I must admit to having always been a bit idealistic about the newspaper business. Ever since I first started tilting at the Spring Hill College Student Government windmills as editor of The Springhillian, I’ve felt there is some nobleness about the newspaper biz.
Before you gag too much please understand I’ve also seen the Fourth Estate at its worst and understand why reporters often rank just above attorneys and below serial killers on lists of least-favorite professions. But there are those times when it goes right, truth is spoken to power, the people hear it and something actually changes. Those are good days.
In the real world, though, newspapers are businesses just like any others and many of them are owned by the same kinds of people who will do anything to make a buck — folks who might start offering a “fourth meal” late at night when we don’t need it, or who dump grease into the sewers so they won’t have to pay for it to be hauled away, or who those throw unwanted bags of ads to hundreds of thousands of houses and won’t stop.
A long time ago newspapers became the real behind-the-scenes power brokers in this country. They picked winners, crushed opposition and then made those political puppets pass laws to protect their dominance — laws we’re still subject to today. All of this made those newspaper owners as rich as oil barons with barrels of ink to keep them in power.
That scenario rubber-stamped itself from the national stage to just about every podunk county in the U.S. of A. But, of course, things have not been so great for the newspaper industry as a whole for the past decade and many publications have begun to heave and die right in front of our eyes. In doing so, most have begun to act like any dying animal would — they claw for every dollar like it was a last breath, with little to no regard for anything else.
That in a nutshell is what we’re seeing in Mobile County right now.
The Press-Register and Alabama Media Group have become an embarrassment to the newspaper industry. I’m not talking about their journalism — judge that for yourselves. I’m talking about what a newspaper should be to its community and the behavior of this out-of-state company not only fighting to continue wildly tossing bags of unwanted advertisements and trashing yards and waterways all over the state, but then having the audacity to threaten to sue anyone who dares try to stop them.
Citizens and elected officials alike are standing by feeling powerless to stop the P-R from throwing these wet sacks in yard after yard. (Why are they always wet?) We ask them to stop, but most of the time they don’t. They don’t have to. What are you going to do John Q. Public, sue them? Get real, they’re billionaires. These guys have more money in their seat cushions than you, the city and county combined.
If you had a neighbor who continuously threw trash in your yard, things might eventually get physical. The P-R has folks come by in the dead of the night to hurl Yes! and Gulf Coast Living because if most of us saw them delivering, words would definitely be exchanged.
The mayor and City Council deserve credit for trying to stop this ridiculousness with a proposed ordinance, but it’s obvious none of them want to see the city wind up in the protracted, expensive lawsuit the AMG lawyer has brazenly promised if anyone tries to stop them. You see, newspapers have special rights.
You can bet if some other business were throwing 200,000 things a week into people’s yards, littering the streets and waterways and the mayor asked them to stop, the P-R would be writing and editorializing about them as bad corporate citizens. But these sacks of ad are “newspapers” according to AMG and covered by the First Amendment. The Founding Fathers no doubt had Pizza Hut ads in mind when they crafted that beauty.
Frankly I’ve thought the P-R wasn’t a great corporate citizen for years simply because its leadership refused to report much of what was really happening in local government. Now that no one reads them, the mask is off. Their owners in New York have shown they don’t care about this community except for what can be sucked out of it financially to prop up their statewide website.
At Lagniappe we’ve seen that firsthand as AMG along with the newspaper mafia known as the Alabama Press Association have worked tirelessly to kill a bill that would simply allow free newspapers like ours the opportunity to sell legal advertising — something that could save the taxpayers some money and would at least offer consumers more choice. Mobile’s City Council even passed a resolution asking the county’s legislative delegation to support this bill, but AMG, the APA and other local publishers terrified of competition don’t care about that. They’re used to getting their way.
So the Press-Register, Citronelle Call News and APA are working together to frighten the Mobile County delegation into defeating this bill so they can continue holding this community hostage when it comes to setting prices in the lucrative legal notices business. AMG, APA and Call News publisher Willie Gray are busy running up and down the halls in Montgomery using that old-fashioned newspaper clout to take what they want from the community — the city and county governments’ wishes be damned.
It will be an interesting few weeks coming up to see if our local officials in the city and legislature have the guts to take on the old school newspaper powers on behalf of the interests of the voters who put them there. If you, as a reader, are at all interested in seeing a stop put to these unwanted bags of ads being thrown in your yard, call or write your councilperson and let them know you support the ordinance, even if it means a lawsuit.
If you think Lagniappe ought to have the same legal rights to sell ads as the Press-Register or the Call News — as the city has requested — let your state rep and state senator know. They are being pressured constantly by the newspaper bullies to kill this bill on their behalf.
It’s been said the Press-Register used to run Mobile, and maybe in an earlier time there were people leading the paper who were from this area and cared about it. That’s not the case anymore. Now is the time our elected officials can stand up to the corporate bully AMG has become and punch it in the nose.
They can use a wet sack of ads to sop up the blood.