State of the Local News Media


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Written by Jesse Chambers
Photos by Beau Gustafson

These are brutal times for a news business still struggling to harness the power of the internet and recover from the Great Recession, an ugly truth detailed in the Pew Research Center’s annual report, “State of the News Media 2016.”

“In 2015, the newspaper sector had perhaps the worst year since the recession and its immediate aftermath,” Pew says. “Average weekday newspaper circulation, print and digital combined, fell another 7 percent in 2015, the greatest decline since 2010.”

Media companies have also been unable to make enough money in the digital space from web and mobile to compensate for losses in print revenue, according to the report. There are also a decreasing number of newsroom jobs, “and the cuts keep coming” in 2016, the report states.

“The pressures facing America’s newsrooms have intensified to nothing less than a reorganization of the industry itself, one that impacts the experiences of even those news consumers unaware of the tectonic shifts taking place,” Pew says.

Likewise, dramatic changes have taken place in the Birmingham media landscape the last decade, especially with print. The daily Birmingham Post-Herald closed in 2005 after its paid circulation dropped to about 7,500. Two popular alternative papers, Birmingham Weekly and Black & White, stopped printing in about 2013.

The foundations were also shaken at The Birmingham News, a daily founded in 1888 that served for generations as the Magic City’s “paper of record.” In 2012, The News announced massive newsroom layoffs and became part of a new Advance Media company called Alabama Media Group, along with The Huntsville Times, Mobile Press-Register, and AL.com (which covers six metro areas in the state). AMG begin printing The News, along with its other papers, three days a week, leaving a city that once had two dailies with none. As as part of its strategy, the company adopted a web-first emphasis focused on driving traffic to AL.com.

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Of course, as old outlets have died or retrenched, new ones—in print or online—have sprung up in Birmingham with great hopes they can find audiences and survive in a chaotic media world where economic and technological conditions keep changing.

B-Metro recently spoke to several Birmingham journalists—some of whom are veterans of The News or AMG—to help assess the effects of these changes in the media, in the Magic City and elsewhere.

For this article, we focused on print and the online sources that have challenged print’s supremacy. Local TV news departments have done good work, and broadcast operations have undergone internet-driven changes. But in the analog world, daily newspapers served as the most trusted source of news, and it is their decline—and the growth of newer, smaller outlets in print and online—that serve as the most obvious, compelling symbols of the new digital landscape.

The reporters we contacted shared their views on a variety of topics. Will print survive? Are news consumers, due to social media and mobile devices, increasingly exposed only to viewpoints that match their own, with negative effects on the quality of our discourse? Will young people, despite the industry chaos, still want to become reporters and help the press fulfill its traditional watchdog role?

It was good to hear that, despite the challenges, these journalists seemed fairly
optimistic. The industry is “in flux, and these transitions are often really hard on reporters and their readers,” says former AL.com and Birmingham News reporter Melissa Brown. “But I’m not fatalistic about it. I think there will always be a need for accountability journalism and for telling people’s stories. We just don’t necessarily know where that journalism will be. Flexibility is key in this business.”

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Carol Nunnelly, director of BirminghamWatch

 

The changes in news the last decade or so have been seismic, according to Carol Nunnelley, director of BirminghamWatch, a recently created nonprofit community news site. “The digital revolution has undercut the business model for news operations that relied on print advertising in newspapers,” she says. “Online advertising has not come close to making up for the loss in print.”

Social media platforms such as Facebook further undercut newspapers by allowing individuals and organizations to become their own publishers and share news with thousands of people—about events or fundraisers, for example—without relying on reporters.

“The news business has contracted,” says Nick Patterson, editor of Weld for Birmingham, a free weekly newspaper. This is particularly noticeable in cities the size of Birmingham, according to Nunnelley. “Some of the largest news markets with national audiences—New York City, Washington, DC—are bursting with startup news organizations as well as surviving traditional media,” she says. “But midsize cities are among the hardest hit in loss of revenue, loss of reporters and editors, and thus the loss of news coverage.”

This has created the need for outlets like BirminghamWatch, according to Nunnelley. “Recently, as the business model for newspapers in midsize cities faltered, nonprofits like ours have emerged to do some fundamental local coverage,” she says.

It’s not that people don’t want news, according to Michael Tomberlin, a former Birmingham News business writer who is editor of the Alabama News Center website. “People are consuming more news and more information than ever,” he says. “They are just doing it in different ways.”

