community for tougher reporting that tried to keep elected officials on their toes. In broadcast media it’s rather common to crow over your product while newspapers generally let the work speak for itself. But maybe we’re too reticent to remind readers why they ought to be happy to have the kind of newspaper that’s not going to let a blowhard politician scare us away from getting to the truth.
I’m not afraid to say our coverage of Mobile’s 911 Board over the past few years led the way in saving the county $5 million. Without our coverage I’m not so sure Mobile County wouldn’t be breaking ground on a $40 million soccer complex that would be our next big public failure. This newspaper was certainly the only publication willing to fight City Hall when Sam Jones was mayor and routinely forced that administration to provide public information it otherwise would have buried. We even took the city and Mobile Police Department to court over their illegal withholding of records showing misspending of funds in the Police Explorers Program. We’ve been working on problems at the Mobile Housing Board for years now.
I’m not going to go on and on — but I could.
Please don’t read this as a complaint. Ashley and I realize our positive-to-negative comment ratio from readers and advertisers is probably as high as it could be. And I know we certainly aren’t perfect and there are lots of important stories we just don’t have the resources to cover. We are grateful Lagniappe has been accepted as a major part of this area’s media landscape by so many readers.
But I do think sometimes our community needs to keep in mind that supporting a strong newspaper — especially a free one — doesn’t mean just reading it. I’ve had many conversations over the years with big local business owners or decision makers who say, “What y’all do is so important to our community!” but then they spend their ad dollars with media conglomerates run by out-of-state companies, that provide weaker and weaker coverage of this area by the minute. I’m sure those same business leaders would be the first ones to complain if Lagniappe wasn’t one day able to publish any longer.
We don’t know any other way to run a newspaper except to cover the important stories to the best of our abilities, fairly and honestly. Doing that pisses some people off. Maybe Doin’ the Right Thing Elliott is one of those.
There’s an old saying in the newspaper business attributed to various people, and the gist is: “News is what someone does not want you to know, the rest is public relations.” While I think there can certainly be real news local leaders want our readers to know, a great deal of time in our office is spent trying to ferret out what they don’t want you to know.
Take for example what Elliott and his fellow Baldwin County Commissioners did just a couple of weeks ago. They voted to make it much more time consuming and expensive for citizens and nosy newspapers to use open records laws to get county information. They did it in the name of “saving money,” but it conveniently comes at a time when we’ve been looking more and more into the inner workings of Baldwin County and the fascinating connections its power brokers and elected officials seem to have.
A few years ago, Mobile County’s Revenue Commissioner Marilyn Wood attempted to charge this newspaper $1,800 for three pages of information. What’s going on in Baldwin now is the same kind gambit. And we’re the only ones covering it. If you, gentle reader, believe other media will ever take on these issues, I’ve got Chris Elliott’s Breathalyzer report to sell you.
I write all this to ask simply that you please understand this newspaper needs the support of readers and advertisers alike in order to overcome those who will fight tooth-and-nail for secrecy. Readers can buy subscriptions for home delivery. Business owners can advertise and reach 85,000 engaged, excited readers a week.
Understand that those who would rather not have the light shined their way would love to bury us in garbage lawsuits or waste our time and money trying to gather records that are owned by the people.
We’re not a multi-billion-dollar company that can airdrop lawyers in to fight bogus suits or petition for records, but we’re still the only ones who are going to really dig into things. Please remember that if you think Lagniappe is important to this community we can always use more support, and in return we’ll continue doing our best to give you this state’s best newspaper.