For a little more than a month now, the Magic City has become the largest in the nation without a daily newspaper as the Birmingham News has settled into three-day-a-week publication. The paper’s former online adjunct AL.com has now become the dominant player in Alabama Media Group’s efforts to change the way readers in Birmingham, Huntsville and Mobile get their news.
Officials at the new media company think they’re doing well. But according to other media experts, the news is…not so great.
The Alabama Media Group, on the AL.com website, describes itself as a “digitally-focused news and information company that combines the quality journalism from The Birmingham News, The Huntsville Times, Mobile’s Press-Register and The Mississippi Press with the up-to-the-minute access of AL.com and gulflive.com.
“Alabama Media Group provides innovative ways to inform, connect and empower the people of Alabama, Mississippi and the communities we serve.”
What has the past month shown?
“It’s not my newspaper to manage, but I don’t think this market was ready for the change–yet,” said Bill Keller, the retired executive director of the Alabama Press Association and retired senior lecturer in the University of Alabama journalism department, the former editor and publisher of the Talladega Daily Home, managing editor of the Sand Mountain Reporter, and reporter at the Tuscaloosa News.
“Newhouse made the decision with no discussion with local business, civic and government leaders or with ad agencies–to my knowledge. It came across as arrogant,” Keller said.
Keller had praise for the caliber of some AL.com staffers, notably content vice president Kevin Wendt of Huntsville and state commentary director Mike Marshall of Mobile, whom he called “top-flight people.”
“Al.com kept some of the top editors and reporters, though, and I’m sure they’re busy, and it has attracted some new news staffers, but I don’t think the statewide website works here. The three markets are so distinct. I would enjoy going to the three sites for news from the three papers better than going to a site with shallow coverage of the state.”
The change wasn’t managed properly, said Mark Hickson, professor in the Communication Studies department of the University of Alabama at Birmingham and management consultant. “My feeling is that there were some business mistakes here. I would rather have a paper every day even if it were a combined Birmingham-Huntsville-Mobile paper. If the idea was to keep an office in each sub-culture, it has done so but by irritating people in all three places.”
The verdict, so far
Weld questioned 24 veteran journalists, former journalists, academics and other professionals about the state of the news business in Birmingham in the wake of the change. Included in that number were two from Alabama Media Group. Specifically, we asked three questions:
1) Has news coverage suffered?
2) How has this affected you and those around you? How do you think it’s affected the community as a whole?
3) What needs to happen with journalism/news reporting in Birmingham?
We gave people the opportunity to respond to one or all three questions. Some of those we approached declined to respond, including some former Birmingham News employees. Among those who did respond, most pointed to a significantly lower impression of coverage in the post-daily era. Not surprisingly, Alabama Media Group’s response was in sharp contrast.
The answers are grouped under the main question headings.
Has news coverage suffered with the loss of a daily newspaper?
Kevin Wendt, vice-president for content at Alabama Media Group:
“Not at all. In just our first month, we broke records at al.com for page views and unique visitors, both of which were up 30 percent. And in print, we are publishing editions with heft of journalism — long-form reporting such as Justice Inc., the cost of war on Alabamians and great watchdog pieces on Jefferson County, just to name a few.
“The fact is, more people are reading our content than ever before. In print, we still publish the largest newspaper in Alabama. And online, because we’re more timely with our reporting and more engaging with our content, the traffic trends are on a terrific path.
“We still have a newsroom full of terrific journalists who range from the hyper-local — the News still publishes five local zone editions, for example — to the statewide. We believe we are putting together a report each day online, and in each of our print editions, that gives local readers the information they need to be informed.”
Karl Seitz, former Birmingham Post-Herald editorial page editor for 38 years:
“Most definitely. First of all, the smaller reporting staff means a lot of things simply don’t get covered because nobody is available to do the reporting. But equally important, readers don’t find many of the stories that are written. They don’t even know they exist.
“In part this is the difference between navigating through a print product and navigating a website. Coming across unexpected news is much more likely in a print newspaper than online.
“However, a larger part of the problem is the poor quality of AL.com. Even with the tweaks that have been made to highlight so-called top stories (meaning lots of hits, not necessarily importance), it remains based on a faulty premise: that the best way to deliver news online is through a flow of stories in reverse order of posting. If there are no updates to a particular story, it gets buried by later postings. Few, if any, readers have the time to scroll through a long list of stories (particularly with inadequate headlines and none of the text visible) to find what is important to them.
“Add to this the sloppy editing that is seen throughout the print editions and you have a newspaper that is a mere shadow of what once existed.”
Grace Moss, former Birmingham Post-Herald reporter, now Market Communications Manager at AT&T Mobility:
“In my opinion, news coverage has suffered since the loss of a daily newspaper. By design, broadcast news can only provide so much detail in the time allotted. Print media, again by design, is what I depended on for more in-depth news, more detail. Now that it’s gone, I find myself forgoing local news altogether. I do look at the AL.com app, but one Sunday morning I had literally “read” the mobile version within about 7 minutes.”
