Just another one-newspaper town

On the passing of the Post-Herald 5 years ago

History buffs know today marks the fifth anniversary of the last edition of the Birmingham Post-Herald.

Birmingham Post-HeraldUp until that day, Birmingham had been a two-newspaper town for much of its existence. Well, more like one-and-a-half newspapers, as both were operating under a joint-operating agreement. The Birmingham News was the senior partner, handling the advertising, marketing and circulation for itself and the Post-Herald.

In essence, competitive entities in name only.

Has the News thrived or become complacent since becoming a solo act in 2005?

The News has operated for 5 years without another daily paper competing for scoops, but finding itself competing on a new playing field. It had its traditional competitors: radio, television, even the Internet vying for readers for both news and attention.

But who knew back then that the state’s flagship newspaper would also be fighting Facebook, and blogs, and YouTube, and Twitter, and a publishing industry implosion?

Walk through the News’ building — insiders jokingly refer to the layout as a prison — and you’ll see disturbing signs of a newspaper in decline. Empty desks marking the dozens of jobs cut. The third floor, once home to circulation, now a ghost town; owner Advance Publications consolidated that function for all state newspapers in its Mobile office.

In some ways, the 2006 structure remains a time capsule impervious to a changing world. No wi-fi. Even odder, no AL.com. Though the News and AL.com are separate companies, both are part of the Advance family with the same mission: Turn a profit while informing readers.

And yet, the staff of the state’s largest website sits in its own offices a mile away at Pepper Place, which might as well be a thousand miles away.

The News, rather than embracing its digital destiny, has found it rather loathsome. The columnists decry the online commenters while doing little to fix the system. The editors hold back more and more content for print only. And while other publications have moved toward more interactive features and storytelling, the News largely sticks to its comfort zone of text, photos and graphics.

The print product grows ever thinner, more expensive and less read, a strategy copied straight from the Post-Herald. You may be surprised to learn that at one time, the Post-Herald also had the state’s largest, if only, website, back in the mid-1990s. But by failing to adapt to the audience’s changing news-consumption habits, that advantage was lost over time.

It may seem unthinkable that Birmingham could go from a one-newspaper to a zero-newspaper town. This quiet anniversary should serve as a reminder that no publication is safe, no institution sacred. Hopefully, it is not too late for the Birmingham News to learn from the Post-Herald’s demise, before it also becomes a footnote in history.

12 responses to “Just another one-newspaper town

  1. Interesting piece. The fact is that the Post-Herald did not decline because it failed to properly integrate its web site into its news gathering, although in those early days cyber journalism, it is easy to see how that happened.

    The PH’s demise was the Birmingham chapter in a story being written all over the country, and which had started long before: the decline of the two-(or more) newspaper town. Once many of the larger towns and cities in America had two dailies competing for readership. But as the news gathering cycle changed – people can get news 24-7 now – the news reading habits of the populace changed as well. Readership declined in general. And more readers chose to take time with the paper at the beginning of the work day, and not later. Partly for that reason, afternoon papers – like the News used to be – became less successful than morning papers. Afternoon dailies were failing everywhere, leaving more and more towns with one editorial voice in newsprint.

    The owners of the News and PH negotiated a cycle switch, giving the News the future – the morning publishing slot. As soon as that happened, the PH’s circulation slid off a cliff. Eventually, the now-afternoon PH, went the way of afternoon papers all over the place. And Birmingham went the way of one-daily towns all over the place.

    When it became too unprofitable, the PH’s parent company, Scripps pulled the plug, essentially, selling, as I understand it, what remained of its Birmingham inventory to the Birmingham News. All of us who worked for the PH now have the pleasure of having our former output – our clips, if you will – owned by our former competitor, for what it’s worth.

    It is a sad story with complex roots.

  2. Whenever I walk into a convenience store or pass a row of racks on the street, I still look for the P-H. It’s a reflex. Five years later, and my brain is still wired that way. It’s like being in a house where someone close to you has died: You know they’re gone but you can’t shake the feeling they’re still in the next room.

    Interesting comparison of the News to the P-H. If the third floor is vacant, then why the hell is Newhouse leasing space in another part of town for AL.com? Even if they aren’t going to be the same company, they could at least put them in the same building.

  3. As a former low-ranking editor who wriggled out of the Gannett prison, I’ve been dismayed by the signs of decay in the daily print pages. Introduced errors in mechanics, flubbed wire photo captions, missing copy, duplicated items. I used to call the newsroom sometimes and point these out. Then it got to the point that the editorial pages, traditionally the home of polished prose and careful editing, were as bad as the rest. It’s sad to see this, because the B’ham News had a reputation, even in Georgia, as a great place to work. Now it looks like a leaky old tub that’s about to go under, so in the meantime no one bothers to steer it. I have the last three days’ editions sitting unread in my living room. This happens more and more often.

  4. Wow, five years already. I still have the final edition sitting at home.

  5. I was there in the pressroom that day the P-H made it’s last run. It was a sad feeling because this was one of the mainstays of news in Birmingham at the time and it made it’s last gasp with little fanfare. A lot of things changed that day. Most of them were hard to take.

    I agree with Rob on all the errors seemingly slipping through the cracks. It’s almost as if no one cares anymore. That’s a crying shame too because the News became the flagship paper of the greater Birmingham area. You’d think there would be more emphasis on quality instead of the ever-increasing tone of keeping-to-the-schedule that’s happening there now. Seems to be all about “getting the paper out on schedule” instead of putting out a quality piece of work.

    The ”glass castle” as some call it across the street is an empty container with few employees milling about doing their jobs. Thanks in large part to the previous publisher, it’s become what it is today.

    To all those affected by the P-H’s demise, I sincerely wish you all the best. Whether those of us still at the News will be there down the road remains to be seen. Guess we’ll have to turn the page to find out.

  6. There was a time when there weren’t just two, but scores of dailies and weeklies in the region. We even had competing German language papers at one point in Birmingham. Those days are long over and, from all appearances, we’re entering an informational frontier. Bleak, lawless, and necessitating a great deal of self reliance and luck to navigate.

  7. It’s not just print, people.

    Local broadcast news is on the same downward spiral.

    The institutions that have sponsored journalism for the last century are going down the toilet — and those still in the bowl are jockeying to be the last to turn.

  8. Thanks for all of your comments. I ran into a couple of Post-Herald colleagues yesterday, and one had to be reminded of the “special date.”

  9. A couple of factual errors – since we’re parsing and complaining of poor editing:

    1. Circulation is alive and well in Birmingham (and still on the 3rd floor and by no means a ‘ghost town’). Business office functions were moved to Mobile (and not all of them).
    2. Other functions state-wide may be consolidated in Birmingham, and some in Huntsville. This is a reorg that has been a long time coming.

  10. Diligent must work there with the info he just shared. That or a recent recipient of the News”buyout award’. I’m leaning towards still there though.

  11. Pingback: » On starting at the Birmingham Post-Herald 20 years ago | Wade Kwon | wadekwon.com

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