Other changes are arriving in mysterious ways, sort of like John Macreedy at Black Rock. An unusual number of Congress people have chosen not to renew their incumbencies this fall. The lead singer of Sparklehorse has opted out of show business permanently, invoking his Vic Chesnutt clause. Northrop Grumman has decided not to build any tankers in Alabama, leaving Richard Shelby with, for once, nothing to say.
The masthead of the publication you’re reading right now will reflect some change, too. Editor Glenny Brock is leaving the wheelhouse, turning over command to the capable Jesse Chambers. (I offered to conduct her exit interview in this space, but she wisely ignored my entreaties, perhaps for a multi-million dollar autobiography deal.)
I’ve heard many people lament the loss of journalists as remarkable as Glenny and Kyle Whitmire, who took his leave from the paper last month, but they should not worry. I have it on good authority that this plucky little vessel will sail on into the rough and uncharted waters of Millennial Media.
For journalism in general, we should all be crossing our fingers. Truth is in jeopardy these days and those who would protect it in print are being assailed in unexpected ways.
The other week, I helped out a newsgatherer for a local TV station by providing counterpoint to a story on the Performance Rights Act. This is the legislation that’s inspired a million broadcast ads warning that if radio stations are obliged by law to pay royalties on the music tracks they play to the musicians that actually played on them, it might just end radio as we know it today, not that so many people even know it that well anymore.
Previously, TV reporters traveled with a camera operator and sometimes even a separate sound technician. After recording interviews and contextual content, the reporter would turn over the film or tape to an editor who would assemble the components for subsequent airing. If you saw the movie Broadcast News, you know the drill.
In my recent experience, the newsgatherer arrived for the interview without technical assistance, toting the camera solo, shooting footage with one hand and holding the microphone in the other. I was reminded of a bit the pre-political Al Franken used to do on Saturday Night Live, portraying a roving correspondent with a satellite dish mounted on his head.
It was clear that the local newsgatherer was being dispatched daily essentially to collect and edit soundbites. I asked if there was any stigma about being unable to devote time to delve into the nuances of a story and was told that one did the best one could. Indeed, for the 90 seconds or so the story merited during the 10 o’clock newscast, the newsgatherer did a serviceable job, but with the royalties bill bottled up in House subcommittees and unlikely to budge in the foreseeable future, I had to wonder why a local news director would have wasted even that much time on a topic with such miniscule pertinence to the community at large.
(Here’s a disquieting footnote: not long after this, ABC News in New York announced hefty staff layoffs, and in the memo, it said it would be moving to a newsgathering model in which network correspondents would “shoot and edit their own material.” So maybe Birmingham is really in the vanguard of contemporary broadcasting after all.)
Polls might suggest that the citizenry hereabouts gets its news primarily from television, but television seems still to get its news primarily from print. Ask any print reporter whose bylined work has been appropriated without credit for repetition on our several channels, or compare for yourself some morning and check off the headlines on the front or local pages as they’re repurposed by newsreaders.
An old reporting axiom maintains that broadcast operations enjoy the advantage of immediacy, but that it’s print for perspective. Certainly that was the case in the era of full-sized papers with full-sized staffs, but in this century, as the physical size of a newspaper page shrinks and fewer journalists are available to cover stories in depth, the economics of consolidation appears to be dictating one big daily paper to serve the whole state of Alabama, if the increasing amount of content from the Huntsville Times and the Mobile Press-Register filling The Birmingham News lately is any indication.
Big city dailies simply cannot cover smaller communities within their circulation area in the manner they once did, not if they’re to cut costs and keep shareholders happy. That means niche operations like Birmingham Weekly can seize the opportunity to become newspapers of record, filling an information void and perhaps reaping financial rewards for it. Perhaps these publications will move away from the strictures of printing, using the web to match broadcasting’s speed of delivery while retaining the traditional capability to present both sides of a story. In a world increasingly beset by lies, genuinely alternative journalism might well become the pertinent conduit of truth.
Under Glenny Brock’s aegis, this paper has moved significantly in that direction. For almost 400 issues, she and the staff she’s inspired and exhorted have brought you news you might not otherwise have known and told you stories you might not otherwise have heard. The labor has been intensive, the hours ridiculous and the pressures unimaginable for one who does not believe in an enterprise as fervently as she has. I am biased, for I am a columnist, but I think she has done surpassingly well, and she hands off the wheel to her successor having marked an extraordinary passage.
So let it be written, so let her be done.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.