My friends and colleagues at the newspaper knew something was up long before management there would admit it. There was no denying it — the newspaper was part of an endangered species. Advertising was shrinking. Page counts were down, and circulation had shriveled. The website had the most traffic of any news site in the state, but there was no revenue in it to replace what was being lost in print.
When senior reporters and editors retired or moved on to other jobs, at first they were replaced with younger, cheaper rookies, and eventually they weren’t replaced at all. The newsroom staff dwindled.
Before the end, there were other, more ominous clues. Human resources held meetings behind closed doors. A colleague there told me that she kept asking when the paper would restock office supplies, but no one could give her an answer.
Nonetheless, the senior editors assured staff that their jobs were safe and the paper would continue, until suddenly it didn’t. The absentee owners handed down orders. More abruptly than anyone had expected, reporters were left to hastily assemble their clips and photographers to scrape together their portfolios. With severance packages under their arms, they scattered as a diaspora of journalists looking for other work.
When the Birmingham Post-Herald closed in 2005, it left the Birmingham News as seemingly the only game in town. But I can’t help but wonder now whether, when it gave up the ghost, the Post-Herald passed its terminal disease to its rival.
The easy assumption is that it’s a false comparison, that the Post-Herald died as a business because it was an afternoon newspaper. But when you scratch at it, you’ll see something similar to what’s happening today to daily newspapers everywhere: The logistics of home delivery had become more difficult and no longer made business sense. The news it delivered was often stale stories from the previous day that had been warmed over with a little “added value.” It couldn’t keep up with new competitors (in the case of the Post-Herald, evening TV news). Advertisers fled to competitors with greater reach. The Post-Herald didn’t die because it was an afternoon newspaper; it died first because it was an afternoon newspaper.
For a moment, the News and its sister papers, the Mobile Press-Register and the Huntsville Times, appeared to have a monopoly in their respective cities on community journalism and enterprise reporting (in-depth, issues-based stories and investigative reporting). But if that appearance was anything more than an illusion, it didn’t last long.
The News might have outlasted the rest of its kind, but like the Last of the Mohicans, it didn’t yet understand its new competition. The Internet quickly gave readers innumerable sources of state, national, international and sports news, many of which offered superior coverage more specific to readers’ individual needs than the wire services the News employed. Meanwhile, niche publications began to chip away at the sections that had multiplied in the back of the newspaper. Local glossy magazines competed with the features sections. Alternative newsweeklies targeted entertainment coverage. The Birmingham Business Journal, owned by the same parent company as the News, competed with its business pages. And with them, a legion of bloggers emerged from the Internet’s primordial ooze in a Darwinian competition for survival. And perhaps no competitor hurt the News so much as its digital partner, AL.com, which the News’ owner Advance Publications set up as a separate company. Since its inception, AL.com lived off of the News’ content, without reciprocating with digital ad revenue.
Despite all this, on the eve of the massive cuts at Advance’s three Alabama newspapers, out-going News managing editor Chuck Clark said on Facebook, “Every shred of substantive news on the Web about Birmingham originates in the Birmingham News.” (See correction appended below.) To the end, the complacency never faded.
But even if Clark was right, the driving force behind the changes now taking place was never about news. It was about advertising. A whole industry has watched its castles crumble, under siege by an army it never saw coming. Monster.com took away job ads. Cars.com took automobiles. Craigslist and eBay laid waste to classifieds. When the Great Recession struck, all media saw their ad revenues drop, but as the economy has slowly recovered, newspaper display ads have not returned in kind.
When you string together 20 years of changes to the media landscape in a few paragraphs, in comparison the measures Advance is making at its Alabama newspapers don’t look so drastic after all.
Bricks and mortars
I have on my desk in front of me a brick. It was a birthday present several years ago from friends at the News, and at the time it was something of a gag gift. When I worked at Birmingham Weekly, staff writer Phillip Jordan and I questioned the wisdom of turning the downtown office building the brick came from into a parking lot.
Despite protests from preservationists and tweaking by smug alt-weekly reporters, the News demolished its old headquarters after moving into a its new industrial fishbowl across the street. I made the crack at the time that my birthday present looked like a tombstone. The brass face glued to it reads: The Birmingham News, 1916 – 2007.
There’s a joke in this town you’ve probably heard before: When the world ends, I want to be in Birmingham. Everything happens here 10 years later than everywhere else. And something like that had happened at the News. For decades, newspapers had generated profit margins in excess of 20 percent. Newspaper chains invested that money by gobbling up family-owned newspapers, and when those were gone, they put their cash in huge capital outlays. In the last 20 years, nearly every major daily newspaper in the state got a new headquarters, and Birmingham was among the last.
