Alabama Press Association celebrates 150 years

It’s been said that newspapers are the first draft of history. This month, those responsible for those first drafts in Alabama will celebrate 150 years of working together to promote the craft of local journalism and the public’s right to know about what’s going on in the halls of local government.

It was 1871 during the height of Reconstruction – with Alabama still reeling from a devastating Civil War – that the editor of the Montgomery Advertiser, William Wallace Screws, called together eight Alabama newspaper editors and publishers to propose convening “the members of the Press of Alabama.” That discussion signaled the start of what became the Alabama Press Association (APA).

An Alabama State Journal from 1871 announces plans for the formation of an Alabama Press Association. (contributed)

“We do believe we are the oldest trade association in the state, or certainly one of the oldest,” said Felicia Mason, APA executive director.

A century and a half later, the APA boasts some 130 active and associate members, serving communities in every corner of the state and the places between. The organization includes newspapers that sell and deliver newspapers (or their digital counterparts) to paid subscribers, as well as publications that are distributed free but have active editorial teams that report news and information to their readers.

Despite the economic challenges some newspapers have faced during the digital age, and through the ongoing pandemic, APA membership has held steady for decades. Indeed, many community newspapers across Alabama continue to be family-owned and are vital, must-read sources of information in the towns they serve.

“Our newspapers are doing what they’ve always done,” Mason said. From covering city council meetings and high school sports to following area business developments and recognizing community leaders – it’s “the kind of stories you want to clip and put on the refrigerator,” she said.

“People do expect you to cover everything,” said Ann Smith. For nearly 50 years, Smith and her husband, Joel, and then their son Jack, were the family that put out The Eufaula Tribune. In 2004, Joel and Ann Smith received APA’s Lifetime Achievement Award. The family sold the paper in 2006. Joel Smith died in 2009.

Ann Smith officially joined the family enterprise in the 1980s when it faced a common dilemma for a community newspaper. “They were short of help,” she recalled, chuckling. At first she wrote a social column, then became senior writer and later associate editor and publisher.

“I covered police news, the zoning board, city council – all the things that you do,” Smith said.

The Mobile Register printing facility in the 1930s. (The Encyclopedia of Alabama)

Small weekly and semiweekly newspapers always outnumbered dailies in Alabama, and that remains the case today, Mason said. Like many other industries, technology has transformed how newspapers are produced. But the mission – to keep local readers informed – hasn’t changed.

KA Turner knows a thing or two about Alabama newspapers, large and small. She worked at a small community newspaper in Montevallo during college, helping process photographs when that still entailed dark rooms, chemicals and paper. She is now senior editor for print at Alabama Media Group, the organization behind, The Birmingham News, The Huntsville Times, Press-Register in Mobile, as well as the Mississippi Press and other platforms. In all, she has worked at nine newspapers in Alabama, from Alexander City to Selma and multiple points in between.

“When you think about these companies, and they are companies, many of them have been fixtures in their communities for decades,” said Turner, who also serves as APA board president. “They not only provide a trusted source of information in their communities; they are the way that other business communicate in a community with their customers.” She noted as community-based businesses, newspapers are also local employers and taxpayers.

“They are active parts of their communities, as well as providing an important community service, and that’s pretty amazing.”

Another longtime mission of newspapers and the APA is advocating for “government in the sunshine” – ensuring government meetings stay open and government records remain accessible and affordable for the public.

For decades, APA has maintained a presence at the Alabama State House with the goal of securing and strengthening laws protecting reporters’ and the people’s right to observe government meetings and obtain information from public agencies.

In 2005, APA successfully lobbied the Legislature to approve the Alabama Open Meetings Act, protecting public access to government-related gatherings, be it a meeting of the local town council or a major state board. APA continues to lobby to improve the state’s Open Records Act, to make government records easier to obtain. To date, lawmakers have yet to buy in on APA’s full slate of recommendations on the latter.

At the 2019 APA Media Summit, from left, Ben Shurett, Regina Wright, Bill Keller and Tom Wright. (contributed)

“It’s difficult work, to protect the public’s interest,” said Bill Keller, who was APA executive director over two stints in the 1980s and 1990s.

On the flip side, elected officials often seek APA’s and its members’ attention in hopes of obtaining newspaper endorsements. During election years, it’s not uncommon for a parade of candidates to make their way to APA’s annual convention to press the flesh. It is not a gathering for squeamish politicians, who may face a barrage of tough, probing questions from editors and publishers. Gov. Kay Ivey is scheduled to attend, later this month, the APA annual summer convention that will celebrate the organization’s sesquicentennial.

“Editorials have always been a tool to influence the community and help move it forward,” Mason said. And while some larger papers in the state have moved away from editorials endorsing candidates, many smaller papers continue the tradition.

Keller said one of the most remarkable things about Alabama newspapers, and the association that represents them, is their ability to adapt and stay a progressive force for the state.

In the early days of the APA, the association and its member newspapers played an important role in efforts to rewrite the 1875 state constitution, pushing for public funding of schools, recruitment of out-of-state industry and making government meetings public. More than a century later, newspapers became some of the earliest and strongest advocates for making changes and improvements to Alabama’s current constitution, drafted in 1901, including removing racist language from the document. Last year, Alabama voters agreed to remove the language and other archaic sections that endorse poll taxes, suffrage for men only and segregated schools – positions that have long been nullified by the courts.

Alabama newspapers were among the early and important advocates for creating a statewide chamber of commerce, back in the 1930s.

In 1951, forward-thinking APA board members established the Alabama Newspaper Advertising Service (ANAS), a separate business affiliate that today allows clients to easily place ads, including classifieds, in as many as 124 Alabama newspapers, including on their digital platforms. Through the service, advertisers can reach as many as 700,000 Alabama households and more than 1 million readers. Seventy years after its creation, ANAS is considered one of the strongest press association ad-placement services in the country, with its revenues supporting the APA’s and local newspapers’ bottom lines.

Of course, historically, Alabama newspapers have often reflected less-progressive elements of the culture, defending institutions and practices now considered abhorrent. Many Alabama newspapers in 1901 praised the then-new state constitution and its codification of Jim Crow rules and the disenfranchisement of Blacks. Many Alabama newspapers also gave short shrift to the lynching of Blacks during the darkest days of Jim Crow, and in the 1950s and ‘60s were cool or even dismissive of nonviolent efforts to dismantle segregation and enact federal civil rights legislation.

On the other hand, two Alabama newspaper editors, the Advertiser’s Grover Hall in 1928, and The Tuscaloosa News’ Buford Boone in 1957, were awarded the Pulitzer Prize – American journalism’s highest honor – for courageous editorials challenging the state’s racist and violent status quo. Hall’s editorials blasted the violence of the Ku Klux Klan and religious intolerance. He later argued for release from prison of the Scottsboro Boys, a group of Black teenagers accused in 1931 of…

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