The Birmingham (Ala.) News

By: Mark Fitzgerald

Pound for pound, newspapers published in the Sun Belt are among the best in the nation. In some places, especially in Florida, one reason for this is because the competition is so good. But for many, it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time as relentless household growth in their markets buffer the industry’s harsher realities.

And then there’s The Birmingham News in Alabama ? a paper that keeps getting better, earning a Pulitzer this year among other honors while serving a city that continues to shrink.

“Birmingham is a Rust Belt, steel-making city that follows the trends of a Detroit or a Cleveland,” says Assistant Managing Editor Chuck Close, the editor of the News’ ambitious ongoing series “Birmingham at the Crossroads.”

The project takes an unblinking look at all the factors holding the city down ? among them racial resentments, blight, a broken education system, and a simple lack of trust. The News devoted one article to show the city fathers that other fractious groups learned to build trust, and gain civic progress. One example was a fund-raising effort by an elite Birmingham college to finally restore the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church 24 years after a bomb set by segregationists killed four black girls there.

At a time when other metros are shrinking newsrooms, the Newhouse-owned News has the biggest newsgathering staff in Alabama, maintains bureaus in four metro locations and the state capital, and has its own Washington reporter. But the paper is all about Birmingham, insists Editor Tom Scarritt.

“If people want to know something about Birmingham, we want them to come to us first,” Scarritt says. The current mantra of “local, local, local,” he adds, “isn’t something we had to rediscover.”

At the News, even projects start as local stories ? and that’s how it won the 2007 Pulitzer for investigative reporting. Reporter Brett Blackledge exposed corruption and nepotism in Alabama’s two-year college system that extended into the Statehouse ? where embarrassed legislators recently tabled a resolution congratulating the paper on its prize.

The News has a knack for finding and clearly explaining misdeeds related to such local concerns as wasteful sewer commission spending or money-losing municipal bond “swaps,” and then not letting go. Its editorial writers, who were Pulitzer finalists last year, and columnists such as the often-biting John Archibald get their shots in, too.

“The City Council, the county, the Water Commission are all fodder for the News,” says Dennis Jones, a journalism professor at Samford University in Birmingham. Jones, who has been picking up the News for 15 years, adds, “It’s an excellent paper.”

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