My favorite writer, Birmingham’s own Walker Percy, once took a rather novel approach to fulfilling an obligation to provide an article for Esquire magazine: He interviewed himself. In a piece he titled “Questions They Never Asked Me,” Percy, adopting his most irascible and iconoclastic tone, went about exorcising a few demons, while also appearing to have some fun along the way (sample exchange: Q: How do you assess the current state of race relations in the South? A: Almost as bad as in the North.).
Let me say quickly that, as tempting as that might be, I’m not going to succumb to it, at least not this week. I was put in mind of it, though, by running across some written answers I gave to an actual interviewer in an exchange that took place several months ago. They were very good questions, about Weld and the state of journalism in Birmingham — and, if I do say so myself, very good answers, as well, which I’ll admit caused me some momentary disappointment when almost none of what I’d said made it into print.
Whether fortunately or not, the glacial pace at which change occurs in this magic little city of ours means that the journalism landscape looks now just about as it did all those months ago. Certainly, our mission at Weld has not changed, nor has Birmingham’s need for all of the good journalism it can get. With those things in mind as I read back through the responses I gave, it seems fitting to go ahead and share some excerpts here.
What does Weld offer the news consumer?
Weld is an outlet for journalism, community news, feature writing, and commentary that is informative, compelling, engaging, well-written, and in-depth. That last quality, in particular, is what sets us apart. I don’t mean that other publications, and even websites, don’t provide some very fine in-depth reporting on local issues and current events, because they do. But at Weld, going in-depth is our stock-in-trade. It’s why we’re here — and, based on the feedback we receive from readers on a daily basis, it’s something that the community we serve wants and needs.
Weld is also unique in its dedication to being, first and foremost, a newspaper. For people who like to sound like they know what they’re talking about, it’s easy and fashionable to pontificate about the death of the newspaper. And while I think that’s true — unfortunately — for a lot of daily newspapers, in the particular case of Weld as a weekly, locally-oriented paper, it has created an opportunity to live our belief in the newspaper as a medium that will remain vital for the foreseeable future.
So the newspaper isn’t dying?
The newspaper isn’t dying. What’s happening is that the way people use newspapers has changed — and will continue to change. What that means on the local level is that there is a place for news and information that offers more than who, what, and when. People also want — and need — the Why? and the How? and the What does it mean? They want to know how the news we’re reporting affects their life, the lives of their neighbors, and the life of their community. The newspaper remains a fine medium for that, as evidenced by the continued growth of Weld’s print readership, both in numbers and in terms of the geographic reach of our distribution.
Would the local media landscape be impoverished if Weld didn’t exist?
Certainly, I think so, but I’m highly biased on that issue. I think it’s fair and accurate to say that Weld provides some things that you can’t get anywhere else, and wouldn’t get from any other source in our absence. We view journalism as a public service, and that’s the way we operate. So I guess the bottom line is, as long as the public — along with our advertisers and other community partners — puts a high enough value on what we do, that question will remain speculative. I’m sure there are those, in City Hall and elsewhere, who like speculating about that.
Explain why Weld is not an alt-weekly.
Can you explain to me what it is that we’re an “alternative” to? Clickbait headlines for 200-word articles that are the journalistic equivalent of eating doughnuts for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Slide shows of young women in bikinis at spring break on the beach? Chasing ambulances and police radio calls? Our approach to serving the community — journalistically, as a business enterprise, as a civically engaged entity — is the diametrical opposite of that. If that makes us an “alt-weekly,” then perhaps we should embrace the label. But we’ve always thought of Weld as a publication that is essential to anyone who wants to be fully informed about our community and actively engaged in making it better.
What are the strongest aspects of Weld’s content?
It’s the focus, week in and week out, on things that matter in our community and our state. I think that’s apparent in both our choice of stories and the depth and quality of coverage we provide for stories large and small. I also think that the design and layout of our paper, the look and feel of it, is something that sets us apart. Every week, we get one shot at putting out a really good newspaper. And every week, we pull it off. That starts with our choice of content and our dedication to a high-quality presentation.
What can you do better, or do more of?
If you would attain to that which you are not, you must always be displeased by what you are. St. Augustine said that, and it’s one of my favorite quotations, because I believe it’s absolutely true. To me, it means that I can always be better than I am, as long as I aspire to do so — as well as accepting that I’m always going to fall somewhere short of perfection.
The same is true of Weld, except that the term “displeased” doesn’t quite apply. I’m pleased with what we’ve done during our five years (now nearly six) on the case, and very proud of my association with the people who make it happen. But I’m also determined that we keep on challenging ourselves to improve and excel and expand in all aspects.
In striving for that, of course, one thing that would be of tremendous help to us is more resources. We’re a small business with a big job, and that comes with its own challenges.
What do you consider Weld’s proudest moments, your “greatest hits” over the years?
This probably is a character flaw of some kind, but I have trouble thinking in those terms. It’s like the scene in the movie Bull Durham, when the young pitcher strikes out the side and comes back to the dugout woofing and high-fiving all around. Then he sits down next to his veteran catcher, who lets him have it: His fastball has nothing on it, his curveball is hanging, he was lucky he didn’t get shelled. “Can’t you just let me enjoy the moment?” the pitcher says. And the catcher looks him in the eye and replies, “The moment’s gone.”
Without talking about it a lot, I think that’s kind of our mentality from week to week. Do your best, and then turn around and do it again. Patting ourselves on the back is not something we devote a lot of time to. Perhaps that’s to our detriment, but I don’t think so, given that we have to go and put out another paper next week. Even if we were inclined to celebrate how wonderful we think we are — I don’t know how some of these folks around here manage to do so much of that — for us, the moment’s gone pretty quickly. We just like doing our jobs, and we take pride in the way we do them.
We’ve seen a lot of changes in local media over the past several years. Where do you see it all heading? Are you optimistic?
I don’t know if “optimistic” is the word I’d use. But I do believe that the appetite for local news that is substantive and informative and written well is not going to go away. How that changes over time, relative to ongoing changes in the media in which it is presented, remains to be seen. Given both our past and present, I believe that we’re going to continue to need more good journalism in Birmingham, not less.
What do you make of things like the “reboot” of The Birmingham Times and the appearance of Iron City Ink in the urban market?
For one thing, I’d point out that they’re both newspapers. Yes, like Weld, they have websites and a presence on social media, and they engage in community outreach — but the print product is the flagship, from both an editorial and commercial perspective. It goes back to what I was saying earlier. I don’t think these newspapers are all of us swimming against the tide. I think it’s all of us recognizing that print remains a valued, and valuable, medium at the community level.
Of course, there’s also BirminghamWatch, which is an experiment with a nonprofit news model. It’s an outgrowth of the Alabama Initiative for Independent Journalism, of which I was a co-founder, along with several other folks, including Carol Nunnelley, who’s now the director of BirminghamWatch. The operative idea is that in the future, support for independent journalism at all levels is going to have to come from any number of non-traditional sources, including donor-supported nonprofit organizations.
What are your ambitions for the future of Weld?
That’s simple: Our ambition is to keep doing what we’re doing — and to find ways to do more and better.