It is Sunday, early, and I’m in Mobile, Ala. I’m sitting in Serda’s Coffee Company on Royal Street, where I’ve got a cup of their dark roast and a weekly newspaper called Lagniappe.
Earlier this morning, at 5, I stumbled down to the lobby at the Malaga Inn asking the startled night clerk,
“Where can I get a great cup of coffee?”
“There’s a coffee making machine in your room,” she said.
“I can’t use that because it will wake my wife,” I said.
“Why don’t you walk over to the Admiral Sims Hotel?”
The night clerk at the Admiral Sims said his kitchen was not yet open but, perhaps I could find a cup on Royal Street. “You might try Serda’s on Royal Street.”
I found Serda’s but it was also dark. But then I thought I saw some movement — a young woman who appeared to be cleaning the counter. I tapped on the door.
“We won’t be open for another hour. … I haven’t even started the brewing yet.”
Perhaps it was my downcast, hang-dog, 76-year-old face, but after a moment of reflection she opened the door saying, “Come on in and let me see what I can fix for you.”
When I sat down, I was pleasantly surprised to find a weekly newspaper, Lagniappe, and was immediately reminded of The Island News in Beaufort. So I sat, watched my reluctant waitress fire up her stainless steel brewmaster, and read Lagniappe’s lively copy.
The first thing I found was a story about an ancient forest just discovered in the Gulf of Mexico. This forest — actually an underwater field of 60,000 year old stumps — was recently uncovered by Hurricane Sally.
“It’s some of the oldest wood in the world in wood form,” said Representative Jerry Carl (R-Mobile). “It’s incredibly rare for wood this old to remain like wood for so long.”
Apparently local cabinet makers have some interest in these undersea stumps.
“We have commercial interests contact us regularly about harvesting the wood for furniture. …”
Then I found another article titled “White-collar crimes” that tells the story of a two-person task force that operates out of Mobile’s District Attorney’s Office.
Apparently these two intrepid lawyers have the duty of pursuing public corruption and deceptive business practices and, so far, have secured $350,000 in court ordered restitution while pursuing another $1.5 million for 90 open cases.
Lagniappe as has eight pages of local sports; and is chock-a-block with advertising, but is, according to editorial writer Rob Holbert, swimming against an incoming tide. He then writes about Mobile’s once dominant daily newspaper —The Press-Register.
“Mobile’s Press-Register exists as a bureau of the Birmingham News now. The publisher is in B-ham, as are the editors and just about every other thing that makes up an independent newspaper. A few journalists are left here to cover an area once covered by dozens of reporters. Every time I pick up the Press-Register in the past couple of years, it’s mostly Birmingham news with some local stuff sprinkled in.”
Holbert goes on to say that “The newspaper world has changed a lot since I interned at the Press-Register in 1987. Back then people expected for pay for news each day. Then the internet came along and someone convinced the newspaper gods that “clicks” were more important than placing value on the news product, so newspapers taught everyone that news was now free online. …”
He says that Lagniappe (the weekly paper) has “done lots of work over the past few years that no one in Alabama has the guts to touch.” But he knows that their newsroom — a total of 4 reporters — need realistic salaries and some kind of budget that will allow investigative pieces that often take months to research and weeks to write.
Their situation — not in any way unique to Mobile — has come down getting some return for the work of actually digging out the “news” that is going on under the Gulf waters; and at the busy Port of Mobile; and happening in their beautifully illuminated office buildings that is not now getting the exposure that is necessary for a healthy city the size of Mobile. It is a situation that could close down their small paper at any moment.
Holbert ends his editorial with a plea for help—help in the form of paid subscriptions—that would put Mobile (population 194,669) on par with Birmingham (population 212,211).
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at email@example.com.