I have written previously in this space of my maternal grandfather, Floyd Pace. A carpenter by trade, he also farmed the several acres of Winston County hillside and hollow on which he and the love of his life, my grandmother, Pauline (“Polly”), lived. He kept a big garden where most of the vegetables on their table came from, and he raised various animals at various times. There was always a horse or two on the place, occasionally a mule, usually a few chickens, sometimes some pigs and once, for a while, a couple of goats he acquired to clear the hollow of underbrush.
With all of that, it goes without saying that Papa was one of the hardest-working people I have ever known. As such, his preferred method of relaxation of an evening after dinner was to settle into his big easy chair, thumb through the local newspaper and spend a few hours “looking at television,” as the old folks used to say. And as a small boy spending the night with my grandparents, one of my preferred activities was to climb up beside Papa and watch right along with him.
His favorites, and therefore mine as well, were Westerns. Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Rifleman, Rawhide, The Big Valley — we watched them all. I’m only guessing here because we never talked about it, but beyond the entertainment value, I think part of the appeal for Papa grew out of his own brand of Emersonian self-reliance and the way he saw that reflected in the protagonists of the stories that flickered at us from across the lamplit den.
Those Westerns were little morality plays, in which the heroes frequently were flawed as deeply as the villains. The difference was that they managed, by dint of character and determination and sometimes a little luck, to subvert their flaws in ways that both underscored their essential humanity and ensured that virtue triumphed in the end — even if, as often was the case, at some personal cost to themselves. Thus they lived to fight another day, for their own good and that of the general order. Simplistic? Yes, most certainly — but also a source of cautionary affirmation and spiritual uplift.
I’m writing about this because I spent some time over the long Labor Day weekend reflecting on the fact that this week’s edition of Weld marks three years since the launch of our newspaper and website. In the midst of that reflection came the realization that the basic structure of those Westerns, those little morality plays, is the lens through which I view our work in this community.
Put very simply, Weld exists to fight the good fight — for our company and its employees, for Birmingham, for journalism itself. That we are three years in and still at it is a tribute to a staff that is dedicated to the proposition of making a difference, and doing so in a way that is uniquely reflective and expressive of the diverse community in which we live and work — its dreams, aspirations and successes, as well as its flaws and failures.
You don’t have to take my word for it. From the beginning, very few days have passed when I have not experienced the deeply humbling pleasure of having at least one person tell me that Weld is indispensable to them, that we are filling a void of substance left by the passing of Birmingham’s last daily newspaper and its “replacement” by what virtually all of my interlocutors agree might very well be the worst website in the world.
This assessment comes, by the way, with no prompting from me. In fact, I often find myself in the rather strange position of defending Al.com, at least after a fashion. I say “after a fashion” because, to be clear, I am not defending that company and its absentee owners, who have demonstrated repeatedly their complete disdain for people who want news and information of substance. They have done so through the slashing of their newsroom staff, through the slow and torturous demise of their now-worthless newspaper, and through the bright, cheery and clueless insistence of their management that what they are providing is what people want.
So no, I am not defending Al.com and the Alabama Media Group. Rather, I am defending the journalists who continue to do fine work under their banner. There are some of those holding the fort over there, without question; the names Archibald, Whitmire and Dean come immediately to mind, and there are a few others I’ll probably get in trouble for not taking the space to mention. I bemoan the undeniable fact that the company for which they toil does not value that fine work.
Instead, it values clickbait. Half-baked “stories” with headlines that promise content that is rarely, if ever, delivered. Endless lists of the type that one can find littered across the Internet — occasionally fun, relentlessly vapid and with no news value. Photo slideshows of young women in bikinis on the Alabama coast (during the last Spring Break season, the running joke in the Weld offices was how many consecutive days Al.com would feature new bikini shots on their landing page; I believe the final count was nine). College football, college football and more college football.
This is not journalism. Journalism is meaningful and powerful. Journalism not only provides news and information, but also plays a critical role in the way that citizens view the community in which they live. In our perhaps old-fashioned view at Weld, journalism is based on the assumption that there are people who still like to read. Journalism makes a difference in the lives of people, and in the life of the community at large.
Lord knows that at this potentially pivotal time in its history, Birmingham needs all of the journalism it can get. Hence, I suppose, my “Western hero” view of Weld’s place in the community — the place we have carved for ourselves over the past three years, and the place to which we continue to aspire.
Like any hero, we’d just as soon not have to take on the bad guys by ourselves. But if we have to, we will.