3-6 JM Column

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 14, 2004

They all stood in circles, sipping weird drinks and trying to match tweed jackets with silk ties. They were editors and publishers of Alabama newspapers gathered (albeit in Auburn) for our annual winter convention.

Professionally, I would be ill-served to make fun of the wide array of personalities that constitute a collection of newspaper folks, but really, it was a tweed convention. And though our convention would never qualify for a pull-out section of GQ magazine (maybe Gee Whiz magazine) there’s something awe-inspiring about standing in a room of the men and women who literally shape the minds of the Alabama public.

To put it simply, these people really do care. They worry about how to better serve their respective communities. They have a personal passion for improvement. And that passion grows deeper when newspaper folks begin a discussion on government bodies which try to hide information from the public.

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If you surveyed journalists in this state, you’d quickly learn that this industry doesn’t make millionaires out of many. In fact, it’s a tough field — financially — in which to work.

That doesn’t mean journalists go without reward. For a newspaper writer to find an issue that touches people within a community creates an adrenaline matched only on an athletic field. Even more gratifying, though, is when the community reacts — not to the newspaper but to the issue.

During the convention of editors and publishers, over and over again I heard stories of different cities in Alabama where the newspaper helped create some sort of progress. And throughout the weekend conference, editors consistently discussed the way their citizens interact with the newspaper.

One editor, in particular, said the feedback section of his newspaper was more popular than any other section.

That got me to thinking, which in itself is a dubious task. Actually, I’ve thought a lot about the interaction between readers and newspapers in this region of Alabama since I’ve lived in Demopolis, and to be blunt, it’s non-existent.

In some ways, maybe citizens just don’t care about the events in their community as much as we’d like. But on the other hand, I believe newspapers are to blame for the lack of response generated from local citizens.

There was a time in Demopolis when our newspaper did very little in the way of addressing the public need. The Times, for all intents and purposes, served as an avenue for advertisers to spend their money while press releases from all over the state filled the spaces in between the ads.

Readers are not dumb. When someone purchases a copy of The Times, he obviously wants to read about Demopolis and West Alabama. This newspaper lost trust with its readers, and we probably alienated many others who refused to buy what is intended to be a voice for the very people who read it.

On the other end of the spectrum, I firmly believe newspapers in West Alabama have estranged their readers by capitalizing on shock value rather than community value. Whether you believe it or not, newspapers have an immeasurable ability to push a community up or drag a community down. And where you find a strong community, I believe you’ll also find a strong newspaper that takes on challenging issues while exposing the positives.

After a recent opinion was published in our newspaper, a friend called and asked what kind of phone calls we had gotten that day.

I quickly told him that not one person had called or written a letter.

“If you told them an atomic bomb was about to land in Demopolis, do you think you’d get any reaction?” he then asked.

Probably not. But is that the fault of people who read this newspaper and others in the area? Nope, it’s the fault of the newspapers. We’ve either disenfranchised our readers by giving them ads with the press release de jour, or we’ve scared them so much that they don’t want to have anything to do with the print media in West Alabama.

We newspaper folks must do a better job of engaging our readers. Readers need to demand the same from their newspapers.