Published on June 13th, 2012 | by Michael Hansen4
I have spent many, many hours thinking about the meaning of the recent news that Advance Publications will no longer print its three Alabama papers — The Birmingham News, The Mobile Press-Register, and The Huntsville Times — daily, but instead only on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. It’s launching two new companies, Alabama Media Group and Advance Central Services Alabama, this fall to manage print services and digital operations as part of a new business strategy. The move allegedly makes those three papers and the Advance-owned Times-Picayune (New Orleans) more digitally focused and competitive in the long-term. I doubt that; but still I have searched for meaning.
I’ve thought about this from a public relations perspective. I’ve pondered it from a community activism viewpoint. I’ve considered the implications for journalism. I’ve wondered if this trend will make our free and informed society any less free and informed.
In the words of the late, great Whitney Houston, “How will I know?” How will I know about the amazing story of human triumph in our community told as only a skilled journalist could tell it. How will I know about the corruption or bigotry or controversy down at City Hall if a clever investigative reporter is more concerned with blog clicks than holding elected officials accountable via the Fourth Estate? How will I know about the new business that could solve a problem — whose solution I’ve outsourced to another state for years — if my daily paper isn’t on the beat? How will my business survive if there’s not a robust newspaper staff to tell the community about what makes us special and newsworthy? How will future generations of writers become inspired by words if their most likely connection to them is a 24/7 local news site (read: blog) filled with comments and commenters who know nothing of grammar and punctuation, much less reasoned logic, metaphors and well-thought-out debates of the day.
I think about the people who first turned me on to the power of words. I think about reporters and columnists who taught me to love a pun or a great argument.
Geoff Calkins at Memphis’ The Commercial Appeal is the first to come to mind. A sports columnist, he somehow taught me as a child reader that words can ignite a hope in a hopeless city, torn apart by race and poverty and corruption, through something as silly as basketball. All thanks to words.
I think about my friends who’ve made me better at what I do in public relations. I think about the editor who was kind enough to point out the spelling error or typo in my press release. I think about the reporter who not only blunted explained why my story wasn’t newsworthy, but how to make it better. I worry about my friends at Birmingham magazine, who have worked tirelessly to create a product this city should hold dear. I think about Birmingham’s storytellers, advocates, warriors, apologists, detractors, fans.
I think about the precedent this sets for the rest of the industry, especially considering the historic nature of this happening in New Orleans, where the Times-Picayune boasts the nation’s fourth best market penetration rate, making it the largest city in the United States without a daily print newspaper. What’s next?
Are we too far gone? Have we self-selected ourselves into a biased, or at least poorly written and unedited future? The Internet is famously a cesspool of two things: porn and people who spew nonsense with no accountability. Read the comments on al.com, Alabama’s most-visited website. It’s chaotic and vile. If anything, it weakens public discourse to embrace it as a practical future.
We’re now watchers of cable news, listeners of talk radio and readers of polarized, partisan or otherwise non-journalistic websites. This is how many of us get our news now and this is where the trend is heading. Fox News thrives while The New York Times scrambles to keep up. NPR is a divisive topic, but Perez Hilton and TMZ are legitimate sources. Will the new Birmingham News/al.com model embrace this? Is that what a “buzz reporter” will be tasked with? Is this Gawker Lite: Redneck Edition?
Now that newspapers in Louisiana and Alabama have laid off 600 employees, including upwards of 60% of some newsrooms, how will those that remain find time to flesh out the good stuff or hold the liars — from the governor to the commenter — responsible for their words and actions?
I don’t have the answers. The truth is I’m being reactionary — albeit for good reason. I have my doubts. I see profit motive and I cringe. Now, this isn’t the place where you assume I hate profits and private markets and love Marx. What I mean is that profit is all well and good, but not if it is the only consideration. Why? Because invariably, companies who do only that fail, no profit left. Good companies find out their public’s problem and figure out a way to solve it. In this case, The Birmingham News is tasked with getting important news to central Alabama residents consistently and with integrity. I highly doubt that’s possible with 40% of the current newsroom staff. They struggled as is, but they struggled with pride and with passion. And the executives who made these decisions ripped both of those two things right out of our community.
Ever since I moved to Birmingham in 2008, the thing I’ve noticed most about Birmingham is a general feeling of apathy among the masses and yet a palpable sense of optimism among a select few. I hope those select few rub off on the rest of us soon and take this city back. We need a daily newspaper. In print. They (the people at Alabama Media Group and Advance Central Services Alabama) just need to figure out a better way of making newspaper publishing work in each community. If they can’t do that, they need to scrap al.com and begin anew, because that hard-to-navigate, poorly laid out, blog-oriented site favors the most bombastic and ignorant among us. It pulls those of us with hope down, rather than lifting those without it up. Fix that and I’ll reconsider my need for a daily paper. Do neither and the paper may as well go under entirely.