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W&L Journalism Professor’s New Book Examines Southern Press

From the Civil War to civil rights, Southern newspapers have always played a major role in the region’s history.

In his new book, The Southern Press: Literary Legacies and the Challenge of Modernity, Washington and Lee University journalism professor Doug Cumming argues that what distinguishes journalists who got their start in the South is their primary motivation: less a matter of an informed citizenry and more a question of finding a literary outlet.

On the surface, Cumming said, there is no such thing as a Southern press. “Southern newspapers are as good or as bad as newspapers anywhere in the United States,” said Cumming, who has worked for Southern papers — the Atlanta Constitution, the Raleigh Times and the Raleigh News and Observer. “The professional standards of journalism in my time were national professional standards and continue to be high standards.”

But the more he began to explore the history of Southern newspapers and, especially, some of the legendary editors and writers, the more Cumming realized he was working on a “disguised autobiography.”

“All of these parts of myself were there: 19th-century American history, Southern history, Southern literature, the civil rights movement,” he said. “My heroes growing up were journalists like Ralph McGill and Gene Patterson, both editors of the Atlanta Constitution. Then I realized that New Journalism, which is a love of mine, was part of this because some of the seminal figures in New Journalism are Southerners.”

The book, said Cumming, is not meant to be comprehensive or encyclopedic. There are great newspapers and journalists he does not mention and journalistic embarrassments he does not criticize.

Instead, Cumming offers an argument and a thesis. Historically, he contends, the South did not have large, fast-growing cities with various types of people packed together, a condition that led to the development of the objective style of journalism and crusading exposés that rooted out corruption.

“Instead, the daily press was a gateway for aspiring writers who were too poor to live on a legacy,” Cumming said. “It was a gateway to a world of letters, to being a writer. I think every Southern journalist secretly wanted to write a novel eventually. I think it is more true of Southern journalists than other journalists. I think many Southerners historically got into journalism not because of the All-the-President’s-Men idea that we’re going to change society, but rather to be a writer, to learn writing, to see herself or himself in print.”

Cumming uses newspaper editors’ varying approaches to coverage of the civil rights movement as a way to examine the differences. Even those editors who might have been considered moderate and enlightened did not attack segregation with a crusading spirit.

“They were gently trying to make life better for blacks and to help bring ordinary white Southerners to a more enlightened attitude,” Cumming said.

In February 1960, however, when four students from North Carolina A&T attempted to desegregate the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., “that caught all of those liberal Southern editors by surprise. Some of them had a conversion experience that was almost like a religious experience.”

Published by the Northwestern University Press, the book is part of the Medill School of Journalism’s series, Visions of the American Press.