I Heard the News Today. Oh Boy.

The most sweeping transformation of the newspaper business ever is playing out here in Birmingham with layoffs, three-day-a-week newspapers and a focus on digital delivery of the news.

By Joe O’Donnell

It was a Tuesday morning, early but not that early, maybe 6:45. I went into the convenience store and brought my Coke Zero to the counter. I looked down to my left. There among the lighters and the 5-hour Energy Shots was an empty space on the counter. No newspaper. The route driver was late, or the press broke down and the whole paper was late. Who knew? And perhaps more important, how many people walking into that convenience store really cared?

In either case it is time to get used to extra counter space on a Tuesday morning because starting this month, The Birmingham News won’t be printed on that day. Or on Monday, Thursday or Saturday, for that matter. It feels like the inevitable end of an era, though the inevitability of all this is open for debate. Does it have to be here? Does it have to be now that the daily newspaper and the people that bring the news to life every day are utterly transformed? Seems it does.

Owning a newspaper in a metropolitan area was once deemed a proverbial license to print money. That license has expired, revoked by Craigslist, smart phones, Google and Facebook. Across the industry, circulation has dropped, ad revenue has fallen, and an industry has changed in ways unimaginable even a few years ago. An industry that gave good jobs to reporters, photographers, ad salespeople, accountants and marketers, that made millionaires and billionaires of owners is on its back, limbs slowly flailing like a turtle trying to right itself.

If newspapers did not exist, would you invent one? Would you go to the bank and say you have the greatest idea ever for a business? You’d like to invest millions in heavy manufacturing machinery, buy expensive, consumable paper and ink, employ journalists to gather and disseminate the news from the day before, hire drivers and buy trucks to hand deliver something called a newspaper to stores, coin boxes and lawns all over the city. The bankers would still be laughing when they got home for dinner that night.

Rufus N. Rhodes founded The Birmingham News on March 14, 1888, as a four-page paper with two reporters and $800 in operating cash. The ad slogan is cringe-producing in today’s world: “Great is Birmingham and The News is its Prophet!” By 1910, Birmingham was the third largest city in the South, and Rhodes was dead, succeeded by Victor H. Hanson, the first in a line of Hansons to run the paper. By 1914, he had built circulation to 40,000 and adopted the slogan, “The South’s Greatest Newspaper.”

The Hansons added radio and television to the company media mix and sold the enterprise to S.I. Newhouse and Advance Publications for more than $18 million in 1955, a record sum at the time. Hansons continued to run the paper in the ensuing decades that saw highs (Pulitzer Prizes in 1991 and 2007) and lows (a less than progressive stance during the city’s civil rights era). Then came the 21st century, average daily circulation declines of about 54,000 copies from 2004 to 2012, the retirement at age 52 of Victor Hanson III as publisher, and this year’s creation of two new companies, Alabama Media Group, which will create content for print and online at al.com, and Advance Central Services Alabama, which will print and distribute the paper, and provide sales, circulation and other support to the enterprise.

The collateral damage of these 21st century changes has been staggering. When Advance announced its restructuring plans in May and massive layoffs in June, there was no doubt that the new world of newspapers had come crashing into what was for most of the previous century a really nice and profitable party. People lost jobs they had done successfully all of their adult lives.

The moves have been corporate downsizing at its most classic: veterans with well-known bylines gone with severance packages to keep their mouths shut, younger employees hired at a lower cost, plenty of hurt all around.

New Orleans (no surprise, since they go batty for beads) went crazy on the Newhouses, petitioning them to sell and cheering when the Baton Rouge Advocate said it was going to start a daily New Orleans edition. In Birmingham it felt more like an inevitable passing, funereal and grim for people in the business, just another part of life for the general public.

Advance, a billion-dollar privately owned company, can and will do what it wants. Steven Newhouse, the executive at the forefront of the transformation, published an explanatory essay on Poynter.org, a journalism advocacy and educational institute.

Newhouse wrote: “The rapid rise in digital adoption by consumers and advertisers is irreversible. The increased importance of mobile platforms has added even more complexity to the picture. We are in the midst of a digital revolution and instead of constantly being disrupted by our numerous online competitors, we decided to re-invent ourselves. It is useless to bemoan the digital revolution and the unintended consequences that have come along with it; the trick is to turn that trend to the advantage of our papers, our readers, and our communities. This is a difficult task, and it is the one we are deeply engaged in…”

Advance papers in Michigan were the test cases for the digital-first model, now followed by papers in Alabama and New Orleans, and likely the company’s premier properties, such as the Oregonian in Portland, the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and newspapers in the Newhouse home base of North Jersey.

