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.
Within hours of the story breaking on Twitter, Weld publisher and co-owner Mark Kelly issued a strongly worded statement online that drew immediate criticism from readers.
A roundup of online reaction to
Whitmire’s jump and Kelly’s statement
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.
While Kelly had kind words for Brock in May upon her departure, he was less gracious about Whitmire’s exit:
“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.
I have been a long time supporter of Birmingham’s championed alternative papers, thanks to the creative, intellectual candidness coming from our seasoned journalists. I can go on and on about my local favorites, but I will focus on the two gents in the above story.
I read Kelly’s statements that were published at Weld. Like most people, it was hard to see Whitmire leave his post – one that he helped create and nurture – and to go to the troubled Advance-owned Alabama Media Group, which owns The Birmingham News. Not because I think the News isn’t capable of utilizing the powers that Whitmire inhabits, but because it’s a startling, unexpected end to a glorious chapter in Birmingham journalism. I honestly don’t believe Whitmire will be the perky, humorous reporter over there. We are used to reading his careful balance of the facts and hardcore investigation with those infectious one-liners loaded with Jon Stewart satire. The News hires stiff reporters with an Associated Press seriousness. And that’s why I made my leap towards papers like B&W, Weekly and Weld, because at the end of the week, I could turn off the seriousness and hopelessness of Birmingham’s mainstream news to get a chuckle or two, while also running across healthy soultions, even if it meant the commentary often evoked a spark of positive protest amongst their readers.
While I applaud his path and decision-making in a new world of news reporting, I cringe knowing Whitmire’s experience as an alternative voice will be silenced at the News indefinitely. And he knows how I feel; deep down inside, I know this is hurting him. It’s like trading in your college car for a more expensive gas guzzler. Despite the upgrade, those precious memories with that faithful ride will never be replaced. Plus, no one forgets their first car. That will always be their baby.
We Birminghamians who have been turned on by Whitmire’s words at Weld have witnessed a talented journalist with a genuine heart for our city. And today, he now leaves his comfort zone to join a 100-year old tradition that has its own warchest of memories that date back to our city’s earliest beginnings. I hate to bring up comparisions, but to me, watching Whitmire move to the News is like watching rising star Adam Lambert trying to fill Freddie Mercury’s shoes as the seasonal back-up for Queen. Sure, Lambert could easily pull off Mercury’s vocal runs and charisma, but he probably deserves to chase his own dream, his own vision, his own musicality – and not attempt at falling into the shadows of the greats that have come before him.
Today, the News is laying flat on its back and they are in need of writers that hold the city’s attention in their hand. Luckily, they were wise enough to bring Whitmire on board. I hope something good comes from this, but I know a part of Whitmire’s pen will be silenced. That’s just how the corporate world works.
As for Mark Kelly’s response – let me say this. It’s never feels good to see your staff, especially your senior editors and shareholders, walk away. That’s your backbone. And my first impression of Kelly’s public response to Whitmire’s departure was like an errie mix of “shock and awe.” I was actually “shocked” that Kelly and Whitmire had hit a bump in the road without me having a clue. I was caught up in “awe” because Kelly’s voice in that online post felt like a publisher’s rant; still dressed up like a professional, but brokenhearted. I’m not sure if he hesitated to hit that “publish” button at first or if he said to himself, “Oh, what the hell” and wanted to give Whitmire the middle finger. But like Whitmire, I admire Kelly for being the bold, courageous lad he is. It may not have been what we wanted to read at the time, especially with our hearts already sensitive about our crumbling media ecosystem, but he didn’t subject himself to nasty name-callin’ like some of our local politicians (whew!). Plus, Kelly has a freedom that most news journalists only dream of; something that Whitmire exercised dutifully at Weekly, The Second Front and Weld.
Despite the challenges I had with Kelly’s rebuttal, I didn’t respond like most of the commenters that lept on the Weld Facebook page. Kelly’s post alarmed me, but the comments from the agitated and disgruntled scared me. They turned Kelly into the big bully and Whitmire into the helpless school geek being pinned to the hallway locker. What in the hell happened to cause all of this? Somebody call Marty and Doc and let’s crank up the DeLorean. But if there’s one thing I’m most certain of, it is that Kelly also loves his city. I detect that in his own writing and even in my close encounters with him online, he seems to care about the issues that affect us all.
This is a very sensitive time for us – for the News, Whitmire, Kelly, Weld and for us all. So let’s not add kerosene to the fire when we don’t have the water to put it out. We don’t know what happened between the two of them and their work relationship, so the nasty instigating and backbiting, similar to the comments section at al.com, isn’t helping matters. What we should be doing is encouraging our fellow journalists to march onward, regardless of what side of the turf they play on. I seriously hope Whitmire finds peace on the other side; he deserves it. I also hope Weld rebounds and that the mag’s image isn’t jeporadized just because of a business-as-usual press statement. But I also hope to raise enough money to treat both Kelly and Whitmire to lunch. Two of my favorite writers in the ‘Ham at the roundtable of togetherness, enjoying a meal on my VISA. Oh okay, it might sound a little far fetch, but as a freelance journalist and critic, I can write these things. Words have power, you know. I hope the both of them are reading this.
This is very sad. This just about guts Weld which was fast becoming the “post-herald” type major news source for Bham. As far as Whitmore goes, I don’t think that the corporate culture of the News should affect his writing that much. I think the News needs him more than he needs them. If things don’t work out, wherever he goes will instantly become a major player again.
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