Alabama


3
Nov 22

An apple, a bike, and some venerable newspaper departures

Another day, another new kind of apple. This is the Cosmic Crisp — a cultivar of the Enterprise and Honeycrisp varieties. It is another product of Washington state, and also Washington State. The producers say it has the perfect balance between sweet and tart.

It was firm, it was crisp. The skin had a tartness, but the flesh had a nice, mild sweetness. There was a little spice to it, which seemed to come and go, so every bite was something of an adventure.

I didn’t want this apple to end, and how often do you say that about produce? So I’m glad I bought an extra for another day.

I went for a bike ride this evening, which means I can get a new shadow selfie. Let’s check in.

Looking good, shadow self, looking good.

This ride was my third ride since The Yankee crashed in September. I think I’m finally getting back to being able to spend some time in the saddle again, just in time for the season to end. But you take what you get in a place that has winter — and you wonder why you subject yourself to such a thing. Anyway, just three rides in six weeks gave this one a distinctive “your ride is hard, but good, and you don’t know if your lungs or legs are burning more and you’re amazed at how well you just got over all three hills and then realized you weren’t on the third, but just topping out on the second hill” feeling.

It was a 22-mile ride, over the usual roads. I was just racing the sunset, and I’ve done these roads enough, and I’m slow enough to do the math, so I know exactly when to get back before it gets dark and spooky outside. And, today, that means 22 miles. Actually it meant 21, but I snuck in the last mile cruising around in front of my closest neighbors.

And do you know what? I’m going to go for another ride this weekend.

Let’s do something different. Let’s check in on a social media account I started a long time ago.

This has been an inevitability since 2010 or so, in keeping with the evolving ecosystem, so it isn’t surprising. It is still sad. It is still unfortunate.

I worked for the predecessor of AMG for four years, from 2004 until 2008. al.com and it’s parent, Everyday Alabama, were in a huge growth phrase. Those three papers were in a growing pains phase. Each of those papers were still dailies, and their newsrooms were filled with brilliant and talented print journalists. Some moved on. Some retired. The ones that could cross the philosophical divide that argued against being strictly a print journalist stayed on, with some success. They went to an online-first model in 2012, well after I’d returned to academia, and now the next phase is upon us. These are the three last dailies in three of the state’s four largest cities. (The state capital’s Montgomery Advertiser is owned by Gannett, a lament for another day.) I grew up reading The Birmingham News and The Huntsville Times, and the Press-Register is a paper that inspired us all as journalism majors.

The News debuted in 1888, The Times launched in 1910 and the P-R traces its roots as the state’s oldest paper back to 1813. Just as the newsrooms have lost a lot of institutional knowledge in the last 20 years of change, the three cities are losing the last of their civic center, good corporate neighbors, a vast trove of history and a lot, lot more.

Alabama Media Group has had its successes, and their newsroom is growing. There are some talented people there, still. As the product has changed, though, so has the work.

I was, perhaps, among the last groups of print journalists trained by journalists who were themselves directly inspired by Woodward and Bernstein, hard-writing scribes who cut their teeth on civil rights era coverage. I was trained by some of those people as a watchdog journalist and that was an amazing education. (The difference between me and them and some of my peer group is that I was more interested in the journalism than the medium — and that has been an important distinction at various parts of my career.) This is where we get to the hammer-nail part of this conversation.

Part of the problem with those newsroom cutbacks in the aughts and teens meant that more and more local government got less and less coverage. It is hard to be a watchdog when you’re not in the room, you can’t be familiar with the ins and outs when you’re not in the room, and if no one is on the beat, no one is filing the stories or the FOIA requests. Eventually, the locals notice the reporters aren’t there anymore, and they start acting like it. Sunshine is a disinfectant, and offers a fair amount of accountability, but without that … what are we left with? There’s a level of granular coverage that has gone missing that won’t come back in this model, and the people are the losers. The truth of that is obvious, even as these business moves reflect consumer appetites.

And how is all of this going over? Let’s just look at the quoted retweets.

A former colleague:

A friend who runs a nearby hyperlocal paper.

Another of those former colleagues, one who moved on to greener pastures.

I could write several hundred more words on this before delving into the highly technical, but maybe the point is already here. Some things will be gained; a lot will be lost. I suppose entropy and progress have always been that way.


7
Sep 22

What do you know?

I was right.

Much like yesterday, this is also where we spent this afternoon.

I spent the morning at a bank, because somehow a simple task required the full morning. This is fun, though: the woman on the other side of the desk, is my step-cousin-twice-removed-in-law.

Yes, that’s a thing. I’ve just typed it into existence because there’s a chart and I have verified the information.

It reminds me of something a professor once said about hometowns and mobility. His general premise was that if you stay in that place, and your family is from there and you marry there, you’ll likely find yourself with someone in your own clan. Well, I’ve never lived here, but all of my people are from here and they married people. All it took, in this case, was finding out her husband’s name. That man’s grandfather was the brother of my step-grandfather’s grandfather. We’ve never met at reunions, the banker and her husband, but we know about the summer stews.

Small bank, smaller world.


6
Sep 22

The water’s (more than) fine

If you were looking for me today, and couldn’t find me, that’s because you didn’t look here.

There are pretty good odds that I’ll be there tomorrow, too.


