I was reminded of the tenuous nature of newspapers in this country last weekend while driving into Downtown New Orleans and seeing the all-but-demolished former headquarters of The Times-Picayune with only its iconic and somewhat strange white clock tower left standing above the rubble.
The odd building that housed The Big Easy’s oddly named newspaper (we have room to talk, right?) somehow always stood out to me as a symbol of the city’s uniqueness. But it’s gone, the victim of corporate owners who abandoned print for digital, then lost a newspaper war with The Advocate, which now owns the Picayune name and website, if not its lush history.
Mobile has its own monument to these days of woe for the “Fourth Estate” — a green glass and stone edifice on Water Street that was briefly the proud home of the Press-Register and its fancy new German press. Now what’s left of the newspaper is in Birmingham, aside from what amounts to a bureau on Royal Street that’s gone from occupying three stories to one over the past few years. Mobile lost its daily newspaper to the same corporate ownership as New Orleans’, and the carcass left being published these days couldn’t be identified by close relatives.
Not many weeks go by when someone doesn’t tell me they miss having a daily newspaper, and I’m probably asked just as often how soon it will be before Lagniappe goes daily. I guess that says there are still a lot of people who miss the sound of that newspaper hitting the front walk or porch each morning, and an equal number who don’t understand how much it costs to run a newspaper.
This is National Newspaper Week, which I suppose ranks right up there with National Mumbly Peg Week and National Three-Piece Suit Week when it comes to honors the American public greets with the biggest collective yawn. I get it. I enjoy National Bikini Week much more as well, but there’s still something to be said for the punchline to the joke, “What’s black and white and read all over?”
Recalling the demise — or practical demise — of some of our best known Newhouse-owned newspapers isn’t meant to go back over burnt ground, but is rather to point out what’s happening in so many places across the country. Towns and cities across the fruited plain are now without newspapers of any kind, or are limping along with publications that can barely get the job done.
To those who buy into “the press is the enemy of the people” blather, this may represent a comeuppance for biased reporting and arrogance. That may be true to a small degree, but mostly it represents poor choices made by the industry as a whole when the web came to life in the ’90s and newspapers didn’t realize it was about to blow them apart.
Fast forward 20 years and so many newspapers are still frantically searching for ways to stay afloat. Since 2004, according to a University of North Carolina study, more than 1,800 newspapers have closed across the U.S. That’s more than 60 dailies and 1,700 weeklies. In many instances these closures are leaving “news deserts,” especially in rural or smaller communities.
Look no further than one county west of Mobile to Jackson County, Mississippi, for a prime example. When I started in journalism at The Mississippi Press in Pascagoula, it was a 25,000-circulation daily. Now it is essentially gone. It exists only as a page or two in the Press-Register. Business people in Pascagoula have called me to ask what they can possibly do to start a newspaper because they have no one to even cover missing millions in the city coffers and corruption surrounding the hospital system. All I can tell them is it ain’t easy and people are going to have to want it.
Mobile is probably at its lowest point ever for news coverage. The P-R is no more than a bureau and most of the TV stations have ever-diminishing staffs and fill a majority of their newshole (that’s what it’s called!!) with the low-hanging fruit of crime reporting.
Over the years, the Mobile area has seen efforts of various levels of success to supplement the P-R’s coverage. Some of the more notable of those have been The Azalea City News, The Mobile Beacon, The Bayside Loafer and even The Harbinger.
Of course, Lagniappe joined this list of Port City newspapers 17 years ago with an eye toward being an “alternative” publication as well, but we now find ourselves with the duty and challenge of trying to be THE newspaper for this area. And we have been fortunate enough to grow from a 5,000-circulation bi-weekly to the state’s largest weekly, with 30,000 papers printed and distributed each week.
But while we are very fortunate and grateful to have had the support of the people of the Mobile Bay area for nearly two decades, I do want to remind readers that all of the newspapers mentioned above, including the Press-Register as an actual newspaper dedicated to this area, have gone away. There are no guarantees someone will always be “out there” covering the news.
Running a newspaper into the new Roaring Twenties means advertisers saying social media is free, so we’re going to do that. It means corporate giants in radio and TV dumping prices. It means a large segment of society buying into the notion that information gatherers are “evil” and producing “fake news.” It means combatting the notion that “print is dead.”
I know, I sound like I’m whining, but I’m not. The newspaper industry has plenty of its own actions to blame for its current state. Still, people do need to imagine a Mobile or Baldwin County where no one is “out there” covering the news.
Good newspapers do more than just report the cop shop stuff. They dig in deep and root out the real corruption. They spend hours reporting on things you really need to know that maybe you didn’t know you needed to know. (Read it back slowly. I’m pretty sure it makes sense.)
I like to think Lagniappe is fulfilling that role to the best of our ability, given our limited resources. We’re certainly proud of the series we ran this year on sex trafficking, as well as Alabama Power’s efforts to bury 21 million tons of toxic waste in the Tensaw Delta. We expanded our coverage in Baldwin County dramatically this year and now produce about eight or nine more stories per week than we were last year. We’ve uncovered a plethora of great stories in Baldwin so far and we’re just getting started. And let’s not forget all the web-only coverage.
The one thing all of our readers can do that will help ensure Mobile never becomes a news desert, helps us expand coverage and — most importantly — keeps you from missing stories running on the other side of the bay or on the web, is subscribe to lagniappemobile.com. It’s easy and only 21 cents a day — less than half of what the P-R just raised its per-paper prices.
And what better time to join than National Newspaper Week?
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