In the Poynter essay, Steve Newhouse wrote, “While we believe that our print revenue will decline further, we are hopeful that our increased focus on digital will allow digital revenue to become an even greater revenue growth engine, and, eventually, turn our local companies into growth businesses once more, allowing them to continue to serve their communities with the quality of journalism that readers expect.

“This process has been difficult. When our executive teams in Alabama and New Orleans — facing the same conditions that challenged us in Michigan — announced plans to create digitally focused news operations and reduce their print frequency, the news was met with concern, skepticism and even outrage. Some of the criticism was well founded. We could have communicated our decisions more openly and sensitively to our employees, our readers and our communities. We understand that our websites need further improvement.”

How it all turns out is anyone’s guess. It is a crapshoot, a double-down on the inevitable migration from print to digital. Through the rosiest glasses, the web sites will thrive, community engagement will increase, and important, long-form journalism that makes an impact on the community lives in an ad-fat three-day a week newspaper and a robust, vital, mobile and web-based digital news platform.

Either that, or the dwindling number of readers decide they’re even less interested in reading the newspaper three days a week than they were every day; al.com becomes just another site people check to see what the Bama fans are saying before clicking onto the rest of the world; and since this 20th century juggernaut just hit the iceberg, the Newhouses are running to the vaults to get the last piles of cash before it all ends up at the bottom of the deep blue sea.

Either Advance is smarter and bolder than everyone else in the newspaper business, greedy enough to suck the last dime off the table and then get the hell out of town, or just plain wrong about the future. Time will tell. Either way it could make for a really interesting story. Or as my city editor, at the defunct, lamented by no one, Newhouse-owned Huntsville News, Billy Joe Cooley used to ask: “Whatcha got for me today?”

Cindy Martin Engineers a new future for Alabama news

by Les Lovoy   Photo by Beau Gustafson

When Cindy Martin grew up in Bessemer, she had no idea she would one day be part of a revolution in how information was delivered, received and viewed in her home state. Martin is president of Alabama Media Group, the new organization that combinesThe Birmingham News, Mobile Press-Register, The Huntsville Times and al.com. The company is focused on digitally distributing news, entertainment and sports to Alabamians.

Martin attended schools in Birmingham and attended the University of Alabama. There she majored in mechanical engineering. She said that was her dad’s suggestion. “He said that if I get an engineering degree, everything else in life will be easy, because it was so hard, and he was right,” she laughs. “I was one of two girls in the class at the time. I worked myself to the bone. I was in the library six hours a day. But it gave me confidence.”

After she received her undergraduate degree in engineering, she earned an MBA. She says that was much more fun. “I realized people can have fun and go to school,” she says. “A curtain opened up and a whole world of fun people were behind it.”

A professor took her under his wing. Each semester, he chose one student to participate in an AT&T internship. He chose Martin. She went to Orlando and entered a management development program, rotating through several departments.

Martin was soon transferred to New Jersey where she ran the email customer support division. At the time, she discovered AT&T was building an Internet access product called World Net, which was their first dial-up service. “That sounded very exciting to me, so I told them I want to be a part of that team.”  She was transferred to work on that project.  Later, she worked for The McKinley Group of Sausalito, California, publishers of the Magellan search engine.

Advance eventually tapped her on the shoulder. They asked her if she wanted to return to Birmingham and head al.com. That was in 1997, and it was then known as Alabama Live. Fast forward 15 years and she is still president, presiding over a staff  that is changing the face of how information is distributed and viewed by Alabamians.

“I was very fortunate to be asked to head al.com,” she noted. “I was able to come back to my home state, which I really love.”  Today al.com is the number one Internet site for traffic in the state. And it has over 50 percent market share in the Birmingham area. “I attribute its success to the excellent content from all of our newspapers,” she said. “And the people of Alabama have supported us. We have provided them with information on the passions that tie the state together, football, politics and communities.”

Things hummed along for several years. Then change occurred due to the evolution of how people consume information. “We saw these trends,” Martin noted. “People using technology more and information delivery devices were becoming more affordable.” Here are some facts: Two in three Alabamians get news online weekly or more, 43 percent use online sources in conjunction with newspapers, and one third read local news on their mobile phone.

