Kyle Whitmire, left, and Mark Kelly
By Wade Kwon
The summer of 2012 has been exceptionally weird for Birmingham media. Not that it couldn’t get a little weirder.
The Birmingham News fired more than 100 employees and announced historic changes in its publishing cycle. Alabama Public Television is embroiled in a legal fight and a PR nightmare over the dismissal of executive director Allan Pizzato and chief financial officer Pauline Howland. Atlanta’s Cox Media Group is selling 25 radio stations, including Birmingham’s top-rated 98.7 Kiss and 95.7 Jamz. Radio host Paul Finebaum settled a yearlong legal dispute with employer Citadel Broadcasting.
The weirdness continued Friday when Kyle Whitmire, new media editor and co-owner of Weld for Birmingham, accepted a job offer with Alabama Media Group, one of two new companies succeeding the Birmingham News and al.com.
Whitmire’s exit is the second major departure from the startup site and publication in the last 2 months. Editor and co-owner Glenny Brock left in May.
Reached by phone, Whitmire would not comment on the matter, out of deference to his future employer. Instead, he issued this statement: “I’m incredibly grateful for the comments I’ve seen online and support I’ve gotten. I’m looking forward to working for the new company.”
He starts Aug. 20 as a reporter covering local government and politics.
“Over the past several weeks, substantial differences arose between our management team and Kyle. Those differences were related to our plans for the immediate and future direction and priorities of Weld for Birmingham and its online and print publications. They also involved issues related to Kyle’s current and past job performance and fulfillment of his duties as a shareholder in our company. It seems clear that all of that factored into his decision to accept the position he has been offered with our competitor.
“Regarding the issues that contributed to Kyle’s decision, I will not provide specifics, as they involve proprietary information about our company’s operations. We have been aware for a few weeks that Kyle was in discussions with Alabama Media Group, though he did not see fit to share that information with us until yesterday (Thursday), when he told us that he had received and intended to accept a job offer.”
A succession of companies
Whitmire, Brock and Kelly have had considerable history together. Whitmire and Brock worked together for nearly 10 years at alternative newspaper Birmingham Weekly. The close friends and former housemates left the Weekly within 2 months of each other.
And Whitmire and Kelly have been friends as well for around a decade. Like Whitmire, Kelly once worked as a reporter for a local alternative newspaper, Black and White, covering City Hall (later working there as spokesperson for Mayor Bernard Kincaid).
Brock, Kelly and Whitmire had been working on the blueprint for Weld since 2009. After securing investor funding, the three plus Heather Milam launched the new media outlet in 2011: the site in May and the weekly alternative newspaper in September.
Editor Brock left after a year. Whitmire had been in talks with Advance-owned Alabama Media Group for several weeks and discussed his potential move with Brock.
Whitmire had written about Advance’s Birmingham News and al.com for years for the Weekly and for Weld. From June 5:
“What’s clear to me is that the key to having a good newspaper and maintaining a good audience is knowing when to defy readers’ expectations and when to live up to them. Historically, the (Birmingham) News has done a poor job of doing either.
“The News spent decades building a bad reputation for itself. It defended segregation and was not willing to hold up a mirror to the city it covered. Slowly it moved to the right side of history, but when it did, it did so with reporting that was stripped of any voice or editorial latitude.”
On Thursday afternoon, at a meeting with partners Milam and Kelly along with another individual at the Weld office downtown, Whitmire announced his intention to leave for Alabama Media Group. On Friday, he turned in his key and his equipment to Kelly — and the two have not communicated with each other since.
Meanwhile, Kelly’s online statement has raised questions about the pair’s split.
“Someone who has intimate knowledge of virtually all aspects of Weld’s operations and our strategy for immediate and long-term growth is now working for our direct competitor,” Kelly said by email. “Kyle (was) a shareholder in the company, which entails certain obligations and responsibilities that are not at play in the simple case of an employee entertaining the offer of another job.
“This, along with Kyle’s handling of his departure, is a serious matter, and we have some shareholders who are very much concerned about the manner in which it transpired. Thus, the admittedly strong wording of the statement.
“As for my personal reaction, I am disappointed. I’m disappointed for us and in Kyle, for both the business reasons I’ve mentioned and for personal reasons you might imagine.”
Kelly would not go into detail on Whitmire’s ownership stake, job performance or shareholder duties, citing proprietary information about the privately held company.
The publisher’s statement has met with considerable backlash, as commenters have called it “unprofessional,” “arrogant” and “disgusting.”
When asked about the feedback, Kelly said:
“As with all comments — positive, negative or neutral — that appear on our site in response to any story or post, I value the time and effort taken by the commenter. As that relates to my statement on Kyle’s departure, whether I feel those who commented negatively are ‘accurate’ in their characterizations of the statement — or, in some cases, of me personally — is really irrelevant.
“The important thing is that I respect their right to express their opinions and, as is apparent, would do nothing to interfere with their freedom to do so on our website and our Facebook page.
“As for the statement itself, it is a statement of fact, and not to stand by it simply because some people react negatively to my choice of words would be an act of both intellectual prevarication and moral cowardice.”
Brock saw it differently, saying by email, “What I read in Friday’s statement was a lot of bitter hurt. I’m glad he spared me a public excoriation.”
At its seams
Since her departure as editor, managing editor Jesse Chambers has filled in as interim editor. (Like Brock and Whitmire, he too worked in editorial at the Weekly before leaving in 2011.)
An anonymous tipster said that Chambers would be following Brock and Whitmire out the door. When asked if he had given notice to Weld, Chambers said by email, “I will remain as interim editor until a new editor is hired. I will have no further comment on this matter. Any further queries should be directed to Weld publisher Mark Kelly.”
Kelly praised Chambers for “doing an exceptional job of filling the editor’s role” and said that Weld plans to conduct a formal interview process for the position over the next few weeks.
As for Whitmire’s vacant new media editor position, Kelly told the Birmingham Business Journal that it was hard to say if a replacement would be hired or the position changed or eliminated in a restructuring.
Weld for Birmingham looks much different with two of the four co-founders now out of the picture. Back at the outset in April 2011, Kelly told the Birmingham Business Journal about the company’s mission:
“We want to succeed in business, and we want to succeed in journalism. And we want to fulfill our community mission to move a fractured community forward.”
The fractures between him and Whitmire have become the latest story in Birmingham’s summer media madness.
More stories on the Weld for Birmingham
More stories on Alabama Media Group
Wade Kwon is a co-founder of Media of Birmingham and a Birmingham journalist for 25 years.