Insiders detail Birmingham News’ lurch toward digital future


Birmingham News - perception problem

Slide from Birmingham News/Big Communications
branding strategy presentation

By Wade Kwon

The mass firings start next week.

That’s the word at the Birmingham News and other Advance newspapers pushing forward the digital agenda. The master plan was to have been announced June 5, but the New York Times’ scoop forced Advance’s hand in New Orleans and across Alabama.

Sources within the Birmingham News who wish to remain anonymous confirmed details of the transition for staff and operations. Much still remains up in the air, as the newspaper scrambles to prepare for the historic changes afoot, dropping to three print editions a week.

“This is a disaster,” a veteran reporter said. “It makes me physically ill.”

It appears that employees will find out early next week if they will have a job at either of the newly formed companies, Advance Central Services Alabama or Alabama Media Group. If not, their employment will be terminated with a possible severance package.

Three major departures are already confirmed:

Those remaining with the company could see cuts in salary and benefits. (Gambit reports that New Orleans Times-Picayune staffers who receive offers may still have to reapply for those jobs.)

Staff members have seen several rounds of buyouts and layoffs in the last few years. The News could see an influx of younger, cheaper journalism school graduates — a sea change in the paper’s past hiring practices — to help create more posts in the new digital model.

Perhaps the most drastic change will be the moving of the newsroom from the News’ downtown headquarters. In its place will be support services for the News, the Huntsville Times and the Press-Register. The new newsroom location has not been determined, though the News owns two other commercial properties.

Birmingham News, other Advance papers to cut jobs, print editions

All reporters and photographers will have company-issued laptops and cell phones, filing content to al.com rather than for the next day’s print edition. Plus, they’re expected to shoot photos and videos and participate in social media. One staffer said the editors will “dip” into the “rivers” of posts for the Sunday, Wednesday and Friday newspapers.

“(Publisher) Pam (Siddall) keeps saying the journalism is still important, but I don’t believe that. How do we do in-depth, investigative pieces in short posts?”

Birmingham News - brand revitalization

Slide from Birmingham News/Big Communications
branding strategy presentation

Siddall, publisher of the News for the last 28 months, will head up Advance Central Services Alabama, while Cindy Martin, president/CEO of al.com since 1997, will be in charge of Alabama Media Group.

For the past few months, early shift reporters have been instructed to post just about anything every 15 minutes from 7 to 9 a.m. to al.com to drive traffic. Often, the posts would be based primarily on media releases.

Journalists are also now being instructed to participate in the often unruly comment sections following most stories, a directive that is already meeting resistance.

Because Huntsville’s paper will be printed at the News’ press starting in the fall, some Times production employees could shift to Birmingham. But it remains uncertain how many News production staffers will keep their jobs, though at least one department has been told it will remain intact with no planned layoffs.

A longtime production employee said, “There was a complete lack of respect and consideration for the employees in this.

“There is obviously a certain amount of discomfort in everyone’s stomach about all this. We all feel betrayed to an extent and see Newhouse/Advance as just trying to improve their bottom line by shaving even more off their expense reports.

“It is theirs to do with as they wish, although it would have been more considerate of them to have done this in a much more above-board manner.”

A reporter added, “I suspect that most of us will be gone, even those of us who have worked to develop the skills necessary in this brave new world.”

The biggest change of all may simply be stature. With Birmingham, Huntsville and Mobile dropping daily print coverage, the state’s largest newspaper will be the Montgomery Advertiser.

Birmingham News - Twitter billboard

Mockup of Birmingham News billboard with
Twitter updates using the #this_is_our_story hashtag

Additional coverage:

More stories on the Birmingham News

More stories on Advance Publications

Wade Kwon is a co-founder of Media of Birmingham and a Birmingham journalist for 25 years.

If you have more info on changes at the Birmingham News and al.com, please contact me.

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9 responses to “Insiders detail Birmingham News’ lurch toward digital future

  1. This is a very good story about an unfortunate situation (although a comment from News bosses would have been good to include, if possible). We knew this day would come, I suppose, but never grappled with how devastating it would be when it arrived. My heart goes out to those struggling now, or in the near future with these transitions.

    Someone recently asked what I would tell my younger self as I prepared for a career in journalism. The answer: be versatile, don’t stop learning, and expect journalism as you know it to keep evolving.

    To my friends at the News: there is life after the newsroom.

  2. Why does the news own two rundown residential properties?

  3. Pingback: Birmingham News, other Advance papers to cut jobs, print editions | Media of Birmingham

  4. Pingback: Good Luck To Us All « Random Bytes of Reality

  5. Nice article, Wade. Keep up the good work.

  6. Pingback: Birmingham News fires more than 100 employees | Media of Birmingham

  7. Pingback: A sad day for Alabama as a 3 newspapers face a bloodbath… « The Attack Machine.com

  8. Pingback: News blackout at al.com? State’s biggest site at loss for words | Media of Birmingham

  9. Pingback: ADVANCE CRISIS: The insanely obsessive guide to the Birmingham News/al.com implosion | Media of Birmingham

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