H. Brandt Ayers: Call it ‘My Paper’ — The value of hometown news
May 01, 2011 | 3285 views |  6 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
What’s behind the wrapper on the outside of your paper this morning, other than blatant self-promotion? We plead guilty to a little of that; we think we put out a pretty snappy local paper, and we’re proud of our national reputation.

However, there is a deeper significance to the campaign that starts today. It is an attempt to remind our readers of two facts of contemporary life:

First, your local paper and its website are the only source of news in what is an information-blackout region. We lost our local network TV station and Birmingham pays scant attention to us. Local radio news died years ago.

Our staff of reporters and editors is the only game in town.

Second, and most important, we are home-owned; this is our hometown and you are our neighbors. We care more about you and the place where you live than any other place or people in the world.

Caring is a special, an increasingly rare, value to have and to preserve.

In the past 50 years, economic and social changes in the United States have resulted in a deepening depersonalization of our society. We are less connected to one another. Less caring.

At the end of World War II, most newspapers were family-owned — as The Star still is — but there are fewer than 250 left out of about 1,500 dailies.

The human dynamic of a family newspaper in a community is unusual. It cares more than a chain newspaper, which defines its unique personality. It scolds, supports, consoles and chides. It hurts and is hurt, and it loves — it is like any slightly dysfunctional family.

The abdication of a community leadership role is the worst consequence of growing nationwide corporate giantism, which is swallowing newspapers and banks. If the newspapers and banks in cities the size of Anniston are virtual robots dangling at the end of long, corporate strings, they infect the community with a sickening ennui.

Who cares if local businesses close for lack of a patient, friendly financial adviser; who cares if local civic enterprises founder and starve for lack of leadership and funding sources?

Anything that saps the energy of caring, committed local leadership is the enemy of community vitality. But what does community vitality mean to the Wall Street titans of the new Gilded Age?

The original period of great concentrated wealth, the time of the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Mellons, Carnegies and J.P. Morgan, had excesses of greed and power, to be sure.

But the late 19th-century giants pumped up the industrial muscle of the adolescent nation such that the output of the United States was greater than that of Britain, France and Germany together.

Today’s no-name titans of Wall Street cannot match the railroads, mines and steel mills of the early Gilded Age. The new-breed titans created bundled derivatives and a heart-stopping recession.

Goldman Sachs, suspecting all along they would fail, sold mortgage-related securities to clients such as teachers’ pension funds, and then made money betting against them.

The titans of the new Gilded Age don’t add muscle to the economy as the robber barons did. They don’t make anything; they just make money.

And way down at the bottom of the food chain, small businesses tremble, hat in hand before local buildings upon which are written the mighty names of the unseeing, uncaring distant lords of finance such as Wells Fargo.

When Anniston had its big three local banks, First National, Commercial National and Anniston National, their presidents were generals of the civic army and their boards of directors were the field-grade officers of those brigades.

They are all gone, swallowed by mergers into giant conglomerates. By the great 2008 recession, the civic dynamism of the three local banks had been lost in banks so gargantuan their presidents don’t know that there is an Anniston.

New banks have risen to serve the abandoned local markets, but they are not yet strong enough to lead boldly. In time, surely they will be, because they are local; they care.

Meanwhile, small cities across America are filled with a sense of nostalgia for lost drugstores, family merchants, personal banking, newspapers who knew you, all replaced by distant corporations who look down and shrug: Who cares?

Well, in Anniston the newspaper does care, care enough to resist selling out so you can have a community-owned paper for as long as fate and the law allow. Good reason for you to think of it as MY PAPER, because it is.

H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.
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