Richard Banks, editorial director of Red Barn Media Group, former editor at Memphis Magazine, former writer and editor at Southern Living:
“AL.com has not delivered with an easily navigable site. So, the promise that the website can make up for the loss of 4 days of paper delivery isn’t being fulfilled. Besides, coverage of local news seems to be garnering less and less space in both print and web. On the other hand, syndicated columns seem to be running more frequently.
“There are certainly more mistakes in the paper than prior to the layoffs. I don’t fault the remaining News staff, since they’re probably covering more work per person than ever before. Yet I do fault the ownership which seems more concerned about profit than actual journalism. They cut staff, not for the benefit of their readers, but to generate profits for their stockholders. Sure, I understand that without that profit there’s no paper, but they’ve gone too far and are fulfilling the prophecy of the doomed daily.”
Christine Prichard, owner and photographer at Viewtopia Pictures, adjunct instructor at the Art Institute, formerly of the Birmingham Post-Herald:
“As a professional photographer and a photojournalism/editorial photography instructor, the biggest impact I’ve noticed so far is the visual reportage. It has definitely suffered, and I’ll be interested to see whether that continues or not. You just can’t cut a photo staff by two thirds and omit a photo editor without it suffering. I don’t care how many reporters you hand a camera to. Like it or not, there is some skill and talent when it comes to being able to tell stories with a camera. Public relations people know this and pay good money to professional photographers for just this skill. And they in turn supply such images to the media.
“The place where I’ve seen the smallest impact of this from a photo coverage perspective is in the area of sports, where specialized equipment and knowledge are even more important to get more than passable images.”
Veronica Kennedy, adjunct instructor at Birmingham-Southern College, formerly a reporter and copy editor at the Birmingham News, and associate editor at the Talladega Daily Home:
“News coverage definitely has suffered. I see very little in the three days the paper is published that hasn’t been on AL.com first. I thought the printed editions would be the forum for important investigative-type stories, and, frankly I don’t see that happening. The word used to describe this new printed product was ‘robust’.”
How has this affected you and those around you? How do you think it’s affected the community as a whole?
Banks: “My next door neighbor is 93 and has been a faithful News subscriber for decades. She, however, doesn’t ‘do’ the internet and therefore has less news input.”
Moss: “I’m not sure how this affected me, other than my ongoing annoyance at this unfortunate turn of events. I don’t trust much of online media because so much of it is A) recycled from some other online source and B) rarely with reliable attribution.
“As for how it’s affected the community, I believe we’ve lost one of the very things that MADE Birmingham a community — a common voice, whether you agreed with it or not that, every day in all areas of town, people used to know what’s happening in the world.”
Mark Stith, instructor at Jefferson State Community College and Herzing Institute, former editor of Portico magazine, former Southern Living Travel Editor:
“From a state and local political point, the reduction of newspaper coverage means that the public is much less informed about candidates and informed, skilled observations about politicians’ views.
“For example, with the upcoming election, I’ve never voted with such an ignorance of issues, perspectives and people. Yes, part of that ignorance is my responsibility, but we’ve lost easy access to being informed on issues. Newspapers used to do that; the Birmingham News did present some opinions in their Sunday edition, but really it was a pale image of the powerful resource and voice it used to be.”
Tim Lennox, currently appears on WAKA-TV ( CBS 8) in Montgomery, formerly of Alabama Public Television, WIAT (CBS 42) and WERC radio; he also runs the five-year-old website timlennox.com featuring the Monday Morning Media Memo:
“Older folks in the Birmingham area tell me they miss their daily delivery, the thud on the front lawn…and the new schedule makes it difficult to retain their newspaper reading habit. Is today a newspaper day? Tomorrow? It would be the same as if the TV station where I work suddenly decided to have newscasts only on certain days, and then expected the viewers to keep up!”
Pritchard: “The losers in all of this are people who need to know local information, and that is really all of us. There’s definitely less local information being produced by tried-and-true journalists and more opportunity for “spin” to take the place of real news. That and slideshow galleries of girls in their swimsuits on the beach that garner tons of hits are warping the content on formerly news-oriented organizations.
“Journalistic decisions that are made first and foremost by web hits and popularity are not a good thing for democracy. And it will likely keep the door wide open for corruption to thrive.”
Kennedy: “The change has directly affected my husband, Joey Kennedy, and me. He was offered–and accepted–a job with Alabama Media Group as a community engagement specialist, but I was let go after 27 years with the Birmingham News as a feature writer, copy editor, and reporter. Based on what I hear from others in the community as well as what I read on forums such as Facebook, no one seems happy with the new media outlet. I realize that I don’t know every person who lives in the Birmingham-metro area, but I am well connected, so I feel confident in my statement.
“Birmingham, Jefferson County, and the State of Alabama need watchdogs. Journalists are charged with looking after the best interests of taxpayers; it’s what we do, and it’s what should be done. The young reporters (I think they’re called “content providers” now) have plenty of potential, but they need strong mentors and editors; it’s an injustice to them to fail to teach them how to be the watchdogs they should be.
“I love to write feature stories, and I’m still doing that on a freelance basis, but nothing quickens the heartbeat like a good investigative story. We have plenty of “bad guys” around who should be stopped; I’m not sure that’s happening now.
