If you have not read Tom Charlier's marvelous piece of historical journalism, "The CA at 175: Reporting Our Own Story," do yourself a favor and get a copy of last Sunday's paper, or read it online. It's an unflinching look at the CA's history — the good, the bad, and the ugly — and it's a must-read for anyone who cares about this city.
I say that because the paper has been, for most of its existence, a pretty direct reflection of the attitudes and mores of the citizens of Memphis — its leaders and its common folks — at least, those who were white.
The Commercial Appeal reported on many horrific racial incidents in its first 80 years — lynchings, burnings, race "riots." The reporting was done from the perspective of those doing — or viewing — the dirty work. "Negroes" were seen as subhuman creatures who got what they deserved, and the sickening details of such incidents were laid out dispassionately, as though the writer were reporting on a baseball game. That casual and brutal racism was the prevailing attitude of the white populace at the time, and, perhaps understandably, it's reflected in the tone of the CA's coverage.
Things took a turn for the better in the 1920s, when the CA courageously took on the Ku Klux Klan, exposing its activities with a series of stories and lampooning the group with editorial cartoons by J.P. Alley. The paper won a Pulitzer Prize for its efforts.
But, as Charlier reports, by the 1960s, the CA was back in the pocket of the old racist South, especially during its coverage of the sanitation workers strike and the subsequent assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. The CA's daily cartoon, "Hambone's Meditations," which featured a "philosophical Southern darkey," was another indication that the racial attitude of the paper's leadership was still less than enlightened, even as social and racial unrest was sweeping the nation.
There's much more to Charlier's long and winding saga than a chronicling of the city's race relations. The CA has done a lot of good for the community, and, as is made obvious with several examples, its stellar reporting through the years — investigative and otherwise — helped shape and define what Memphis is today.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the "The CA at 175" is the fearless unveiling of the distressing decline in print circulation that has befallen the CA, and daily newspapers in general. Charlier writes: "From its peak of more than 300,000 Sunday subscribers and 225,000 weekday readers in the early 1980s, the paper's circulation has fallen to nearly 105,000 on Sunday and 69,000 daily." That's a depressing set of numbers.
He is quick to point out that the CA, via its website and print edition, is actually reaching more readers than ever before, including almost a million visitors a month online. There, in a nutshell, of course, is the dilemma facing the nation's daily newspapers: The internet has turned print dollars into digital dimes, with the result being precipitous reductions in staffing at most papers and the outright folding of others.
As last Sunday's CA history lesson makes obvious, a strong daily paper and strong local reporting are vital to the health of a city. So go read it, if you haven't already. As I mentioned earlier, it's online for free, but you should go buy a copy of the print edition.
Some things are worth paying for, and sometimes you don't know what you got 'til it's gone.