Bailey Thomson Professor
Journalism Department
Box 870172
University of Alabama
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487
Tel: 205-348-8617
Fax: 205-348-2780

 

Genesis of an Independent Newspaper

By Bailey Thomson

Even as a native Alabamian I knew little about the Mobile Register when Stan Tiner suggested I join him in working there. He had recently become the editor.

That was in the spring of 1992, a bad time for the newspaper industry. Profits were down, newsprint prices were climbing, and many nervous executives were laying off employees.

Tiner and I had worked together until 1985 at the Shreveport Journal, a small family-owned daily with a penchant for crusading. I had come of age as a journalist under his editorship and, frankly, had missed working with him.

He was in many ways a throwback to a time when papers reflected the personalities of their editors rather than their corporate owners. His large frame could intimidate people, and his hunger for good stories sometimes raced ahead of his staff’s energy. But demanding though he might be as a boss, the old Marine had a big heart, especially for the little guy.
I was finishing course work in Tuscaloosa for a doctorate and contemplating a return to my former employer, the Orlando Sentinel. Good people were leaving the news business, some involuntarily. I wondered whether it was time to look for a teaching job.

Tiner thought otherwise. He needed someone to help him turn around the Register and its smaller afternoon version, the Mobile Press. Bland, devoid of courage and stingy with their resources, the papers had languished for decades. Yet Tiner and the new publisher, Howard Bronson, saw opportunity.

Mobile was emerging from its own lethargy. Its young mayor, Mike Dow, combined an entrepreneur’s boosterism with the zeal of a reformer. He threw around big words such as “paradigm” and “vision,” but one could see that he meant to move the city forward. Meanwhile, neighboring Baldwin County represented a circulation manager’s dream, as subdivisions sprouted along the eastern shore of Mobile Bay and tourism boomed along its Gulf beaches.

I didn’t know Bronson well when I lived in Shreveport. He was publisher of the competing Shreveport Times until he came to Mobile in early 1992. But I did know he had learned the business under his father and had risen in Gannett’s esteem after the chain bought the Times in 1977. He would not have left such a secure position in Shreveport, I reasoned, unless the family that owned the Mobile Register, the Newhouses, meant to transform it into a respectable newspaper.

I have never been averse to reasonable risks. Besides, I liked the notion of returning to my native state with my wife and daughter. I had learned my profession in the years I had been gone, but I missed the sense of belonging somewhere that we Southerners often celebrate in our literature and music. So I accepted Tiner’s offer to edit the business section for the Mobile papers and started work the first week of June.

Newspapers are difficult places to learn when you first arrive. Each has its peculiar ways, often based on unwritten precedents. One has to consider, for example, the relationships among the various departments. Sometimes the most powerful person after the publisher may be the advertising director or -- has he had been in Mobile -- the business manager. My new position proved even more challenging in that those relationships had become highly fluid, without the old players necessarily knowing when things had changed.

A case in point: I had not been at my post long until the former publisher’s wife appeared before my desk with a bank executive in tow. She demanded that we write a story about the bank’s donating money to some worthy cause. I suspected that other banks were doing similar good deeds, so I responded courteously but with no commitment. The woman seemed appalled that she could not summon such a story upon command.

The building itself had a depressing air at first. Designed for an automobile dealership, it had changed little since the 1920s, with the exception of computers that perched on desks around the news room. The old letter press downstairs needed about $1 million worth of modifications to meet minimal standards for reproduction.

Bronson and Tiner had made a few cosmetic changes in the papers, but we had too few people to cover a circulation area that stretched over half a dozen counties. I could not call upon an art department, as I had done in Orlando, to design graphics for our pages. And my expectations often drew a common response, “We’ve never done that before.”

What lifted my spirits was a retreat the following weekend that took our news people to a remote church camp in Baldwin County. I think it was the first time many of the staff came to know Bronson and Tiner as leaders, rather than as outsiders. One of those veterans later told me how delighted they were to learn of management’s plans. Often she and her colleagues had yearned for such direction and, equally important, for sufficient resources to publish a good newspaper. A few of the veterans never grasped the sea change that had occurred. Over time, new people would take their places, as well as fill positions that expansion created.

At the retreat, Bronson announced a policy that remains in force to this day. It was not enough, he said, that the Register would become a good newspaper. No, it would become the best paper in Alabama and one of the best in the South. He would provide the support necessary to do our jobs; in return, he expected to see every morning a newspaper that was worth getting up early to read.

His policy reflected a simple principle: Quality sells more newspapers. Yet many newspaper companies and executives – particularly among the big chains -- have failed to grasp this wisdom. Believing themselves safe behind their walls of local monopoly, they have reduced the amount of news they carry while increasing the costs to readers and advertisers. In pursuit of short-term profits, they have often weakened the long-term relationships that newspapers have developed with their communities. The common interest that citizens and the press have in promoting the civic and economic well-being of their communities made newspapers one of America’s great success stories.

Not only did Bronson give us a virtual blank slate upon which to create the new Register, he also provided the people we needed to do the job. To increase our experience level, Tiner recruited a half dozen or so grizzled pros from around the country -- people such as Ray Wilkerson, Roy Brightbill and the late B.J. Richey as news managers; John Cameron in sports; and Ronni Patriquin, Bill Finch and Sam Hodges in reporting. Later, we made better use of our staff when the owners agreed to cease publishing the afternoon newspaper, the Press, and focus entirely on the Register.

