Some of that selfish, even unsavory behavior—including rampant cronyism, pay-offs, and back-door deals—was shoved under a glaring spotlight recently at the ethics trial of Mike Hubbard, Alabama’s now former Speaker of the House.
“There are moments when it becomes obvious the people are simply not important. Only the money,” Archibald wrote in June in a dispatch from the Montgomery trial, which ended with Hubbard’s conviction and seems to have been a veritable feast of snakes in expensive suits. The proceedings offered such theatrical elements as testimony by Gov. Robert Bentley, who—as Archibald put it— “is hip–deep in his own sorta–sex scandal” involving a top aide.
There were moments at the trial, Archibald wrote, “that should reach out and grab every Alabamian by the collar, that should shake them and wake them and make them want to scream.”
You see, Archibald—he also covers the ongoing conflict between Birmingham Mayor William Bell and the City Council—believes someone needs to be the town crier, a role played by American newspaper columnists for generations. “I have a healthy sense of indignation that when people do stupid things, you want to call bullshit,” Archibald told B-Metro. “It’s a target–rich environment in this place,” he adds, laughing.
But it is not just his disappointment in politicians or hypocritical religious leaders that motivates Archibald—who’s been at The News since 1986 and written his column since 2004—or makes his writing interesting. There is also love in his heart, a deep affection for the people of Birmingham and Alabama, one he expressed vividly last July when he drove around the state “searching for interesting souls doing interesting things” and wrote 40 features in a month. “I set out to reconnect with my state, to restore my faith in myself and in the people of this place I call home,” he wrote in August. And Archibald did just that, crafting heartfelt profiles of average people that offer a lovely counterpoint to his unsentimental dissections of human frailty.
It is Archibald’s ability to write tough, angry, and often funny political commentary on the one hand and charming, people–centered feature stories on the other, to explore both the quotidian workings of democratic institutions and the mysteries of the human heart, that make him not just a good reporter but also a damned good writer and a unique, valuable voice on behalf of Alabama’s better angels. He is also, arguably, the last of the great old newspaper columnists in the state in the age of the disruptive internet.
Just before the start of the Hubbard trial, Archibald welcomed a visitor to the AL.com newsroom and talked about a variety of topics, including the critical importance of old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporting, even for a columnist; the lessons he’s learned from journalism about human nature, and about himself; some of his own self-doubts; and the future of the news business, a trade he loves and hopes to continue to practice for a long time to come.
Archibald, born in Alabaster, was the son of a Methodist minister and lived in several North Alabama towns before his family moved to Birmingham before he started sixth grade. He graduated from Banks High School in 1981. He found his way to journalism at The University of Alabama after five other majors and worked as copy editor and editorial page editor at the student newspaper, The Crimson-White, before earning his degree in 1986.
However, a week after graduation, when Archibald took his first job—covering Jasper for The News—he had done little actual reporting. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” he says. But Archibald says he gradually “fell in love” with reporting—the guts, the foundation, of any good news writing.
“(A column) doesn’t mean anything if there’s no reporting,” he says. “I like to make stuff entertaining. I like to make them as pretty as I can, and funny, too, (but) if there’s no substance there, it’s worthless.”
The substance for many of Archibald’s recent columns came from his observations of the ongoing power struggle at City Hall —and not just between Mayor and Council, but between Council President Johnathan Austin and some other members. The dysfunction at City Hall is almost unprecedented, according to Archibald. “I’ve covered this stuff for 30 years and I’ve never seen it like this,” he says. “It makes me sad.”
But he often makes the same point with humor. In March, he penned “a cease and desist letter” to the Mayor and City Council: “This order is to inform you that we, THE PEOPLE, have had it up to HERE. If we wanted a mayor and council calling each other names and refusing to share basic supplies, we would have elected the second-grade class at Washington Elementary School. And we would be far better off.”
Archibald has certain basic standards for public officials. “You want them to be vigilant,” he says. “You want leaders to be good with the people’s money. You want them to not be crooks and to be tolerant of other people.”
Archibald also regularly takes political leaders to task for another sin—perhaps the cardinal sin in his book—hypocrisy. Some Alabama politicians, according to Archibald, trumpet their strict conservative morality and seek to police others’ behavior but suddenly become very forgiving when they get caught breaking laws or ethics rules. “They don’t want accountability for themselves. And they don’t want the law to apply to them,” he wrote in April.
Archibald had become very “disillusioned with the whole political system” prior to taking off last summer on that statewide road trip in search of good people and good stories. The trip was “great fun” and was rooted in one of the veteran reporter’s core beliefs. “Everybody has a story,” he says.
He wrote in August that he “found people who were extraordinary simply because of the way they did the ordinary. With care and concern. And discipline. And empathy.”
He met Alabamians like Kristin Law, an art curator who came home to the impoverished Black Belt and is now “teaching living, breathing people to be artists, helping them use their talents to earn a living, to feel good about themselves.” He met Pearl Brown of Snead who, at age 89, despite heart attacks and a stroke, worked at a barbecue joint and did her own yard work. He spent time in Tuscumbia with Dick Cooper—museum curator at Alabama’s Music Hall of Fame—whom he describes as “ordinary and outrageous all the same time.” Cooper, Archibald reports, has laid carpet and installed satellite systems but also found time to produce records, write for Billboard magazine, and hang out with Bob Dylan.