But moving into a new building wasn’t the only latent change at the News. Throughout the country, daily newspapers had been shedding employees — first through rounds of buyouts and then through layoffs.
But Advance Publications’ employees had been protected by a promise made by the Newhouse family called the Newhouse Pledge. That pledge promised that, so long as a newspaper remained a daily, it would not terminate its non-union employees for financial reasons. What’s more, employees whose jobs had been rendered technologically obsolete would be entitled to new jobs within the company so long as they were willing to train for them. The Newhouses made the pledge as a union-fighting tactic, but the promise seemed to give a better assurance than collective bargaining could. And at the News, the reporters and editors were the most well-paid in the state, with good benefits and a generous pension plan.
But in 2009, the company rescinded the pledge.
Also in 2009, News publisher Victor Hanson III retired at the age of 53, leaving many to infer that his departure was more than just a retirement. When the new publisher, Pam Siddall, took over in January 2010, it was the first time in a century that a member of the Hanson family had not been in charge.
At virtually the same time, the News’ sister paper in Mobile also had a change in the publisher’s office, but the transition was not as bloodless as in Birmingham. Advance offered Press-Register publisher Howard Bronson a year’s salary, health insurance and University of Alabama football tickets as a severance package if he would retire, but when Bronson refused to go quietly, Advance fired him.
Bronson sued Advance and cited the Newhouse Pledge as his employment contract. In court, Advance lawyers argued that the pledge was never a contract, but the parties settled for an undisclosed amount before the jury made a finding of fact. When asked by one of his former reporters whether he thought the pledge should still apply, Bronson said it was no longer up to him.
After Bronson’s departure, Advance named Ricky Matthews publisher of the Press-Register and The Huntsville Times. The new leadership at all three Alabama newspapers was more than just a change at the top; it was a change from the top. Throughout much of their history as owners, the Newhouse family had given independence to its various newspapers, often leaving the families it bought the papers from in charge.
That autonomy spared Advance newspapers from the top-down meddling seen at many other chains, such as Gannett, which had become infamous for micromanaging its papers. But that autonomy came with a drawback. Many newspapers, including the News, at times put good journalism behind hometown boosterism and the profits that kept the owners at bay. During the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, the News was notoriously negligent, relegating hard news about the city’s most important struggle to inside pages or spiking those stories altogether. In some ways, the News suffered a similar ailment of the city it served. It had changed, slowly, but the reputational scars remained.
When Siddall took over as publisher, she had to juggle difficult tasks. She made it a cause to rehabilitate the paper’s brand with a marketing campaign. While catchy and of professional quality, the “This is Our Story” campaign came off as defensive. Whether the News’ reputation is fair or not, it wasn’t to be painted over with a few TV ads, and the campaign’s posture toward social media seemed reactionary.
“Before they blog it, tweet it, post it or share it, we report it,” the TV and print ads said. The newspaper was still laying claim to ground it had lost to myriad competitors, and it thumbed its nose at real challenges to its market share.
As part of the campaign, the News came up with its own hashtag for Twitter posts, “#this_is_our_story.” Anyone who really uses Twitter knows the 140 character limit in a tweet is a severe constraint. The idea of burning 18 characters (with three spaces, to boot) on a hashtag was ridiculous. Real Twitter users saw it as pandering, and slowly the reporters dropped it.
In addition to the marketing campaign, Siddall had to manage staff reductions, first through buyouts and finally through layoffs.
There’s a moment in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises when one character asks another how he went bankrupt. “Two ways,” the man replies. “Gradually, then suddenly.”
Reductions in force at the three Alabama papers followed the same pace. Previous buyouts had offloaded veteran reporters and editors nearing retirement, along with young staffers who were confident they could find jobs elsewhere. But the reductions were not enough to yield the cost cuts the newspapers needed.
At the Poynter Institute, media analyst Rick Edmonds has extrapolated the reasoning behind Advance’s new strategy in New Orleans and Alabama. (Advance is a privately held company and does not make its financial data public.) The only way for the newspapers to cut costs was a two-pronged approach: Reduce staff and printing. Reducing printing to three days a week alone would not yield the necessary reductions in costs, he says. Reducing staff only would make a seven-day paper too light on news to retain subscribers. (There is one aspect to the changes all the analysis I’ve read have missed: By cutting back to three days per week, the newspapers no longer qualify as dailies, hence negating the Newhouse pledge’s promise to preserve jobs at its daily newspapers.)
When The New York Times reported the changes Advance was planning, it caught the company flat-footed. Employees peppered their managers with questions they could not answer. In Birmingham, newsroom staff asked Siddall whether the rumors they were hearing were true. Would the cuts go as deep as 50 percent? She told them that was absurd, but when the ax fell last week, 61 of 102 newsroom employees were told they might not have jobs come October. Elsewhere in the state, the newsroom cuts were worse. According to the Poynter Institute, the Mobile Press-Register newsroom was cut from 70 to 16, and in Huntsville 15 employees will remain of 53.
