I’ve spent the last several days getting things together to enter in the Alabama Press Association’s Better Newspapers contest, and it gave me a chance to look back over the 2019 output from your favorite weekly newspaper.
I’m going to take a moment and brag on the people who write for Lagniappe and say looking back on the sheer amount of work produced last year was impressive — especially considering we have just three full-time reporters covering our community. While I always wish we could accomplish more, I’m proud of the stories we brought to you last year.
In 2019 we started producing a Baldwin edition of Lagniappe, which means we went from roughly one or two stories a week from across the bay to more than 10. This was no small change for us and has required a lot of hard work by Bureau Chief Gabriel Tynes and reporter John Mullen to try to cover the geographically largest county in the state. And Baldwin also is a county not used to a lot of scrutiny, which often shows in the way some public officials react to tough questions.
We’ve gotten quasi-threatening letters from lawyers and even had Circuit Court Judge Clark Stankoski allow his buddy James Pittman to subpoena Lagniappe for protected conversations between our reporters and sources, which is unheard of and unconstitutional. I have zero doubt it’s all because our reporting has ruffled feathers in Bay Minette.
We’re also in the midst of trying to get the Alabama Supreme Court to force Sheriff Hoss Mack to make public body-cam footage leading up to one of his deputies shooting a motorist with a high-powered rifle and killing him for having a fanny pack in his hand. The sheriff and another Baldwin judge are trying to keep that footage from being seen, but no one will explain how the situation went from a guy having a wreck to deputies standing back away with weapons drawn as this injured man left his vehicle.
I just bring these up as examples of the kinds of things newspapers do for the community. While we live in an age when everyone screams “fake news!” anytime they don’t like a story, newspapers are still vital to keeping the public informed and the politicians in check. If we weren’t here, who would do this work?
Lagniappe started a “paywall” on our website almost a year ago, and I still routinely hear complaints from people who think the news should be free or who don’t think it’s worth 21 cents a day to have access to everything we do. Occasionally, I’ve even had someone tell me we already make enough money and shouldn’t try to charge for news.
Most of the complainers forget everyone paid for news for centuries. The idea that newspapers should give away the work they do is a very new construct. People also like to think of TV news as free, even as most viewers are paying a monthly cable bill 15 times higher than the cost of reading Lagniappe online for a month.
Of course, our print product is still free, but I would also point out that non-subscribers are missing out on all the breaking news, all the stories from the other county’s edition they didn’t pick up and unlimited access to our archives, with years of information that can come in pretty handy when you’re trying to get up to speed on a subject.
If this comes off as a sales pitch for subscribing to lagniappemobile.com, that’s because it is. We’ve had a lot of support in our first year, but more subscribers will help us expand and cover even more. I’m hoping some of you on the fence, or who have felt the convenience of reading news online should be free, might rethink that position and consider what it means to have a vibrant local newspaper.
And I’m not complaining. Lagniappe has been blessed to have such great support from readers and advertisers over the past (almost) 18 years, but there is so much more we could do.
Looking back at 2019, here are some of the things Lagniappe produced that nobody else in our area did:
- More than 20 news articles and opinion columns about Alabama Power burying 21 million tons of toxic coal ash at Plant Barry in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.
- An investigation into why Mobile Municipal Court Administrator Charlie Graddick was filling in as a judge when he hadn’t been appointed to do so.
- An investigation of Mobile Metro Jail conditions that included what’s happening with mentally ill patients and also pointed out the broken cell door locks inmates could easily open.
- An investigation into the confidential, 22-year contract given to Valor Hospitality to run Gulf State Park. The state has refused to produce the contract.
- Multiple stories about issues involving towing companies and the Mobile Police Department. These stories also unearthed the fact MPD had been charging incorrectly for towed vehicles.
- The sale of 650 St. Anthony Street by the city to the people running Gulf Coast Ducks, which turned out to have centered on a first right of refusal clause in a rental contract — something the city has never done — and a three-year appraisal to set the price.
- A look into the high-speed chase in Baldwin that resulted in the death of five people after a deputy pursued a car the wrong way on Interstate 10. Neither Sheriff Mack or the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency will release information on the chase, and it had still not gone before a grand jury nine months later.
- An expansive investigation into a fraud trial involving some of Baldwin County’s biggest developers. The story unearthed a lot of information about who owns Baldwin County Sewer Service and also revealed a “straw man” plot straight out of a Grisham novel. Our coverage also led to the judge in the case recusing himself for conflict of interest.
- A heart-breaking and frightening series on the sex trafficking industry in our area.
- A multitude of stories on the saga of annexation, the Civic Center redevelopment and the futures of both Hank Aaron and Ladd-Peebles stadiums.
Those are just a few of the stories we took on last year. The list could go on and on. I also don’t want to forget about our regular features covering sports, cuisine, arts, music, film, politics and business every week.
Maybe the next time someone calls the press the “enemy of the people” or says “print is dead,” you’ll think about the fact the Mobile area still has a newspaper willing to dig in and take on the tough stories. Becoming a subscriber will only help us get better.
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