The adventure was “therapeutic,” Archibald says—thanks to the basic humanity of the people he met. “You know Alabama— you go out to talk to anybody (and) it doesn’t matter what they look like, where they go to church, what color their skin is, what political party they belong to, they are basically good people, or they have good qualities,” he says.
Working as a reporter for 30 years has taught Archibald “a lot” of lessons about human nature, he says. “One is, if you show people a need they will fill it,” he says. “If a family’s lost everything, they’ll have something the next day, because people are inherently good to individuals.”
Archibald’s work has helped him better appreciate our common humanity. “There’s not a damn nickel’s worth of difference between the governor and the guy on the street who asks you for money,” he says. “And I don’t mean our governor, but any of them. (journalists) are able to talk to anybody in any walk of life on an equal footing, and that is also as good as money, because it makes you reassess what’s important in life, and it ain’t stuff.”
Archibald has also learned things about himself. “I think I’ve learned that I can take more than I thought I could,” he says. More work? More pressure? “I mean some people telling you that you suck,” he says, laughing.
Opinion writers should develop thick skins, according to Archibald. “If you throw stones, you better expect people to throw them back, and I do throw a stone or two,” he says. “It’s only the ones that have the ring of truth that bother me.”
Archibald likes to think that he and The News (owned by Alabama Media Group) have made positive contributions to public discourse over the years, but doesn’t believe they’re infallible. “Sometimes you sit back and think, ‘You changed some things. Did you change them for the better?’” he says. “I’m not always sure that we did, looking back. I’m not always sure I made the right calls. I would get outraged and find out two years later that maybe the bad guy wasn’t the bad guy after all.”
Doubts regularly run through Archibald’s mind. “There’s the question of whether I beat up on somebody too hard, whether I’m singing the same song all the time,” he says. “Am I too isolated?” But, again, it’s the real work of journalism that saves him. “That’s why you report things,” he says. “If you don’t, you will be…too isolated, too elitist, all those things. You got to talk to people. We don’t do enough of that.”
The News, like every other news organization, has undergone wrenching changes due to the internet and other market forces, with drastic reductions in editorial staff often meaning more work for the remaining reporters. “My job has changed in the sense that I have to write more and the sense that I don’t necessarily have a captive audience every day,” he says.
He also faces his deadlines, calling the constant need to come up with the next provocative column “a treadmill,” especially since he has to live to his own standards. “If it sucks, it sucks under your picture,” he says. “It’s a bit of pressure, you know. And I think that pressure is as difficult as it gets. It’s not like ideas are hard to come by anymore, but time for discernment is hard, and (time) to report it to the point that it makes you happy.”
But not everything has changed that much. “I do the same thing I’ve done, certainly since 2004,” Archibald says. And he has willingly adapted to technological changes. He was “an early adopter of social media,” he says, especially Facebook and Twitter. “I value when people share my stuff that way,” he says. “It feels good, and I value most of the response you get.”
He also likes video and infographics and would like to do more with them.
However, Archibald is still an old-school scribe. “I love the words more than anything,” he says. And regardless of mode or technique, journalists still have the same core mission, according to Archibald. “The same principles that have always applied in journalism apply now. We have to find stuff out. We need to do a better job of finding stuff out. We’ve got to tell it in an interesting way. We’ve got to tell it in an accessible way.”
Despite all the changes in the business, Archibald believes strongly that a strong press is essential to the functioning of our democracy. “Look at the state of the republic right now,” he says. “If we don’t figure out a way to reach people in a meaningful way, we’re screwed, because information is critical—and not just information, but distilled information.”
The media can’t have the same attitude they had in the past, however. “For years we were arrogant about it,” he says. “We said, ‘We got this, so come and get it.’ We can’t be arrogant anymore.”
How does he feel about the future of American journalism? “I’m optimistic that there will be jobs available in the business and that there will be people doing amazing stuff, and I sure hope that I’m one of them,” he says. “It’s not going to look anything like the way it looked when I started, and that’s not all a bad thing.”
One of those people with jobs in news likely will be Archibald’s son, Ramsey, who earned a master’s degree in journalism from The University of Alabama this spring. Archibald and his wife, Alecia—a writer and editor—have another son, Drew, who lives in Washington, D.C., and works in risk management, and a daughter, Mary Amelia (Mamie), who graduated from Birmingham-Southern College recently with a degree in visual art.
Archibald loves what he does to a fault. “I love it too much, really. It’s not healthy how much I love it, because I…never contemplate any options,” he says. “I feel like I have the best job in this business, maybe the best job in the state, even with all the changes in the industry.”
He enjoys hearing from people who really read and follow his work. “It’s the readers who make it so much fun,” he says. “They’re the ones who make it OK when people say I suck.”
Best of all, Archibald says, “You don’t have to kiss anybody’s ass. How many get paid and not have to kiss anybody’s ass? It’s like money.”