Heather Milam Nikolich and Mark Kelly believe in Birmingham, a city experiencing substantial growth after decades of stagnation, and one in which there are unique brands of growing pains and the ever-present potential for corruption.
As the general manager and publisher of Weld, respectively, Milam Nikolich and Kelly view the publication they co-founded as a means of giving back to the community by keeping the public informed of the decisions made by the powerful and by helping members of the community connect to each other.
They also believe that, after more than five years of publication, it is time for their company to grow. Rather than do what many small businesses do after they have established themselves, such as seek a larger company to acquire them or convene a capital call with investors, Milam Nikolich and Kelly decided to embark upon an experimental path: crowdsource the expansion of Weld: Birmingham’s Newspaper through a new initiative called The Fourth Check.
“As we tried to brainstorm the best method for our company to experience growth, it became more and more clear that we were a public service, that we were the community newspaper. We allow our content and articles to be consumed freely, and we wanted to maintain that. So it was almost this existential question: Does the community want to support their local newspaper?” Milam Nikolich said. “We have a great deal of faith that they do, and this is an opportunity for us to work even more closely with the community and give them an opportunity to support something that they believe in and see as a necessary service to them and to Birmingham.”
Donations made on The Fourth Check’s web page or mailed in to the newspaper’s office will be used to hire more journalists, print more papers, and expand distribution, Kelly said. All of that will allow Weld to increase the scope and depth of its journalism as well as ensure that more members of the Birmingham community receive access to the paper.
The Importance of Being Local
The launch of The Fourth Check comes in the midst of massive changes in the media landscape. As advertising dollars have fled from print media to the internet, newspapers and magazines across the nation have folded while clickbait and openly and vitriolically partisan online news outlets have grown to wield huge influence. Yet while the economic incentives for local news media are not what they were, the need for a robust check on local politicians and policy-makers remains, according to Professor Bernie Ankney, chair of the Journalism and Mass Communication Department at Samford University.
“The tradition has been that [newspapers] hold elected politicians accountable, that you hold business leaders, community leaders accountable . . . I think that’s so, so important, whether it’s Washington, D.C.; whether it’s New York; whether it’s Birmingham, Alabama,” said Ankney. “And it’s very clear if you don’t have a newspaper, there’s not really another entity that’s set up to do that.”
Kelly, whose Red Dirt column has repeatedly highlighted the need for quality local journalism to hold Birmingham’s politicians accountable, said he sees local journalism as a way to effect positive change on “the unit of government that affects our lives most directly.
“I believe that if we are going to ‘fix’ government at all levels, it has to start on a local level. It is who we elect to city council, it is who we elect mayor, it is who we elect county commissioner, it is who elect as our state legislators,” he said. “So I think that [through] local journalism and local perspectives, those are things that we as citizens can do something about.”
Milam Nikolich also emphasized the need to connect Birmingham citizens to their elected officials as a driving factor behind Weld’s creation and framed The Fourth Check as a means to further fulfill that mission.
“If the Trump administration makes a decision, it doesn’t always directly affect those of us in Birmingham . . . Same with Montgomery. There may be things they do in Montgomery that will never affect me as a human being in Birmingham, Alabama. But almost a hundred percent of the time, if my council members or my mayor or my county commissioners make decisions, it will directly affect me. I deal with it on a daily basis as a constituent here,” she noted.
By keeping the actions and decisions of local policy-makers before the public eye, Milam Nikolich explained, “we’re doing what we do best: focusing on Birmingham and trying to make it the best place that it can be.
“We live in such an easily accessible world, with social media giving us access to people all over the world in a click. And there’s a lot of value in that. But ironically, as the world seems to become more and more accessible, more of a global existence, we’re reminded just how small things are, and truly how important your local communities matter,” she said.
Milam Nikolich, who has worked in the publishing industry for more than a decade, said that disseminating knowledge has long been a personal passion for her that has informed how she has managed the company.
“What we’re trying to do is build a network of people from all across the spectrum of Birmingham and keep [them] informed, because a more informed society is a smarter society and we can make better decisions about the livelihood of everyone here,” she said.
Weld’s Director of Business Development Dan O’Hara, who joined the newspaper’s staff last October to oversee the creation and management of The Fourth Check, had spent years of managing fundraising on political campaigns and nonprofits. He said that the paper’s legacy of substantive journalism was what convinced him to join the team.
“That was a failing that happened this past election: there was a lack of journalism, a lack of good reporting. And I think that an essential tool in any democracy is to have good reporting and good journalism, not that tells people what to think, but that gives people the facts they need to make up their own minds in an intelligent way,” O’Hara said. “And Weld seems like a place where there’s good journalism going on here, there’s good reporting going on here, there’s actual effort to get to the truth and figure out what is going on and report on it in an accurate way.”
O’Hara set up The Fourth Check’s GoFundMe page, which lists what different levels of donation will fund: a $50 donation, for example, “will allow us to obtain research materials for one article,” while a $1,000 donation will allow Weld to print an additional 2,500 newspapers for one week. The different levels of donation come with different rewards, and everyone who donates will be offered a subscription to a new monthly “Inside Source” newsletter written by Weld’s editors. The newsletter will offer previews of upcoming Weld stories and offer insights into the running and creation of the weekly papers.
O’Hara explained that giving donors a look behind the scenes is important because it allows them to see how their money is being put to use. He explained that the Weld management plans to start hosting quarterly fundraising seminars that will explore how to run a newspaper. This, he said, will offer donors interested in learning even more about the management of the paper “a little peak behind the curtain.”
Expansion in a Time of Shrinking Newsrooms
Over the past several decades, Birmingham’s news outlets have experienced dramatic cutbacks in staff, which has seriously impacted the quality of journalism in the city, Ankney said.