Tomberlin is referring to the migration of users from desktops to laptops to mobile devices. “With the proliferation of smartphones and other digital devices, there is the à la carte aspect of people picking and choosing their news sources and the content they want to consume,” Tomberlin says.

Could these new patterns of consumption help fragment the news audience and prevent people from being confronted with viewpoints that differ from their own? “Whether they are purposefully reinforcing their own beliefs or naturally gravitate to a particular source or type of content is debatable,” Tomberlin says.

Barnett Wright, Executive Editor of The Birmingham Times

Barnett Wright, Executive Editor of The Birmingham Times

However, Barnett Wright, executive editor of The Birmingham Times news weekly, believes news consumers are definitely “in their own silos.” A veteran reporter who spent 15 years at The Birmingham News, Wright says that “sometimes people will go and support those networks or those publications that speak to their particular agendas and
interests.”

This phenomenon has been exacerbated by the growing power of Facebook and
other social platforms. Recent data shows that more and more people are finding links to news stories on social media, not on
news sites.

NPR calls this phenomenon the “echo chamber” in a July story that said: “Algorithms, like the kind used by Facebook…often steer us toward articles that reflect our own ideological preferences, and search results usually echo what we already know and like.” This means that Facebook, Google, and others are further undercutting the ability of news organizations—even those with a robust web strategy—to serve as gatekeepers or curators.

The stuff people are reading has also changed, according to Nunnelley. “More and more of us see huge amounts of content on phones and tablets, but that information diet may include little local journalism and what’s truly news—as opposed to a torrent of opinion and propaganda and entertainment and advertising,” she says.

Patterson furthers that idea: “While there are fewer journalists doing the job needed, there are more bloggers and more opinions and more partisan commentators filling those spaces in a sense. (There is) less true journalism and more ‘content
creation.’”

As circulation of newspapers continues to drop, one has to ask whether print papers—at least dailies—will survive. Wright is “bullish” on print, he says. “I believe there will always be room for print newspapers in some way, shape, or form. It may not be daily. It may be three times a week. It may be once a week.”

One reason is revenue, according to Wright. “Most media companies still derive most of their money from print,” he says. “I just can’t see digital bringing in the amount of revenue that newspapers once did.” The Times, a venerable African-American news weekly, is drawing new fans recently after a redesign of its print product.

Edward Bowser, Big Communications. Formerly at AL.com

Edward Bowser, Big Communications. Formerly at AL.com

Maybe there can be a mix of print and digital, according to former AL.com columnist and statewide community manager Edward Bowser, who recently moved to Big Communications as a digital content creator. “Has print seen better days? Unquestionably,” he says. “But I still feel like there’s a market for it—that market just isn’t as strong for the under 40 crowd. I feel like a combination of print and digital can go a long way to appealing to that market, though.”

Do any young people even care about print? “I don’t know anyone my age with an interest in consuming print as their primary news-gathering medium,” says Brown, who is in her mid-20s. Brown personally loves reading print publications but says emphatically, “Print is an antique.”

Even those who believe in print know it’s not the only solution. “You also think that you have to be realistic and make sure that you have some social media outlet for your publication, that you’re on Twitter, Facebook, (and) Instagram,” Wright said.

Weld for Birmingham publisher Mark Kelly believes that, while the prognosis is not good for a lot of daily newspapers, there is a niche for print, one that includes in-depth community news weeklies like his. “The newspaper isn’t dying,” he said. “What’s happening is that the way people use newspapers has changed and will continue to change. What that means on the local level is that there is a place for news and information that is more than just who, what, and when. People also want and need the why and the ‘how did we get here?’ and ‘what’s next?’ They want to know how the news that we’re reporting affects their life, the lives of their neighbors, and the life of the community.”

Of course, whether print survives or not, one wonders how many people will want to become journalists. Reporters, said the late New York Times columnist David Carr, are “people who go where they’re pointed.” And reporters have long gone where they’re pointed despite stress, deadlines, and long hours. They do it despite the fact that newspaper reporter was on the annual “10 Worst Jobs List” for 2016 compiled by careercast.com. And according to Pew, newsroom employment dipped another 10 percent in 2014, with 20,000 fewer jobs than there were 20 years prior.

If smart, talented young people decide they don’t want to enter the field, given the layoffs and uncertainty, fewer people in the coming decades can guard the public’s interest in the actions of corrupt
government officials.

Tom Gordon—a Birmingham News veteran and now a busy freelancer—said that if he were 22 again it would be tough to decide whether he wanted to work as a reporter. “Because of the presence of social media and the internet… the job of reporting is generally more demanding,” he says.

