I’m trying to figure out what to say about the coming demise of the Birmingham News, the Huntsville Times, and the Mobile Press-Register, and how that all fits into the overall decline and fall of the American newspaper. That’s a big order for a little bitty blog, and maybe we’ll eventually get there. But first, you have to understand a little bit about me.
When I was a kid, there was no doubt what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be a newspaper reporter. No TV, no radio. For me, there was magic in newspapers. The way I read the paper has never varied: Comics first, then Ann Landers/Dear Abby, then sports. Then it’s back to the front page to make sure the world is still turning. Editorial pages used to hold my interest, back when Lewis Grizzard was alive and Dave Barry was marginally humorous.
I read Grizzard’s great book about journalism, If I Ever Get Back to Georgia (I’m Gonna Nail My Feet to the Ground) so many times that the cover came off and the pages were dog-eared and yellowed with age.
It wasn’t until I started working for a newspaper that I began to read those beautiful pages with misgivings. Did we fuck up a headline? Did we libel someone? Did we misspell a name in an obituary? (It really is true: You can say a lot of things about a lot of people, but when you start misspelling their names, that’s when they get really mad.)
But back to the Birmingham News, because that’s the story today. First of all, for anyone who cares, I’ve had my byline in the News a few times, covering some sports. I don’t think that creates a conflict of interest here, but if you want to look for one, there it is. The News is losing 60 percent of its newsroom (more than 100 employees total, 60 or so in the newsroom) as Advance Publications restructures and cuts the paper down from a daily to three days a week.
The same thing is going on in Huntsville and Mobile and New Orleans. The company is going to try a hybrid Web/print entity. We’ll see how well that works, but it’s already been tried and failed in Ann-Arbor, Mich. Make no mistake: cutting a daily paper back to thrice weekly is a deathblow. Not only is it a blow to your readers and advertisers — it’s also a blow to the journalists who work at the papers.
I feel bad for the News. In New Orleans, people are protesting. People want that daily paper. New Orleanians understand they live in a great city, and that a great city deserves a great newspaper.
Birmingham? Not so much. The News survived a newspaper war with the Post-Herald — an afternoon daily that shuttered in 2005. The P-H was without a doubt a great newspaper. The writing and coverage blew the News away on an almost daily basis. If you were a journalist, you wanted to be with the News for the security the larger paper offered, but you wanted to be with the P-H for the chances they took and the journalism they delivered on a consistent basis.
The News isn’t being mourned for one simple reason: People hold grudges. As Birmingham has become a more and more urban city, African-Americans have not forgotten that the paper was on the wrong side of history during the Civil Rights movement. People haven’t forgotten that the News was too timid to call former mayor Larry Langford out on his bullshit. The paper rarely took a stand on anything, and so now the people who could have saved it are sitting on their hands. Their perspective: The News doesn’t care about us. Why should we care about the News?
And who can blame them?
But I didn’t come here to shit on the Birmingham News. Overall, it’s a good paper. But it could have been a great paper. I’m proud to have written for them on a few (too few) occasions. If you’re still with me, I want to talk a bit about why American papers are in decline, and have been for 20 years or so. Some of these are things you’re seeing currently with the News.
1) Cutting newsroom staff. As a former reporter and editor, I can tell you: you can’t do more with less. First, newspapers got the great idea to combine layout and copy-editing staff. This led to more errors getting through to the final product. More errors in a newspaper = more dissatisfied readers. Next, photographers began to get the ax. Because hey, reporters are already on the scene, right? They can take photos! The vibrant images that were once a great part of many small newspapers were gone, replaced by meeting photos or firing-line shots. You can’t make that shit interesting, no matter how hard you try. You lay off the experienced reporters/editors because they’re the ones with the bigger paychecks. But they’re also the ones with the experience and the contacts. Your news coverage will suffer. Period. It’s inarguable fact.
2) The bean counters won. Accountants are death to newspapers just as surely as locusts are death to crops. Newspapers began to be an attractive *ahem* investment opportunity to people who understood nothing about the newspaper business. Newspapers used to operate at a 20 percent profit margin, which looks like a highly successful venture. When the economy began to slow and profits began to slip by *gasp* up to 50 percent (all the way down to a still-successful-but-not-as-awesome-sounding 10 percent profit margin), something had to be done! That’s when the deep staff cuts began. Start cutting positions and you can save thousands in one whack.
3) Somewhere along the way, we lost the people. We lost the people we were supposed to be helping. A newspaper — especially a small, local daily — is, above all else, a reflection of the community.* A newspaper is at its best when it is in a dogfight, when it takes a stand. As a reporter and editor, I saw a lot of milquetoast journalism. I probably helped some of it happen. A prevailing thought in newspapers at one time became “let’s present all sides of the story equally.” But we got that wrong. There are sides to a story that are absurd, that should be mocked, and ridiculed. Newspapers became afraid to take a stand, and it has hurt us.**
4) We were slow to react to the Internet. Many papers experimented with a paywall. Many others put their content up online for free, relying on banner ads or whatnot for revenue. In the early days of the Internet, newspapers were often the least protective of their online content. Now many companies are re-exploring the paywall idea, and it’s hurting them. Readers are pissed: We were giving them something for free, and now we expect them to pay for it. The industry as a whole should have reacted to the Internet in a much different way. I don’t have the answers, and I don’t have a time machine to go back and attempt a fix — but I think it’s clear the ‘Net affected newspapers in a fundamental way that it hasn’t affected TV and radio.
5) We lost the moral high ground. The first time an editor (or more likely a publisher) killed a story because it would upset an advertiser or some high-muckity-muck at the country club, we lost. When you get asked to do a story on a local business multiple times because the owner is a friend of the publisher, you’ve lost. When you get asked to do multiple feature stories on barbecue within three months because your boss belongs to a competition barbecue team, you’ve lost. Personal agendas work their way into the paper all the time. It’s something we used to be able to guard against. But nowadays it’s getting worse and worse. And it’s been a downhill slide ever since.
I hope you made it all the way to the end, dear reader. I hope I’ve said some smart (or smart-ass) things about the Birmingham News and the overall decline and fall of the American newspaper. People have been predicting the death of the newspaper since the first one rolled off of Gutenberg’s press, and it hasn’t happened yet. In Europe, the newspaper still thrives. It could thrive today in the U.S., but some things have to change to make that happen. Sadly, I don’t see those changes on the horizon.
It’s not the death of the newspaper — just the American newspaper. In the land where freedom of speech was first guaranteed, that seems a shame to me.
*I’m blatantly stealing that from Lewis Grizzard. He wrote it in If I Ever Get Back to Georgia … and I’ve always completely agreed with the idea.
**I still say “us” when referring to the newspaper industry. I’ve likely blown any chance I ever had of getting back into the game, and I’m pretty happy with where my life is these days, but I’m still a newspaper guy. The paper is “us.” TV & radio are “them.”