Journalism — It’s Not What It Used To Be

I visited the website for the Selma (Alabama) Times Journal recently. My first writing job was as a part-time sports writer for the historic daily. For my first bylined story my editor assigned me to cover a powder-puff football game between two private school girls teams. I think a couple of school clubs were trying to raise money from ticket sales and concessions. The girls put on pads and helmets and cleats and scrapped half-heartedly on the field for 30 minutes before half-filled bleachers, mostly parents praying their little powder-puffer would not get clobbered or lose a tooth or break a nail.

My editor must have liked my story because he then gave me real writing assignments with real high school sports teams. It was college football season and my editor sent me to cover Auburn University football games. You can’t imagine the thrill this fledgling reporter felt strolling into Jordan Hare Stadium for the first time before a major SEC gridiron clash with press box credentials and a field pass. The following year I got to interview and write about Pat Sullivan. It was the year he won the Heisman Trophy. A standard story after every Auburn game was the locker room interview with Auburn’s legendary head coach, Shug Jordan.

In those days of classic Bear Bryant—Shug Jordan gridiron rivalries the folks in West Central Alabama were still trying to figure out how to handle the social paradigm shift created by the Civil Rights movement. You could still see placards in a few holdout restaurants and businesses and bathrooms announcing “Whites Only” service. At the STJ top brass seemed intimidated by its advertisers and Selma’s blustery mayor, Joe Smitherman, who both had a hand in shaping some news content. Local news was friendly and accommodating, but not always an accurate barometer of the whole truth. The news often shied away from controversy. Smitherman once had a dispute with the L&N Railroad whose tracks intersected Selma’s main street. The railroad was sticking to its guns and Smitherman didn’t like it. So the mayor parked police cars across the tracks, stopping local train traffic in Selma and told the railroad the police cars wouldn’t budge until Smitherman got his way.

Many a late Saturday night, while carving out sports stories for Sunday’s paper, I was privy to many mayor’s tales of his political and social shenanigans as he regaled the reporters and editors and pressroom guys hanging out in the newsroom waiting for first runs. Those were still the days of hot type (molten lead poured in casts to create photos and newsprint on steel plates). Editors had to read the news copy backwards before they cast the plates to run on the presses.

I left the STJ to finish college at Auburn. But when I graduated several years later I returned to a new Selma Times Journal as a reporter. In my absence an outside newsgroup purchased the paper and turned the newspaper and the town on its ear. The new owners spent tons of money on new pressroom equipment (they shipped the old hot type press to the Smithsonian), new furnishings, new benefits, new editorial policies, new management and new ideas about reporting. The new publisher was not intimidated by advertisers or Smitherman. When advertisers complained about the new no-holds-barred news coverage that sometimes reflected poorly on their business, they threatened to pull their advertising. The newspaper’s response – “Go ahead.”

Some pulled their ads. Most who did came back because they figured out they needed the paper for its advertising, regardless of its editorial policies.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting on Watergate in the Washington Post in the early 1970’s bolstered, in part, the editorial policies of the new ownership. Also, in the early 1970’s Harold Martin, the publisher of the Montgomery Advertiser wrote a series of investigative stories about clandestine and fatal drug testing on inmates at Alabama’s Kilby State Prison near Montgomery. The investigative reporting series won Martin a Pulitzer Prize and closed the prison.

Investigative journalism in that era, even on a relatively small town daily like the STJ, conformed to standards of ethics and integrity sorely missing from much of the profession today. We could never use a “source who wished to remain anonymous” or a “source close to the investigation.” In fact, we not only had to have a source, we had to name the source, always. We couldn’t write a story about a birthday party without attribution.

Facts were important. Truth was important. Editors always asked reporters questions about their stories before they went to press. On many occasions the questions and their answers were germane to the stories we wrote. We had to retrace our steps and re-interview sources to get the answers editors required. And we always had to report both sides of the stories and name sources for attribution.

In most cases, our stories were the only coverage people in the town would read. Our editors were responsible and demanded we tell the story, from both sides, completely.

I’m saddened to say, in my considered opinion, journalism and the art of story telling with facts and the truth is not what it used to be.

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