Before retiring from The News in 2010, Gordon got a taste of the brave new world in which reporters write stories, update stories online, use Twitter and Facebook, and shoot photographs. “You are like a walking wire service,” he says. “I don’t know if the pay would be commensurate. At the same time, if this is what you do, you just swallow hard and just do it.”

Brown also cites the demanding nature of modern reporting. “You have to be a jack-of-all-trades now, and unfortunately, I think there’s less guidance and mentorship for young reporters than the previous generation had,” she says.

What about Brown? Originally from Winfield, she graduated from The University of Alabama in 2013 with a degree in journalism. She was a general assignment reporter with AL.com until she was part of a round of layoffs in August 2015. She worked for the Associated Press on a short-term contract and is currently seeking another job in journalism.

“I love being a reporter,” Brown says. “I’ve had opportunities in the past year to get out of journalism and, perhaps foolishly, have chosen to stay in it for now. On a personal level, it just gels with my temperament and personality. Every day is different, and I get to learn new things with every story.”

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Bowser, 36, a Virginia native, majored in journalism at Norfolk State and has worked in journalism for 15 years. He was at AL.com for four years before taking his new job.

“I regret seeing so many talented, young journalists leaving the business in recent years,” says Bowser, who plans to continue blogging and freelancing as a way to speak up for minority communities. “What we’re witnessing is an industry going through growing pains and our young, yet seasoned journalists—I’m talking those in the early 30s with five or more years of experience under their belt—are becoming casualties.”

Bowser and Brown believe that a lot of young people will still want to be reporters, however. “We’ll continue to see young people flock to this industry because they want to tell their truths and the truths of their community, especially in this climate of heightened social justice issues,” Bowser says. “There’s just a certain type of person, when they get bitten by the bug, who can’t get enough of it.”

Perhaps the greatest pressure for reporters comes from the quest for readers online, according to Bowser. “Let’s face it, in 2016 industry success is measured by page views,” he says. “That’s the reality of the world we in live in. These young journalists understand the importance of embracing digital platforms but feel handcuffed by the constant pursuit of page views.”

Bowser says he strongly supports AL.com’s digital-first strategy and believes there is some “great journalism” being done in Alabama, but that there are some limits. “The constant race for page views and viral success is a grind and, sadly, demoralizes those who simply want to write good stories, no matter how many eyeballs those stories get,” he says.

Brown fears her journalism career may not last forever. “I’m realistic…and realize I may not get to do this for another 10 years or even another six months,” she says. “But I’m young and flexible, and I think now is the time to try to tough it out if I can.”

All of the journalists we contacted believe that the news media play a critical role in America. “A strong press is integral to our society,” Brown says. “Journalists are skeptical people—by nature and necessity—but this idealism, that journalism or a free press is a fundamental cornerstone of our society, often keeps us going. Sometimes the normal checks and balances of our society don’t work, and a free press is needed to shine a light in those dark corners.”

Bowser agrees: “Without question it’s important to have a strong press. While I fully support blogs and those with a strong voice on social media…it’s so vital to have a strong press to add credibility and solid, sensible reporting to combat rhetoric and conjecture.”

And what about the future in Birmingham? “Digital is the future, there’s no way around it,” Bowser says. “I think we’ll see all of Birmingham’s news outlets continue to embrace it more. The trick, though, is to use it wisely and not let the pursuit of page views and viral hits water down content. Good journalism will find an audience. Just let the digital mediums carry that message and not influence it.”

Patterson cites Weld, local TV news, and such outlets as WBHM radio and The Birmingham Times as evidence of that: “There’s good work being done in print, radio, and online in Birmingham, and the prospect for more to come. That’s encouraging.”

Numerous smaller community papers in the metro area, such as The Trussville Tribune, provide local news that AL.com and The Birmingham News no longer have the means or inclination to cover.

There may be a changing of the guard in the Birmingham media over the next few years, according to Wright. “I think you will see some publications that will rise to dominance,” he says. “Some smaller ones will get stronger and stronger.”

Editor’s Note: After writing this article, Jesse Chambers became a staff writer at Starnes Publishing, a company mentioned in this article on page 77. He worked as a beat reporter at AL.com and The Birmingham News for three years until being laid off in August 2015. He also worked at Weld for Birmingham as an editor from 2011 to 2012. He served as interim managing editor at Birmingham Weekly in 2010.

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