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Anatomy of an award-winner: 'Dixie's Broken Heart.'.

'Dixie's Broken Heart'

I divide my time between teaching at the University of Alabama during the academic year and writing in the summer for The Mobile Register, where I once was associate editor. The arrangement keeps my skills limber and fills my notebooks with good material.

The Register favors projects that address the state's biggest problems. Editor Stan Tiner will commit his veterans to months of investigation so that they might produce special reports with remarkable depth.

Last summer, I worked on a new kind of project - one designed for the editorial page. The idea for it occurred during the spring gubernatorial primaries, when the discourse degenerated into disgraceful personal attacks and even racism. I began to despair over my native state's failure to move forward. I also was aware how Alabama was falling behind its neighbors in certain key areas such as school reform, children's programs, and home rule.

To address this deficiency, I proposed to visit a half-dozen Deep South states and see what they had accomplished. I particularly wanted to observe the difference that strong leadership can make.

I logged about 5,000 miles crisscrossing the region and interviewed 112 people. I also immersed myself in research, drawing upon stacks of reports, books, and articles. In no place during my journey did I find perfection, but I did find significant change. This experience provided the contrast I needed to show where Alabama stood at the end of the 20th century.

I wrote a series of seven editorials, which I titled "Dixie's Broken Heart." Meanwhile, The Register's editorial board had decided it could endorse neither the Republican nor the Democrat in the general election for governor.

This circumstance allowed me to write from a nonpartisan perspective, pitching my arguments for why Alabama needs a new kind of politics.

Apparently, many readers shared our hunger for better ideas. The Register reprinted the series, and leadership training groups around the state have distributed copies to their members. Thousands more copies have gone to business and community leaders. The reprint identifies me as the author, so I get lots of telephone calls and letters.

The series won the 1999 Distinguished Writing Award for editorials from the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

Editorials have an advantage over news writing: You can lay out the facts as any good reporter might, but then you can advocate action. With this project, I faced the challenge of packing months of work into just seven pieces, but the result was satisfying.

Reform in Alabama moves like molasses on a cold morning, but one day we'll get there.

The two Alabamas

An excerpt from The Mobile Register editorial, October 11, 1998

A long U.S. 11 in Tuscaloosa County, which parallels Interstate 59, you pass the back door of Alabama's new Mercedes-Benz plant. Rising Oz-like in the distance, its white buildings shimmer through the native pines, suggesting the wizardry and wealth of Alabama's high-tech dreams.

Go east for another mile or so, and you'll see what appears to be a down-at-the-heels trailer park. Families sometimes stop there to inquire about renting. What they find, however, is Vance Elementary School. You can't see the original building from the road because 17 portable classrooms surround it.

Crowding at the school may grow worse. A Los Angeles company plans to develop a real mobile home park nearby that will attract 550 households. The prospect frightens local people - and for good reason. The county has no zoning laws to manage such growth. It can't even levy sufficient taxes and fees to pay for schools, roads, and other services that newcomers will need. Still, Principal David Thompson says Vance Elementary will find a way to teach these new kids, even if he has to put them in closets.

Naturally, people who promote Alabama's image would rather have visitors approach Mercedes' front door. Five years ago, the state committed more than $250 million to attract the plant, which caused the company's losing suitors to complain that incentives had gotten out of hand. But since then, Mercedes has exceeded even its own expectations. The plant employs 1,600 people, and recently it underwent a $40 million expansion. Another 1,300 people work in satellite factories that supply the assembly line.

Alabamians can be proud because Mercedes reflects a shining moment when leadership propelled our state to the front of the class. Alabama outbid its rivals, and the gamble is paying off. Equally important, Mercedes has brought something we Alabamians rarely demand of our institutions: excellence.

This success, however, has a short reach. Just outside of the plant's fence, in the community around Vance Elementary, many people can't qualify for those high-paying jobs. They lack skills that the German automaker requires. Instead, they drive trucks, clerk in stores, mine coal, or find other work they can do.

Along U.S. 11, within a few square miles of Mercedes' gleaming edifice, is a microcosm of Alabama. In one direction, you see the reward for decisive action and vision, as Alabama workers produce some of the world's finest vehicles. In the other direction, you encounter people struggling to get by, with little hope for good jobs. You see a school suffering from neglect and crowding, and a local government unable to manage costly sprawl.

What you see is a story of two Alabamas - one pegged to a promising future, the other trapped in the weary past.

Bailey Thomson is associate professor of journalism at the University of Alabama and former associate editor of The Mobile Register. His e-mail address is
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Title Annotation:award-winning series of editorials in The Mobile Register
Author:Thomson, Bailey
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Jun 22, 1999
Previous Article:Joe Rodriguez, columnist.
Next Article:The Why, Who and How of the Editorial Page.

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