As a result of this major shift in how people access information, Advance undertook a revolution of its own. It created two new companies, Alabama Media Group, in charge of news content and headed by Martin, and Advance Central Services Alabama, in charge of printing, distribution and support, to be headed by current Birmingham News publsher Pam Siddall. It cut distribution of The News from daily to three days a week, laid off employees and adopted a digital-first approach to local news.

Martin knew there would be push-back from some of the core readers. “We know some people depend on a daily paper for information like obituaries. We are working to get that information out on tablets, someone’s computer or cell phone.” And for those who enjoy sitting at the table, spreading the paper out with a cup of coffee and flipping through the pages reading article after article…

“There is no solution for everyone,” she explains. “My heart breaks for that older person or someone who can’t afford the technology and are heavily dependent on the daily paper. But when there is a large technological shift, there are going to be some people who are not taken care of, and I wish that was not the case.”

It’s very daunting, but Martin does not shy away from this opportunity. “It’s a significant challenge and I am extremely fortunate to have this opportunity. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to change the news business in the state of Alabama. We have some top talent on board to help us do this. They are some of the sharpest people in content development, sales and marketing.”

This unique challenge has been the primary focus for Martin for quite awhile. “My normal week is seven days a week, and many hours,” she says. “I’m always on, always tethered to email or the phone.  The hardest part was going through the offer and severance package process. Now we are in a rebuilding growth mode. We’re now concerned with positive growth, and that helps a lot.”

Getting a mechanical engineering degree and a MBA. Working at AT&T and The McKinley Group, and coming back to Birmingham to launch al.com. Now spearheading a major shift in how news and info is delivered and viewed. What’s the next challenge for Martin?

“Creating a whole culture,” she says with determination. “We’re going to have a mix of people from pure newspapers, pure digital, radio and TV. How do we want to work together? What kind of values do we want to instill? How do we want to treat each other? Creating that kind of culture is very important. I want people to wake up and be delighted to go to work for Alabama Media Group.”

A Life in the Press

Possum growers and coon dog cemeteries. Political conventions and hostage standoffs. AP reporter Hoyt Harwell looks back on a lifetime of stories.

by Hoyt Harwell     Photo by Beau Gustafson         Historic photos provided by Hoyt Harwell

Of all the objections about The Birmingham News going to only three days of publication, a surgeon friend came up with perhaps the most novel. In answering his question about my reaction, I told him that I was distraught because for more than 60 years I have turned out words for print. What about him?

Well, he said, his Labrador retriever would be upset because he was accustomed to fetching the morning News to the doctor’s hands seven days a week.

“Besides,” he said, “I will miss watching him every morning; and also, I worry that he might regress by getting out of the habit.” Can a dog regress? I don’t know — perhaps Pavlov in reverse.

Anyway, if a dog, even a pedigree, can be affected, what about people who, as a litter of naysayers have pointed out, enjoy their morning java-and-news fix?

My approach straddles two viewpoints:

1. As an addicted newspaper reader, stemming from early childhood and stretching through decades when I read, or at least scanned, just about every daily in Alabama as part of my duties with the Associated Press, and into 19 years of retirement when Elizabeth and I share the newspaper sections along with talk of our plans for the day and the activities of children and grandchildren.

2. As a reporter and editor who handled scads of stories during some of the most news-intensive years of Alabama history — stories that made it into print and not into electronic gadgets. They included the Redstone rocket developed at Huntsville, the advent and success of the race track at Talladega (which actually is nearer Eastaboga and Lincoln), the glory years of coaches Bear Bryant and Shug Jordan, umpteen tornadoes, hurricanes and floods, a school-house hostage situation during which I effected the release of school children, civil rights issues and, well, there is no way to list them all.

At my little retirement dinner, my boss from Atlanta said the best estimate was that I had written about 100,000 stories for the AP, all of them going onto newsprint. That number increased a bunch from weekly and monthly columns penned during retirement.

The question remains, and is the one the kindred papers at Birmingham, Mobile, Huntsville and New Orleans are trying to answer, is how many readers will remain faithful enough to go to their electronic outlets to get the news.

Every development since cave writing has had to give way to later ways of communicating. Hieroglyphics, marathon runners, papyrus, smoke signals, carrier pigeons, Morse code, telegraph wires, telephones, broadsheets and even the back fence.