Covering sports became a priority. The old staff had been accustomed to penny-pinching, as when they watched the Saints on television rather than attend the games in New Orleans. Tiner put the writers and the photographers on the road. He wanted sports covered off the field as well—a policy that soon brought him and the paper into conflict with the University of Alabama’s athletic department when the Tide encountered its first serious trouble with the NCAA.

Tiner challenged his staff to begin looking beyond daily news to the bigger issues underneath. In that first year alone, we must have explored a dozen of more large topics, not always with the depth we would later develop but certainly with earnestness for the truth. For the staff’s efforts in 1992, the Alabama Press Association declared the Register to be the state’s most improved newspaper.

The bigger test, however, came with a project that Tiner and I launched to investigate the effects of pollution from industries around Mobile. Outsiders might not suspect Mobile’s economy rests so heavily upon its chemical and paper industries, many of which have been in the area for a long time. As is often the case in such situations, Mobile’s business and political establishment never spent a lot of time worrying about the pollution that resulted. A typical response to complaints about odor from paper mills, for example, was that people were smelling money.

But at what cost to the community’s health was money being made? The question became more intriguing after we published the results of a national survey that fingered one of Mobile’s plants as a heavy polluter. We began looking for answers.
Nowadays, the Register does such work almost routinely and calls upon a talented bunch of reporters, editors and graphics artists. They might spend six months to a year on their projects before publishing the results. A recent example is the splendid reporting the paper has done on mercury pollution in the Gulf of Mexico.

Our first experience, however, meant we had to learn how to cover environmental stories. Equally important, we had to endure a fierce counterattack from some of the industries involved, whose executives apparently had trouble believing that a good newspaper was supposed to be a watchdog for the community.
In particular, I called upon a young reporter named Michael Hardy, who had been at the paper for five years. Unlike most journalists, he had a knack for explaining complicated scientific issues. He was also careful with his facts and resisted speculating beyond the evidence. I would later appreciate those qualities even more, as his stories became subject to intense scrutiny.

Soon word got around that we were preparing to publish the first installment of our project. Several representatives or friends of the industries showed up one day uninvited, looking over our shoulders as we worked. I can only imagine what Bronson, our publisher, was enduring at his country club or other places he frequented in the company of influential people.

I think the symbolism of the project proved more enduring than the story we actually uncovered. We found no smoking gun to indicate a direct connection between, say, pollution and birth defects. In truth, it would have been remarkable had such a cause and effect relationship been so readily discernible. But after we published that project’s findings, I suspect no informed person ever doubted again that the Mobile Register had serious intentions.

Much of the credit belongs to Tiner and his bare-knuckles style of journalism. He could have chosen a less controversial means of demonstrating the paper’s seriousness, but subtlety and refinement were not his style. His loyalty always lay with his readers and what he thought they needed to know.
But Bronson gained my special admiration during that episode, not for anything he did but rather for what he refused to do. My appreciation for his character dates from an incident that occurred in the board room of the Mobile Chamber of Commerce following the publication of our project.

Our work had drawn a predictable response from readers: Some applauded us and others dismissed us as muckrakers. But an ugly whispering campaign commenced in private, with the clear intention of discrediting the newspaper.

When these rumors reached Bronson, he became furious. If critics had something to say, he demanded, then they should say it to our faces.
Thus our little investigative team joined the publisher and the editor around the big table in the Chamber’s board room. Across from us and representing the companies were more than a dozen executives, public relations people and technical experts.

Bronson said something to the effect, “Now, I understand you have some criticisms of our project. I have brought our people here for you to question, and we won’t leave here until you are satisfied with their answers.”

Much was said that morning, but from my perspective one important result emerged: Our fact-gathering stood the test. Some of the experts might have disagreed with how we presented the facts or with opinions that other experts, independent of the industries, had expressed in our stories. But when the meeting was over and everyone had taken a turn, the newspaper had nothing for which to apologize and nothing to correct.

It was clear from that day on that the Register’s editorial staff would address whatever issues it chose and that it could not be deterred by outside pressure. In the years to come, other powerful groups and people, including governors, would learn the same lesson.

I give the most credit, as I am sure Tiner would do as well, to Bronson’s steely commitment to his word. He had promised his staff that together we would create a strong newspaper, and he passed the first--and I think most critical—test of his leadership. Without independence, a newspaper can never rise to greatness, no matter how much it spends on its daily product.

I later came to know and respect some of the men who sat around the table that day. They were trying to do their jobs, just as we were. It took a while for them and others to understand that the Register now practiced a different kind of journalism. No longer was the paper an extension of local industries’ public relations. It had a more vital role to play in the community’s democracy.

Much has changed in the decade since that incident. Mobile’s turnaround earned an All American City award in 1995. Meanwhile, the newspaper routinely earns national recognition for its outstanding work. Tiner has moved over to edit the Biloxi newspaper, but his successor, Michael Marshall, maintains the paper’s commitment to independent journalism. In 2002, the staff moved into a new building, with a state-of-the-art press. By the way, the paper now routinely attracts outstanding young journalists, as well as professionals in the prime of their careers.

I am proud of how the Register has helped establish a new standard for journalism in Alabama and has challenged our other state papers to become better as well. The long-term effect, I believe, will be to help Alabama finally put many of its old goblins to rest and catch up with a rapidly changing nation and world.

In short, I believe good newspapers help make good communities. It is hardly a coincidence that Mobile and its Register now rank among the best.

Bailey Thomson is associate professor of journalism at the University of Alabama.