It’s always a messy business watching a large newspaper die. And this week of June 16, 2011 we saw The Birmingham (Alabama) News scuttle itself, roll over, and began to fold itself into the Internet.
The paper announced that it would cease publication in October except for three days a week. The rest of news publication would be transferred to The News’ internet version. One suspects its operation later will segue into total electronic publication.
It wasn’t a surprise to many of us out in journalism land. Like many American newspapers, The News for decades had been losing circulation and advertising revenue. The reasons are primarily economic made worse by the four-year recession-depression that has racked the nation.
The cream of advertising revenue has increasingly gone to television and the internet. Readership numbers are collapsing. Kids nowadays get their news not from print but mainly from TV, Iphones, and Ipads. They hang on to that habit when they grow up and enter the workforce. Newspaper readers have become steadily older and more ignored as journalists fought ever harder for the shrinking youth market.
As is usual in such cases The News over the years did a great many things to hasten its own dissolution. Paramount among these was a mindless editorial policy which seemed to run counter to everything the
population of Alabama hold dear. Based in a heavily Democratic city, Birmingham, the paper remained vaguely aware but unimpressed that the rest of the state was voting mainly Republican – even worse its editors missed entirely the significance of the Tea Party movement within the Republican Party which aims to axe not only Democrats but also flabby GOP candidates with a foot in either party.
In Alabama’s recent gubernatorial election The News trotted out two establishment-backed candidates, Bradley Byrne and Tim James, proclaiming them our leading Republican contenders. All others were labeled “dark horses.” But when voting time came one of these dusky ponies, Dr. Robert Bentley, a dermatologist, skinned both candidates in the primary and went on to win the governor’s office. The News’ editors were clearly furious but for once restrained. In Bentley’s first two years resentment was expressed by subtle sniping. In one instance they printed an article by defeated GOP candidate Bradley Byrne attacking one of Bentley’s decisions. In other less obvious instances they have managed to keep the governor’s name well buried in inside pages.
In football parlance acts like these are called cheap shots.
In a state where the vast majority of people back guns and the Second Amendment, The News does not hesitate to fire at both covertly. When its editors are not bloviating on this subject via the editorial page, then columnists of the sports section pick up the cudgels and swing away. The News’ hidden crusade may have been inspired by the fate of former Alabama Sen. Howell Heflin whom voters ran out of office when he worked with ex-President Bill Clinton to craft anti-gun legislation.
The Birmingham News remains blissfully unaware that Alabamians are solidly behind the death penalty for murder. Its writers pounded the drum loudly from the editorial page to page one for abolition in favor of a verdict of life without parole. Astute readers could have told them that life without parole does not exist in a practical world. The condemned may be rescued by presidential or gubernatorial pardons. They can escape from prison. The law condemning them can be changed or rescinded.
These are not hypothetical objections. In the 1970s the staff of Tennessee Gov. Ray Blanton was nailed for selling pardons to convicts. Although Blanton was never charged in this crime, there is little doubt and a lot of suspicion as to his guilt. He was later convicted of selling liquor licenses and served prison time. Among his pardons was one Roger Humphreys, a double murderer, whose father turned out to be a Blanton’s county chairman.
It is also a known fact some murderers have broken out of prison. And as for life without parole, the legal establishment is in the process of modifying it. There’s been one ruling already holding it to be cruel and unusual in the case of juveniles. From there it is only a hop and jump to idea that it is too horrendous for everyone else. Is it any wonder that our average Alabamian feels safer when a psychopathic killer is six feet underground? None has ever returned to reprise his deadly performance.
In its relentless march to the left The News loaded down its editorial pages with columns from the Washington Post and cartoons from some of the most liberal artists in the nation. This might have earned them plaudits of most Birmingham residents, but beyond city limits the rest of the state is largely not amused.
By far the most signal example of editorial wackiness has been a relentless campaign by The News to defeat Alabama’s new tough immigration law. This journalistic uproar has a background simple to comprehend. The Democratic Party has taken an awful walloping in Alabama these past four years. Its voting strength has diminished to the point that both the governor’s office and the legislature are now ruled by Republicans for the first time since the post-Civil War era. The party’s only immediate hope is that Latino illegal immigrants can be taught to vote Democratic –a distinct possibility when one regards the current administration in Washington.
The News’ attacks on the law consist of endless stories quoting Democratic politicians, coupled with blasts from editorial pages and shrill endorsements by columnists. Page one stories often read more like thinly disguised editorials. Shuffling these illegals back to their home countries has been characterized by The News as racial discrimination, as mean-spirited jingoism, as damaging to the state’s economy and national reputation, as unconstitutional, and as offensive to God. Yes, even the deity was invoked as a group of pastors joined Democrats in a hastily-contrived suit against the law. This despite all recent attempts by liberals to erect a wall between church and state, which they claim is embodied in the Constitution. Children praying in school are a serious threat to the Republic, they say, but not clergy monkeying in government by attempting to upset a measure of the legislature.
Ironically, Alabama’s and Birmingham’s unemployment figures are better than those of many states. The math began to improve immediately after the clampdown on illegal immigration. Illegals have long been suspected of taking jobs away from American workers, and here we have the proof. No whispered suspicion of this connection has appeared in any story or editorial of The Birmingham News.
Twenty years ago such an all-out campaign of vituperation might have cowered state government into repealing the immigration law. But an attenuated and shrunken Birmingham News no longer packs the punch. In 1999 a year-long News smear campaign defeated former governor Fob James’ bid for reelection. These days The News is ineffectual in guiding its own city council.
Will The News survive in its new home in cyberspace? Good question, considering its current editorial stance. Reading the daily newspaper via a computer is time consuming and irritating. Reading one wedded to the precepts of the Democratic Party and of every cockamamie liberal outfit in the nation is doubly so. Competition with outfits like Fox and CNN on the national front will be fierce. Liberal readers may opt instead for The New York Times edition. Its sports readership could be captured by ESPN. But everything may come down to the question of whether Alabamians will go to the trouble of paying for a paper thrice a week, then turning to a computer for the rest of it.
We await the verdict.