5
Sep 22

Happy Labor Day

We had a short bike ride on Saturday morning, dodging raindrops until I couldn’t. I wanted to get in a quick 20 miles to reach the next round number for the year. (All of the records are falling this year!) And in the early going we went by this familiar corn field, which almost made it to Labor Day before turning.

And then, up the street and up a few hills, The Yankee was creating some big distance. See the little red dot on the side? I had to cover all of this ground to get her wheel again.

Eventually I did, and then we rode together for a while. She turned for the house and I added on a few more miles to get to that goal, and then found myself in the rain. It was foreshadowing.

We got in the car, pointed south and drove through every storm cloud that a third of this great nation can provide. My car hasn’t been this clean, nor my shoulders this tense in the car, in some time. This is just the beginning.

You know how, sometimes, you people stop under an overpass? When my wipers were going full blast and I was slowing down to about 35 on the freeway to let them keep up, it seemed like a good idea.

I always liked overpasses in the rain. That constant rattle on the roof interrupted, however briefly, by a bit of human engineering. It can be a sudden and stunning change, and then just as quickly, the rain returns, because the overpasses are only a few lanes wide. Sometimes you want more overpasses, I guess, if only to park under them.

We did not wait out the weather, but pushed on carefully through. And one of our rewards was this site.

You can almost see it there, but in the heartbeat before I took this photo, and those trees in the foreground crept in the way, you could actually see the place where the rainbow was hitting the ground. It wasn’t off in the distance, or beyond a hill. It was right there. I did not see the pots of gold, however. It is a busy interstate, maybe someone beat me to it.

We made it to my mom’s for a nice little vacation. We had dinner there Saturday night, and a quiet Sunday. Today my grandfather and a great-aunt and great-uncle came over for dinner. This was the first time I’ve seen my aunt and uncle since before the pandemic began. They were, and are, a hoot.

I could tell you stories, but it is a light week here, and you’d need to know them and hear them, anyway. But I will jot this down, just so I can remember it. Someone was telling a bit of a family story and my great-uncle didn’t hear who was the subject of the story. He said, “Who?” He heard the name. There’s a half beat where the name sinks in and you can see the gears readjusting to the new information. And then the man, who is in his 80s, giggled. It was him and them and perfect.


18
May 22

The year was 1961; do not enter business with Willie’s wife

We haven’t read any old newspapers recently. Let’s go back 61 years, to northwest Alabama. This is The Florence Herald, which we have examined here from time-to-time in the past. Some of my family would have read this paper. Indeed, there’s a brief mention of my great-great grandfather here in a legal notice. And some of the family names appear in some of the local correspondence. But let’s look at the really fun stuff from the weekly, which was published on Thursday, May 18, 1961.

There’s a fair amount to get through over your second coffee. Let’s dive in. This is the lead local story, in a paper that was helping its community celebrate the centennial of the Civil War.

The Reynolds Metals Company, founded in Kentucky in 1919, was a big, big deal. They originally supplied the wrappers for cigarette and candy companies and in the 1920s took over Eskimo Pies because of the foil. They were growing quickly, and in a few more years a few more acquisitions the original U.S. Foil Company became Reynolds. They moved HQ to New York, and then to Richmond. Soon they were mining bauxite, and they opened the plant mentioned here in 1941.

Just before the United States entered the war, R.S. Reynolds ramped up production. He was in aluminum, after all, and he saw a need. Now the second largest producer of basic aluminum in the U.S., Reynolds was key in aircraft production, among other things. A lot of that was rolled out right there. They kept growing after the war, indeed they snatched up six government defense plants that were up for disposal. Reynolds later expanded into non aluminum products such as plastics and precious metals, introducing Reynolds Plastic Wrap in 1982. Odds are you’ve got some of their product in your kitchen cabinets.

The company took out a full page ad in this same issue of The Florence Herald thanking their employees and the community. “Surely the only thing which can surpass our first 20 years at Listerhill will be our next 20 years,” was the last line over R.S. Reynolds’ name. Indeed, they put 37 more years into the area.

When they sold to Wise Metals in 1998-99, there were 1,600 people working at the plant. A global concern picked up Wise in 2015, it was an eight-figure deal. The company is still in operation there, still employing more than 1,200. They recycle and make aluminum cans.

I don’t know if you noticed that story about “Viet Nam” that was set just below the Reynolds piece, and the English standalone photo It’s 1961, and there’s so much patriotic optimism in that story.

Below the fold on the front page …

So it is an interesting time in local and national politics. I shared with you one of the bullet points from Harold S. May’s front page column.

Dude.

May wrote in this same format every week. I looked ahead. “What has Mr. Average Citizen done to deserve it? All of us will suffer alike,” wrote the columnist in the next issue. The columnist — who had served on the Florence Housing Authority and was the chairman of the local board of education — made another, terrible convoluted mention two weeks out, until, finally, he moved back to his local observations and recycled bon mots.

“The wife with plenty of hose sense never becomes a nag,” was one of the lines just above the condemnation above.

It’s a fascinating column in its own way, if you can overlook the regrettable parts.

Finally, according to the search function, he ran this same ad the next three weeks. And then, apparently, never again. There’s a story behind this.

Sadly, we’ll never know it.