OPELIKA, Ala. — A couple of weeks ago, the three biggest newspapers in Alabama splashed the same tough editorial across the tops of their front pages.
“Stand for Decency, Reject Roy Moore,” read the bold headline in Birmingham, Mobile and Huntsville, all part of Alabama Media Group. Arguing that the credible sexual-misconduct charges against the former judge, a Republican, disqualified him, it endorsed Democrat Doug Jones for U.S. Senate.
Some readers cheered, and some disagreed enough to cancel their subscriptions.
But at a small-town daily in eastern Alabama, top editor Troy Turner wouldn’t even consider running such an editorial.
“I would have bullet holes in my windows,” said Turner, who grew up not far from the Opelika-Auburn News, where he supervises an 11-member newsroom staff. After starting there as a cub reporter in the 1980s, he came back in 2015 after holding high-ranking editing posts from New York City to New Mexico.
What's more, he said, his own staff has mixed views about Moore. Not everyone is convinced about the allegations first reported by The Washington Post last month. Four women said Moore pursued them romantically as teenagers. And one, Leigh Corfman, said Moore touched her sexually and guided her hand to touch him over his underwear when she was 14 and he was in his early 30s.
Still, this 12,000-circulation paper, which has won numerous statewide awards for excellence, has not ignored the issue.
Instead, mindful of how people feel throughout conservative Lee County (named after the Confederate general), it has taken a cautious approach.
Turner wrote an editorial last month calling for Moore to step down as a candidate, concluding that he could not be an effective senator. Its headline, too, was bold: "It's time for Roy Moore to step aside for Alabama."
It began: “The damage is done. When the situation is so bad that it unites opposing political voices during an era of rigid political divide, it leaves little doubt about what should come next.” Moore should withdraw, it said.
“It was one of the strongest stances the paper has taken,” said Rex Maynor, publisher of the News, which is owned by Berkshire Hathaway’s BH Media Group and does not endorse candidates.
There were some ticked-off readers, but no bullet holes.
And the staff has found other ways to give voice to voters grappling with their mixed emotions. Most importantly, it provides a forum for sometimes contentious discussion.
Many readers are dyed-in-the-wool Republicans and churchgoing Christians who can’t countenance a candidate like Jones who supports abortion rights. Others are disgusted by Moore.
“People tell us that ‘character’ is the main issue,” said Richard “Duke” Maas, the paper’s digital-content coordinator (and the former top editor of the Tampa Tribune), referring to an online poll.
But it’s not clear what they mean, he noted: Moore’s alleged sexual misconduct? His checkered record as a judge? Or his opponent’s support for abortion rights, which deeply offends Bible Belt sensibilities?
Digging deeper, reporter Kara Coleman was out last week talking to residents in the two small cities the paper serves — the more blue-collar Opelika (a railroad town) and Auburn, the college town that is home to Auburn University (and its football heroes, the Tigers).
Coleman certainly knows the territory: She grew up, and was home-schooled, in Roy Moore’s native Gadsden, and was a lifeguard years ago with one of his sons. She has interviewed both candidates in recent months.
Outside the Coffee Cat, a cafe near campus in Auburn, Bill Levins, a 41-year-old beauty-supplies salesman, expressed a thought that seemed surprising even to him.
“This is the first time I’m thinking about voting for a Democrat,” Levins said. He’s troubled by the charges against Moore. “It’s gone beyond Republican and Democrat.”
The paper uses its Facebook page as a forum for discussion. There, plenty of unshakable support for Moore turns up.
“I never have and never will vote for a Democrat. I don’t believe in this liberal hit job for one split second,” wrote Nancy Gorman Andrews. And Laura Childs Jones referred to Jones as “the liberal baby killer.”
One afternoon last week, the paper’s community advisory board gathered in a meeting room just off the newsroom, where rows of empty desks testify to the declining fortunes of the newspaper business and where inspirational quotes decorate the walls. (“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. — Voltaire”)
“What are you hearing from your neighbors?” Turner asked the group that includes a Baptist minister, a League of Women Voters representative, a local business consultant and others.
They couldn’t agree on much except that it is high time for Alabama to clean up its political act after a trifecta of embarrassments: The governor resigned last spring on the brink of impeachment. The state speaker of the house was convicted on multiple felony charges and was ousted. And Moore himself has been twice removed from the Alabama Supreme Court for refusing to follow federal court orders.
But, as the newspaper often hears from its readers, that might not matter on Dec. 12.
“If the rest of the country said the sky is blue, Alabama would say it was green,” wrote Nancy Strickland Hawkins on the News’s Facebook page.
“Hell,” responded James Claborn, “we’d paint it green.”
Whatever happens, the paper will try to reflect its readership but won’t shy away from providing some guidance, too.
“At the big papers, they don’t go into the coffee shops and churches with their readers like we do,” Turner said. “We have to be strategic crusaders.”
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan