COLUMN: The death of an institution
Last week I witnessed the death of an institution.
I watched via Facebook from a distance of 475 miles as the Mobile Press-Register in Alabama ended its existence as a daily newspaper and launched into the murky waters of Internet journalism. It was cutting back to three days a week, severely cutting its staff and pouring the efforts of its remaining crew into a new kind of enterprise. It will fold into one website the output from the staffs of the Press-Register, the Birmingham News and the Huntsville Times.
The newspaper that had witnessed the tragedies, recorded the triumphs and reflected the culture of a region rich in tradition was now ready to jettison the minds and hearts of those who had imbued it with personality. A large portion of its staffers were now out of jobs, the impact cushioned by severance packages they were not supposed to talk about.
It was its parent company’s answer to the excruciating dilemma now facing newspapers across the country: How do you remain viable in a high-tech world when you’re saddled with a low-tech delivery system?
As one would expect from the city that gave the nation Mardi Gras, the old newspaper went out with a laugh instead of a sob. Its staffers – those who will remain and those who are looking for new careers – ended it with a sort of danse macabre. They showed up for work in wild costumes. They cleaned their desk drawers of old photos depicting themselves in the prime of life and posted them on Facebook. They recalled favorite yarns about those who had passed on to greener pastures, into retirement or into death.
In the end, they staged an Irish wake and a pub crawl that took them through all the old watering holes.
The Mobile Press-Register has carried my columns for 18 years. I remember walking into the newsroom in 1994 when the staff was busy covering a gubernatorial election. Before the returns had started to come in, hell broke out in Mississippi. A misfit from Miami, traveling east on Interstate 10, shot and killed a Mississippi state trooper just a few exits before reaching the Alabama line. He continued a murderous ride that took him through the heart of the newspaper’s circulation area, leaving three dead before a bullet ended the spree.
The Press-Register flew a reporter-photographer team to Miami to get background on the shooter and mustered its local staff to nail down every local and non-local angle. The next morning, it delivered a full and comprehensive story to more than 100,000 households in south Alabama.
And, oh yes, it delivered all the election results, as well.
It’s the kind of spirit that enabled it to win honors for its coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil spill while it was crusading for reforms in the state’s bloated and antiquated constitution and for structure in its fragmented system of higher education.
Friday night, the last day of work for a large percentage of its staffers, was a time for reminiscing via a Facebook group consisting of current and former staffers.
“Sitting on my back tonight, enjoying a glass (bottle) of wine, and wondering if I should open another,” posted Sheridan Grosscup Paz, who was terminated when the paper ceased daily publication. “Inner self goes, ‘No, you have to go to work tomorrow.’ And then I realize, ‘No, I don’t.’ So I opened another. I could get used to that.”
Renee Busby, in her final column after 34 years with the paper, reminisced about the two executions in Alabama’s electric chair that she had witnessed and of rushing frantically from a courtroom as police wrestled to the floor an armed assailant who was charging the bench after a relative was found guilty.
She remembered the story she had written about the woman who had planned to retire from the Navy and move back to Mobile with her husband. She never made it. She died on Sept. 11, 2001, in the terrorist attack on the Pentagon.
“I carry the hundreds of stories I’ve written and the people I’ve met with me. They are a part of my own personal story now, a story that is going in a new direction,” she wrote.
Dan Murphy, who had written a beer column (yes, a beer column!) for the newspaper in addition to editing duties, will become chief brewmaster at a micro-brewery across the bay. I hope to drop by and sample his wares.
Others found spots with smaller newspapers or with other institutions who could make use of their communication skills.
Some are still looking.
Frances Coleman, the editorial-page editor whose weekly column was a perennial favorite with readers, is married to a newly minted lawyer. She will continue her column through a blog.
Her husband, James Parrish (Jimbo) Coleman provided her with a memorable exit. When she left work after her final day, he and their grown children were waiting beside a stretch limo dubbed the “RMS Carpathia.” You may recall that as the name of the ship that came to the rescue of Titanic survivors.
Jimbo wrapped a warm blanket around Frances and tucked her into the limo, and they headed off for a night of celebration.
“We did it!” posted one staffer triumphantly. “We made it through this day with shed tears, smiles, hugs, and encouragement. We ended this chapter with our dignity and reputation we have carried through the years.”
A song that Julius La Rosa made popular many years ago keeps running through my mind. He sung: “They took a swampland heavy with steam; brought some people with a dream; and the dream became a heaven by the name of Mobile.”
Who will relate the dream now that its interpreters are banished to other swamplands?
Readers may email Gene Owens at WadesDixieco@AOL.com.
Gene Owens is a retired newspaper editor and columnist who graduated from Graniteville High School and now lives in Anderson.