Someone told me Friday that there’s a new local website that someone has set up to compete with the Birmingham newspaper. Because I’ve thought seriously of the same idea for years — and because I despise what that newspaper has become — I was eager to see the site.
Sadly, I was very disappointed.
It wasn’t that Alabama Today isn’t a decent site or that the stories are poorly written. As soon as I saw the mix of stories being promoted, it was very clear that the site reflects the world view of someone who assumes politics and government are the most important things in the world.
I spent years working among people like that when I was a political consultant — and I know that people who believe that can’t produce anything I’m going to want to read.
The site is called Alabama Today — a name which I once considered using on a statewide newspaper — but it’s really Conservative Alabama Politics Today. The name suggests that it’s a general-interest website for news from the state, but it’s clearly directed at the things on the mind of a very tiny political class — a group of activists who tend to be out of touch with the people they claim to be working for.
As negative as I sound about it, I don’t wish the site poorly. The founder is a woman by the name of Apryl Marie Fogel, who describes herself as “a political activist with over a decade of experience.” When a founder of a news site openly calls herself a political activist instead of a journalist, I know it’s a political advocacy site — whether the person intends that or not — rather than a place that any real journalism will be practiced.
Fogel seems like an interesting and impressive woman — professionally and personally — but look at her LinkedIn profile. Everything she’s done has been related to politics or government. People such as her are valuable to campaigns and to those who have an agenda to push. But a life lived in that bubble doesn’t prepare someone for communicating depth and broader truth to an audience that isn’t similarly caught up in the bubble.
If you spend time among political types, you find that they’ve lost touch with what real people are thinking or saying. To them, pretty much everything is related to a campaign, a politician, a cause or a policy agenda. They have an amazing form of tunnel vision — and they rarely realize it. They honestly believe that their political passions are the most important things in the world. They believe the world can be saved if other people will just listen to them and fall lockstep into political activity.
I know. I’ve been there.
I’ve talked many times here about why this isn’t true. Not only is political action doomed to fail, but the very concept of fixing the world by getting a majority to agree to force their wonderful agenda on everybody else is morally flawed. But that’s impossible to see when you live in that political bubble.
I’m very disappointed that a site such as Alabama Today couldn’t be a site for real journalism that targets what real people are thinking and talking about — the vast majority of which has nothing to do with politics. Honest.
I’m even more disappointed than I otherwise would be because I detest what our local newspaper has become. The big national newspaper chain that owns and operates it has destroyed it and continues to produce a product that’s getting worse and worse every day. A few years ago, half the staff was fired — including anybody who knew how to edit copy decently — and the editorial product has been on a downhill slide ever since. The paper prints three times a week now, not daily.
The reporters at al.com tend to be terrible writers. They don’t understand grammar. Their copy is riddled with typos and other errors. It seems that they’ve never heard of Associated Press style, which is the accepted professional writing guide for the industry. Even worse, many of the writers are arrogant and opinionated about things they clearly don’t understand. Even when they’re not injecting opinions into news, they write stories that leave basic, obvious questions unanswered — because they don’t know what they’re doing and they no longer have good editors guiding their work.
As an ex-journalist, I’m pained to see what was once a great newspaper — The Birmingham News — reduced to something not much better than the high school newspaper I edited many years ago. I’m truly offended by what the newspaper has become, especially with the garbage that gets posted to the website, which clearly isn’t even read by any editor before posting.
For all these reasons, I desperately want something such as Alabama Today to succeed. But this is a narrow speciality site with a name the promises something it is not going to deliver.
Fogel might well be able to make her site a financial success. She seems like a bright and driven woman who will connect with the right people and get the support of others inside the bubble. But she doesn’t have the background or understanding of journalism or even the interest to do real journalism.
And that really disappoints me.
If you spend life in a political bubble, you lose touch with people outside it. When I was a newspaper editor and publisher, I had to interact with people of all sorts. Most of what they cared about had nothing to do with politics. That gave me a real advantage when I later worked in politics for all those years. I understood what real non-political people were interested in — and what might move their votes. I eventually came to see that sort of thinking for the evil it really is, though.
Real change of a lasting kind isn’t going to come from changing which party is in charge every few years or from training new people to become “activists” of one kind or another. Real change is going to come from people realizing the immorality and impracticality of using politics for change.
That’s counter-intuitive, but it will make sense in the long run. Unfortunately, people inside the bubble can’t see that what they’re doing is both useless and immoral. I was once the same way, so maybe there’s hope for some of these people to change, too.
Note: If you’d like to hear more of my thoughts about why I got out of politics, listen to Ben Stone’s interview with me on the Bad Quaker podcast a couple of years ago. Stone is no longer producing new episodes since he had health problems, but his archives are still online.