In addition to the newsroom cuts, the company will lose employees from its other departments. Altogether, 400 people in Alabama will be left without jobs come October. That’s not a record for newspaper layoffs, but rarely if ever have so many been cut at one time in one place.
In a Sunday op-ed, the newly named statewide editor, Kevin Wendt, said that the company will restaff with new employees or old employees in new positions. His numbers for the newsrooms vary somewhat from those that media analysts have been playing with, but they show that the company will have about a 22 percent reduction in newsroom staffing when it’s done. As a result, the company will have a flatter management structure with a greater percentage of its employees producing content rather than managing it, he said.
Regardless, the shakeup has been traumatic to employees, and it could leave some great reporters without jobs. Among those offered severance packages were senior political reporter Chuck Dean, who despite being on the back end of the age curve, had embraced Twitter and was quickly becoming a social media star. Tom Spencer’s environmental reporting might not have yielded the high byline counts of city hall and courthouse reporters, but those stories had quality if not quantity. He was cut, too. With Mary Orndorff’s departure, Alabama will lose its last reporter in Washington, D.C. And throughout the metro area, smaller ‘burbs and bedroom communities will lose the local beat reporters they have depended on for school news and city hall reporting.
Some of those left behind have been given titles they do not yet understand. The metro columnist has been an institution in many cities, but come October, John Archibald will be a “local buzz reporter.” Pultizer-winning editorial writer Joey Kennedy will be a “community engagement specialist.” Some reporting positions will be “web producers” and editors will become curators.
Archibald has said to me and others that the greatest thing about the News has also been its biggest curse: It has been a comfortable place to work.
That curse has now been lifted.
Print dollars and digital sense
As part of the transformation, AL.com and the three Alabama newspapers will be reorganized into two new companies. The Alabama Media Group will be Advance’s content production and advertising arm. Advance Central Services Alabama will print and distribute newspapers, as well as administer accounting and human resources.
It’s a bet-the-company move for Advance, and for the immediate future, both companies will still depend on print revenue for their survival. No matter the talk of “digital first,” print is still where the bulk of revenue comes from, and even the likes of Warren Buffett haven’t figured out the “secret sauce” of making money online. If circulation plummets after October, things could get uglier still.
But no matter how bracing the changes might seem, perhaps they are not all bad. For Advance, it allows its Alabama properties to start over anew. The change in attitude might be as important as the yet to be determined business model.
For New York Times media writer David Carr, who broke the Advance story last month, it came with an epiphany. This week he wrote, “After word of the huge layoffs there came in, I said to my digitally native colleague Brian Stelter, ‘Well, the future you rooted for is finally here.’ To which he replied, ‘I didn’t root for it, I just realized it was going to happen no matter what.’”
The changes at Advance’s papers do not ignore the future.
The new company will still have the largest audience and more resources than any news organization in the state. Unlike many newspaper websites, AL.com still has the potential to be a first-stop portal for news on the web. The changes at AL.com have been incremental and not well-received, but there are some signs of promise at other papers in the chain. In New Orleans, the Times-Picayune has been testing a new template on its Saints landing page that could prove to be a nifty container for topic-specific news. New jobs the company is advertising hint that it might be serious about changing its approach to news, giving reporters editorial latitude to build social media followings around their beats.
Newspapers face challenges they never considered 20 years ago, but they have also been hampered by an attitude that poisons many monopolies. They’ve inherited their positions in their markets from people, now dead and forgotten, who built those businesses from scratch. To crib from Molly Ivins’ joke about George W. Bush, they were born on third base, but they think they hit a triple. As their monopolies have become vulnerable to new competitors, the response has been a sense of entitlement to their audience and a sense of self-importance that their customers, be they readers or advertisers, have not shared. And as those customers have begun to abandon them for other options, the response from the industry has sounded like an abusive spouse: Just see what happens if you leave. You’ll die without us.
It sounds kitschy or trite to say that newspapers must begin thinking like startups, but it’s not a trivial point. In selling themselves to their customers, newspapers and the digital companies they’re transforming into must learn to make the case for their existence from a very different point of view — one in which they are not entitled to their customers, but rather, one in which their customers are entitled to them.
Because Birmingham has already lost one newspaper, and no matter if it’s digital or print, it cannot afford to lose another.
The Messenger Shoots Back is a column about political culture. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org
CORRECTION: The original version of this story online and in print attributed Chuck Clark’s comment to a post on Twitter. Actually, the comment was on Facebook in a response to a post by John Archibald, which was then shared on Twitter by Birmingham blogger Wade Kwon.