Even in my writing years, a relatively short period as communications go, getting the word out, at least by the AP, has included the mail, ship-to-shore radio, Western Union, Teletypes (when each letter was capitalized and editors had to underline the ones that needed caps), teletypesetters that not only used caps and lower case but also justified the lines for newspaper use, and then computer delivery by bouncing stories off satellites. The latter worked, but don’t ask this non-scientist to explain how.

What I find missing more and more from newspaper columns are the off-the-wall stories that give readers a smile, a fond remembrance, a feeling of poignancy, something close to home to which they can relate.

It is a given that the first calling of reporters is to provide what newspapers call the “hard” news, the spot news, the serious stuff that affects the way we live, the people we elect, the lens through which we see not only our country but the world itself. Especially the latter, considering the degree of know-nothingness, isolationism and xenophobia extant among us.

Having accepted that, however, it doesn’t hurt to report on the lighter side also.

In my early days with the AP, in Alabama we insisted that our staffers come up with at least one front-page “brite,” a bright and brief story — two or three paragraphs — to cheer up the reader. The story HAD to be true, of course. No jokes, no urban legends, no twice-told tales.

Somehow along the way the sense of humor seems to have vanished from newspaper columns.

Among those thousands of stories I wrote during four decades with the AP in Georgia and Alabama were plenty of hard news items, which always come first in reporting, with feature stories and “soft” stories coming in second. It has to be that way to keep people informed.

However, nothing gave me as much pleasure as getting out in the highways and byways and digging up the off-beat stories. Some examples:

The Key Underwood Memorial Coon Dog Cemetery in the northwest Alabama woods near Cherokee. It began when Underwood buried his favorite coon dog, Troop, and has grown to numerous graves marked by small crosses, photographs of dogs and dog collars hanging over graves. At some of the burials, scripture is read and prayers are offered. Once a year, coon hunters gather to clean the cemetery (sort of like Decoration Day at rural churches), picnic and recall exploits of their favorite coon dog.

Then there was the Possum Growers and Breeders Association of America, with the slogan “A Registered Possum is a Better Possum,” founded in the early 1970s by the then-mayor of Clanton, Frank Basil Clark. The association’s main legislative goal was a law against the night-time theft and transportation of possums because, as Clark explained in speeches all over the South, all those dead possums along the roads had been rustled and had fallen out of pickup trucks.

Both the cemetery story and the possum story have little effect in the grand scheme of things, but they are fun to write and to read.

There are serious matters in this world, of course, and I’ll relate three that I was involved in to prove that reporting isn’t all fun and games.

When the Democrats held their 1968 national convention in Chicago, I flew up from Birmingham with instructions to cover the delegations from Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. I never worked harder in one week in my life. That was the convention at which the hippies and the police clashed, and the Palmer House where I slept less than four hours a night was filled with fumes from stink bombs.

What made it so tough on me was that all four delegations had caucuses each morning at different places and all four had more than nominal issues. After days of 18 hours or more, the only relief came when I could doze on the airplane coming home.

I had covered George Wallace for some time, as governor and as a presidential candidate, so when an assailant shot him in Maryland during a presidential run, one of his daughters, Bobbie Jo Parsons, telephoned me to say that I was the only reporter he trusted and that she would arrange for me to talk to Cornelia Wallace, the governor’s wife. Unfortunately, all the hectic things surrounding the aftermath of the shooting kept us from working it out, but I always appreciated Mrs. Parsons’ call.

The third account involves the 1983 takeover of the West End Christian School in Tuscaloosa by a gunman, who kept teachers and dozens of elementary school children hostage at gunpoint for close to 12 hours. I got to the scene an hour or so after the ordeal began at 8:30 a.m. and worked until close to midnight after it ended.

During the day, the FBI and the local police called me to their headquarters in a schoolroom and told me the gunman wanted to talk to an Associated Press reporter. I was the only AP person there, so that sort of narrowed it down. The lawmen instructed me where to stand, what to say and what not to say and in general how to behave.

The gunman had promised to release several children if I listened to him, which I did for about five minutes with an automatic rifle pointed just over my bald head. At the end of his rambling discourse, I walked out with 10 children and one expectant teacher, which was worth the scare. Although I don’t know how I held my car on the road coming back to Birmingham, because by then the adrenalin had set in and the steering wheel was hard to control my hands were shaking so.

I would hate to have to write those stories, and myriad others, to fit onto gadgets.

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