What needs to happen with journalism/news reporting in Birmingham?
Moss: “What needs to happen with journalism/news reporting? Sadly, those two terms are no longer mutually inclusive. I don’t know the answer to that question. If I had the resources, I’d like to set up a half-day seminar with free admission for all Birmingham residents. I’d call it ‘Who Do You Trust? Why Nancy Grace and Deadspin Can’t be Your Only News Source.’
“Honestly? I’d love to see Operation New Birmingham, the Birmingham Chamber and other civic organizations band together and say ‘This city must have a daily newspaper,’ then find a way to make it happen. But clearly, that’s no small task.”
Keller: “As it is, [AL.com] has to become an invaluable source of news, one that readers seek out before advertisers will buy in with enthusiasm, I suggest. It can’t be the New York Times site, which is quite compelling and which pulls in much money in subscriptions, but AL.com’s leaders here can work on providing more than it provides now.”
Banks: “The lack of news coverage, especially on the local level, has as much to do with loss of subscriptions as it does with greedy ownership and new ways of delivering the news. Too many readers have opted to simply get their news for free. Yet solid journalism requires funding for staff, resources, equipment, even attorneys who can fight off the hordes of corporate lawyers directed to stop investigation of their corporate or governmental masters. With all due respect to Weld and other free forms of journalism–who serve a critical need themselves–we need a well-funded, well-read daily paper. That requires a populace willing to pay for it. If we don’t, we’ll just pay later when our next two-year college debacle occurs or an even worse mess than sewer corruption is allowed to go on even longer because there’s one less watchdog.
“Birmingham needs a daily paper. Whether it’s in print or online isn’t really the issue for me. What is the issue is that our community continues to have a healthy news outlet of record. I have been a subscriber the entire 13 years I’ve lived in the area. I will not, however continue to pay for a product that’s of such poor quality.”
Experienced journalists raised issues about Alabama Media Group beyond the specific scope of Weld’s questions. For instance, Keller cited “the apparent lack of leadership here. A statewide overall editor over the three papers seems out of place…with three such distinct markets.”
While he did praise Wendt and Marshall, he said, “I’m sure they’re feeling their way through the changes, balancing local demands, statewide demands and demands by some person in New York who thinks he knows the markets in Alabama. “
Keller went on to say that consolidating circulation offices had not helped win Alabama Media Group fans in some quarters. “My brother in Huntsville didn’t get a paper for a week and called three or four times. He finally asked where the office was located, because he wanted to drive down to pick up his papers, and the person on the other end said, ‘Colorado.’ What’s gained and what’s lost by such out-of-state consolidation?”
Seitz said that the new company has thus far demonstrated far less courage than the News had of old, particularly when it comes to the political season.
“Nothing shows how far the Birmingham News has fallen more than what it did, or more correctly failed to do on its editorial page during this election cycle. The most outrageous thing was Kevin Wendt’s explanation of why the News would not endorse anybody for president. Once you get past the lame excuse that who serves in the presidency isn’t local enough for the News’ mission, it boils down to not wanting to antagonize a segment of readers.
“A newspaper that is doing its job is going to antagonize somebody, whether through news coverage or editorial comment. But it will also earn respect by doing aggressive reporting and by its editorial board taking well-reasoned positions.
“The News failed to do the latter in its recommendations on the 11 proposed constitutional amendments on the Nov. 6 ballot. It takes no position on four of the amendments, including one that the old News had supported (on legislative pay) and another that the editorial all but says should be defeated because it is a symbolic measure that wastes voter time and taxpayer money. And on the three local amendments it fails to tell readers that they have to be approved both by the affected voters and statewide. Agree or disagree with its positions, the old News would not have let that kind of sloppy omission slip by.”
One former News employee, who asked to remain anonymous, said he’s just not sure if he understands how AL.com is supposed to work. “How do you compare what is going now with what went before? It could be that I am not using all the tools that are available to access the new AL.com, so I am probably not aware of the total daily product. But this new paradigm is something that is going to take a while to get used to.
“When I read the headlines that are listed in the Real Time News heading, I don’t know what else might be missing. But it is still more than what any other media outlet does in the area.
He went on, “Yet I have a feeling that what used to be a daily thread of news, features, commentary, etc., has frayed. I do think the opinion pages leave much to be desired, because they do not seem to offer regular daily commentary on a broad range of issues, be they developments in Montgomery or at Birmingham City Hall.
Then he offered “a final thought: Someone I know thought it odd that after lots of layoffs that have reduced overall area coverage, the paper would send one of its best writers on a 1,400-mile quest in search of Alabama’s best cupcake.”
Several of those we interviewed noted that the changes in the local news market and the field of journalism in general are far from over. Lennox, who teaches Electronic News Gathering at Trenholm College, said “the college-aged students in my class…don’t seem to much care about news period. Newspapers, online, TV, it doesn’t matter. It’s a very small sample size, but in these perilous times for all media, I would be worried about a generation growing up with a no-news habit. They seem to think if it is a big enough story, they’ll hear about ‘from friends’ and then go hunting for the information.”