Paul Greenberg

Years ago, a decade ago, an old friend emailed me a classic Southern news story. It went down straight. Neat. Like a shot of Early Times. The story came out of the Mobile Press-Register in Alabama back when it was still a daily.

That newspaper has since been reduced to a fragment of its old self, and now puts out a print edition only three days a week. The oldest paper in that state, the Press Register or one of its predecessors had been publishing daily since the early 1800s. The same thing happened, briefly, to Louisiana's fabled Times-Picayune in New Orleans. But here was an article worthy of the old days. Or as my friend summed it up, "Now this is a news story."

It was. The headline was simple, straight-faced, and it made you want to read on: Preacher Says He Was Beaten by Mourners.

Below the hed was a story by Staff Reporter Gary McElroy, a man who had enough sense to know that, when you've got a great story, you don't embellish it. That would be to ruin it. Like putting whipped cream on Southern-fried chicken. Mr. McElroy just knew a good story when he heard it -- and how to write it up. His article began: "A ... street preacher who screamed at a funeral that the deceased was burning in hell said Tuesday he was beaten by mourners for telling the truth."

The rest of the story had just about every element of the Gothic South:

Violence, of course.

Disappointed heirs involved in a dispute over, of course, land.

And, perhaps most Southern of all, theology -- and not your nice, lukewarm, diluted mainstream variety, either. But your old-fashioned, holy-roller, speakin'-in-tongues, damnation-and-hellfire brand of religion, topped off by a fistfight. (What, no snake-handlin'?)

I had to wonder: Was this a news item or a short story by Flannery O'Connor? I laughed. I cried. I sighed. And then I was moved to repent my wasted life. I may have spent it in the geographical South but, wrapped up in the cocoon of what Walker Percy called everydayness, could I still see it? Gary McElroy could -- if this story of his was any example.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.