Stories are important

Jeff vonKaenel

For the last 39 years, editors, publishers and staff of alternative news media from around the country have gathered annually to mingle, learn, drink and gossip. This year, around 200 staffers from papers similar to SN&R visited Austin, Texas.

Much was discussed: music marketing, Freedom of Information Act requests, cover design, labor law and libel law. There was the usual crop of convention sponsors promising, once again, that very soon, newspapers would start making a ton of money online. While I remain skeptical about this, I do appreciate all the free swag.

We were also reminded of the importance of what we do. We heard from Pulitzer Prize winner, esteemed journalist and historian Hank Klibanoff as well as former Texas legislator and former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis. Davis told us how the media played a crucial role in bringing attention to her 2013 filibuster at the Texas Legislature. According to Davis, her filibuster would have gone almost unnoticed without reporting from the nonprofit Texas Observer and social media attention. Thanks to those forces, she could hear the crowd forming throughout the building as she spoke. And spoke. And spoke, for 13 hours.

While her filibuster only delayed the restrictive anti-abortion legislation, it did rally the pro-choice movement in Texas and around the country. Davis spoke at length about the significance of the alternative media. She told us that mainstream media questioned her ability to be a fit mother rather than staying focused on whether or not she would make a good governor. She asked why they weren’t asking the male candidates these same questions.

Klibanoff, author of The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation spoke at the conference. This book, coauthored by Gene Roberts, tells how some very brave journalists covered the civil rights movement and the impact of Jim Crow segregation. The mostly ignored black press diligently covered the lynchings, the discrimination and the activities of civil right activists. With a few notable exceptions, the Southern mainstream press rarely covered African Americans and treated the civil rights movement as if it was a criminal activity.

Now a professor at Atlanta’s Emory University, Klibanoff oversees the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project. University students from various majors investigate unsolved and unpunished racially motivated murders from the civil rights era. The students wade through historical documents, interview participants and visit crime scenes and graveyards to put together historical narratives.

Klibanoff told us the story of a young black man, Isaiah Nixon, who in 1948 was killed in front of his six children after voting in a Democratic primary. Soon after, his family, fearing for their safety, moved away, and the exact location of Nixon’s gravesite was forgotten.

One of the suspects was acquitted, the other not charged. Nixon’s daughter, who had seen her father murdered, told the students how angry she’d been. In the process of their investigation, Klibanoff’s students discovered her father’s missing gravesite. In an emotional video presented at the conference, the daughter visited the gravesite for the first time with the student researchers. She told them how much she appreciated their efforts, and that at last, she could feel the old anger dissipating.

Stories are important. Next year, the alternative newspapers will gather again in a new city, Washington, D.C. But first, we have another 52 weeks to tell more stories.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.