By ROY HOFFMAN
ON Nov. 11, 1918, as my dad used to tell me, a reporter named George Flournoy, who went by Gummy, stood in the window of the local daily paper, The Mobile Register, shouting the news of the armistice that ended World War I.
In 1929, after The Register announced it would accelerate updates on the World Series between the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Athletics to ensure that “followers of the national game in this city shall not be many seconds behind each bit of action recorded,” Gummy relayed each play “by megaphone as rapidly as it is received over direct wires of The Associated Press.”
Gummy’s megaphone is back, in digital form. The Internet appeals to our desire to know, now, which is what the management of the newspaper where I work, The Mobile Press-Register, is banking on in its decision to go exclusively online four days a week — like our partner publications The Birmingham News, The Huntsville Times and The New Orleans Times-Picayune. Who wants to wait for the whop of a rolled paper on the porch every morning when its contents can be had in real time, with just a click?
The physical editions aren’t disappearing entirely; Wednesday, Friday and Sunday papers will be offered in old-fashioned newsprint as well. But the news on other days will be available only on the Internet, for those who are wired. Which raises a question: Given how many Alabamians don’t have regular Internet access, what will they be missing?
Let’s play this history game: what stories of special interest to Alabamians, and the nation, were published in newspapers on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday?
The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on Sept. 15, 1963, and the first attempt by civil rights advocates to march over Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, both took place on Sundays. Monday newspapers gave the reports.
Tim Cook, of Robertsdale, was named the chief executive of Apple on Aug. 24, 2011, a Wednesday, headlined in Thursday’s papers. (Online readers got the news, of course, as soon as it happened.)
How will stories like these reach readers who are not connected to the Internet? TV and radio will deliver the basics. When President Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, a Friday, people clustered around their black-and-white TVs — but they immersed themselves in the details in their Saturday papers.
I was recently covering a story in nearby Prichard, Ala., a town of 23,000 people with 36 percent of them beneath the poverty line; it made national news last year when it was too broke to pay pensions. In casual conversation I asked the police chief, a forward-looking official who carries both a gun and an iPad, what percentage of the town has Internet access. He figured 25 percent.
How many Prichard residents read the newspaper itself? Far more than subscribe, I’d hazard to guess. I’ve written many stories about people and places in that community, and I know how papers get passed around at the barbershop, the church social, the front porch.
Countless folks I’ve profiled in my home state have been old, poor or seen as marginal; they live down rural lanes or speak English as a second language. Yet they clutch the paper when it’s in their hands. They are hungry, too, for news of their community, town, state and nation seven days a week.
Industry leaders are taking newspapers into uncharted territories. Many of their employees will be let go in this downsized Internet world, with its changing demands for skills and talent — in fact, I am one of 181 workers at my newspaper being laid off.
Will the papers succeed online? I’d more willingly lay down money at a Biloxi casino than bet on the outcome. I’m a 59-year-old human interest writer who likes to compose with a pen.
Of this I’m sure, though: Whether it’s through a commitment to public Wi-Fi service in every town, or giving tax deductions for family computers and online services, or offering free classes on how to operate what for many are still newfangled gadgets, attention must be paid.
Make sure everyone is in earshot.
Roy Hoffman is the author, most recently, of “Alabama Afternoons: Profiles and Conversations.”