“When you have fewer journalists covering the city, you’re not going to get the same depth of coverage you used to,” he said. “I don’t see the same type of watchdog journalism that you saw in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and I do think that the city isn’t served well when politicians, when business owners, when nonprofit owners aren’t being held accountable for their decisions.”
Kelly said hiring more journalists and thus providing more comprehensive and detailed coverage of the important events in the city are among the core goals of The Fourth Check’s fundraising.
“We’ll hire more journalists. We’ll print more newspapers. We’ll continue to grow our distribution footprint. And that’s the key. That’s the area for growth,” Kelly said. “It’s to help us to not just offset the cost of doing community journalism, but to increase the audience, increase our page count, increase the number of people who have the opportunity to look at our paper, and to increase the amount of news and information that we provide that’s important.
“There are many people who already rely on what we do, and so the challenge for us, both as a business and as a journalistic entity, is to find ways to do more and to strive every day to be better at what we do in terms of being able to provide news and information of substance to as many people here in Birmingham as we can get it to. So that’s really the point and that’s the challenge,” he added.
The Fourth Check will also allow the paper to expand its weekly print run, Milam Nikolich said. She hopes to increase the number of newspapers printed each week by up to 2,000 over the course of the next two years, but she noted that the amount of growth is entirely dependent on the community’s response to The Fourth Check.
“The growth is determined by how much the community wants to support us, how much the community chooses to respond to it with their contributions,” she said.
The increased print run would allow for expansion in Weld’s distribution across the metropolitan area.
“While I think we’re doing a great job covering a sizable portion of the Birmingham metro area, there’s still plenty of room for growth. We need to go down south on Highway 280, out toward Chelsea, down toward [Interstate] 65. We need to get closer to Bessemer. We need to go north,” she explained. “So we’ve got plenty of room for growth in Birmingham,”
Depending on the success of the initiative in Birmingham, Milam Nikolich said, the model could be used to expand Weld into other markets outside of the Magic City.
“This will give us an opportunity to beta test it in this market. I haven’t seen another example of this anywhere, and so we are going to try this and see if it works. If it does work, there is nothing that would inhibit The Fourth Check from moving into other communities that want to crowdsource their own newspaper, which is an exciting proposition,” she said. She cautioned that such plans were very tentative, noting, “We have to do it in Birmingham first. This is where our focus is.”
Kelly said that he hopes The Fourth Check will allow the Weld staff to experiment more with multimedia journalism in the vein of his WeldCast, the podcast series in which he interviews community and political leaders in Birmingham.
“We’d be foolish not to look at other ways to engage people and to have people be aware on a daily basis of what we’re doing,” Kelly said. “I think that’s incumbent on us . . . But at the same time, we’ve got to take care of our bread and butter, which is the newspaper.”
Even before The Fourth Check was ever conceived, Kelly and Milam Nikolich had been discussing rebranding the paper. Eventually, as what would become The Fourth Check began to coalesce, the staff decided to link the paper’s name change to Weld: Birmingham’s Newspaper with the launching of the new fundraising initiative.
“I think it’s important for us to situate ourselves as exactly what we are, and we are Birmingham’s newspaper,”Milam Nikolich said. “There is no other newspaper doing what we’re trying to accomplish . . . No one is going into the details [like Weld is]. It’s not about clickbait. We’re not trying to provide value where you get a million clicks on a story that has a lot of negative comments. We’re all about news and journalism, and if not us, then who? And we believe that, and it’s very important for us to maintain journalistic integrity. We just want to grow to be able to do more of that for Birmingham at large,” she said.
Kelly, who came up with the new name, said that detailed and substantive coverage has always been a cornerstone of Weld’s journalistic philosophy and that the money raised by The Fourth Check will allow the paper’s staff to better realize that ideal.
“It’s great to know, ‘Hey, this happened.’ Well, why did it happen? What does it mean? What does it mean to me personally? What does it mean to the community? So context is everything, and detail is everything, and we believe in that. We believe in good writing. You can have good writing in a 300-word article, but it’s not complete. You’re not getting the whole story, and we think it’s critical to the community, critical to democracy, for people of all persuasions to have as much reliable, factual information, substantive information, as possible,” he said.
The new name also reflects the staff’s desire for Weld to help contribute to a sense of shared community among the citizens of Birmingham.
“We’re trying to network this community together to make it a stronger place. I think it’s important that we have our distribution all over Birmingham, regardless of income, socioeconomic level, or wealth–or lack thereof. Everyone deserves to know what’s going on in both the public and the private sector, things that affect their lives daily, that enhance their lives, or suppress their lives, or their livelihood. I think that’s what our main goal is: to expose that. That’s what journalism is,” Milam Nikolich said.
She also hopes that The Fourth Check, in making community members partners in crowdsourcing the paper’s expansion, will lead to greater communication between Birmingham citizens and the Weld staff.
“I think when you crowdsource something, whether it be a movie or an album, [you’re] more inclined to be a louder spokesperson for that, [you] take more ownership,” she said. She explained that she hopes that feeling of ownership will result in greater feedback from the paper’s readers. “If [our readers] see a place where we could use more newspapers, let us know! And I think they’ll [find] their voice is louder than they think it is.”
Few small businesses make it five years, Milam Nikolich noted, and she credited Weld’s survival entirely to the community’s support, and this gives her hope that they will continue to support the paper through The Fourth Check.
“I’m grateful that the community wants us here,” she said. “This is the first opportunity we’ve ever given the community to respond to the central question of ‘Do you want us to stick around?’ If so, help us out.”
If you wish to contribute to The Fourth Check, visit gofundme.com/WELDTheFourthCheck or send a check addressed to Weld at 4000 Third Ave. S., Box 111, Birmingham, Alabama 35222. Donations can also be made through Weld’s website, weldbham.com.