Inside the soon-to-be-abandoned newsroom
of the Alabama Media Group
Birmingham once had two daily newspapers. Today, it has none.
Owner Advance Publications turned the Birmingham News and its website al.com into two new companies, Alabama Media Group and Advance Central Services Alabama. It has followed through with similar plans in many of its other markets across the country.
One year ago today, the Birmingham News ceased daily publication after 124 years and began a thrice-weekly schedule. That same day saw similar transformations in Huntsville, Mobile and New Orleans, which has since gone back to publishing 6 days a week in two separate publications.
Circulation has dropped year to year. Site traffic has risen. Both companies have changed leadership.
Birmingham has seen one of its most tumultuous years in its media landscape. The last 365 days have brought layoffs, departures, closings and a few victories among local outlets.
It was 1 year ago today that the New York Times scooped New Orleans’ venerable Times-Picayune on its own impending upheaval: layoffs, a drop to publishing three times a week and the formation of two new companies.
The following day (May 24), owner Advance Publications announced hurriedly what Times-Picayune staffers had already learned online. In addition, the New Jersey-based chain rolled out a similar Alabama-wide strategy for the Birmingham News, the Huntsville Times and the Press-Register of Mobile.
Advance cuts 400 jobs statewide, 200 more in New Orleans
Birmingham News staff outside of its downtown headquarters
By Wade Kwon
The Birmingham News fired more than 100 employees today, including more than 60 in the newsroom, as part of owner Advance’s new strategy. Their last day of work will be Sept. 30.
Said one employee who will be staying, “I’d rather be waterboarded than go into that office on a daily basis.”
As previously reported, managers held one-on-one meetings all day long to notify staffers whether they would be terminated with severance packages, asked to stay on or asked to apply for new jobs at the company.
Similar meetings took place at the Huntsville Times, the (Mobile) Press-Register and the Times-Picayune in New Orleans. All four newspapers will cut back to publication on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the fall, while ramping up content on recently redesigned news sites al.com and nola.com.
The Gambit, a weekly alternative paper there, reported via Twitter that most of the marketing department was fired, as well as all of the special section, library and human resources departments. The new New Orleans company Nola Media Group plans on hiring for 83 positions, including 40 in news.
Neither Advance nor managers at the Alabama newspapers have released specific information about cuts by city or department.
A source at the Birmingham News who asked to remain anonymous said that about 107 would be fired today at the company, and of them about 61 were newsroom employees (55 percent of the 110 staff members listed online). (Several had already left prior to today’s layoffs.) Most of the photographers and copy editors have been let go.
List of Birmingham News editorial staff departures
(to be updated)
Notable editorial departures include business editor Jerry Underwood, photography director Walt Stricklin, 31-year veteran reporter Chuck Dean and Washington correspondent Mary Orndorff. Two newsroom staffers fired today are pregnant, and another staffer was fired a week in advance because of a scheduled cancer operation.
Times-Picayune employees have been asked to sign non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements as a condition of receiving their severance packages; it is believed Alabama Advance employees have been asked to do so as well.
Cindy Martin, president of al.com and of the newly formed Alabama Media Group, declined to comment on staffing and changes at the News, al.com or Birmingham Magazine. In the media release, she said, regarding those losing their jobs across the state today:
“Their dedication and expertise to our newspapers and the communities they served cannot be overstated. We offer our sincere gratitude to each person for their contributions and years of service to these excellent institutions.”
Birmingham News publisher Pam Siddall (now president of Advance Central Services of Alabama) has not returned a request for comment, nor has Birmingham Magazine editor Julie Keith.
Several staffers staying with the Birmingham company are taking on new titles, such as equality and human rights reporter and, for popular metro columnist John Archibald, local buzz reporter. No clear duties or beats appear to have been assigned to the new titles.
However, Media of Birmingham has learned that Advance has fired three of the eight Birmingham Magazine staff members: managing editor Carla Jean Whitley (with the publication since 2006) and two on the business side.
Advance and the Birmingham News bought the 50-year-old magazine for an undisclosed amount in October from the Birmingham Business Alliance. Since then, News staffers had taken on duties for the newly acquired publication, after the magazine moved into the newspaper’s downtown offices. Several magazine staff members were fired during the transition.
No information has been forthcoming about the magazine’s place within either of the two new companies.
The firings today had originally been scheduled for last week, but were changed to today both in Alabama and New Orleans. No date has been announced for the thrice-weekly publishing.
Regarding the News’ management to date, one outgoing newsroom employee said, “They’re such assholes.”
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.
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.
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?”
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 newspaper world was hit with some bombshells this morning, all lobbed by Advance Publications.
Wednesday night, unconfirmed reports popped up suggesting its New Orleans’ paper, the Times-Picayune, would undergo severe cuts and reduce to three times a week publication. This morning, it became a reality, as staffers found out — not from their own supervisors — but from Web and TV reports.
The New Orleans operation will reform under two companies, one handling digital operations and one handling print operations. The paper will run Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays starting in the fall, instead of seven days a week.
Siddall will head up one new company, Advance Central Services Alabama, handling production, distribution, technology, finance and human resources for all three papers in Birmingham. That means the Times will be printed in Birmingham starting at a date to be determined in the fall and the Press-Register will continue to be printed in Mobile.
News operations will be handled in “hubs” across the state.
Cindy Martin, president of al.com, will be the head of Alabama Media Group, over all three newspapers and al.com. It is to be a “digitally focused media company.”
Martin said in the press report that the change in organizational structures across all departments will lead to a reduction in the overall size of the workforce, with details still to be worked out.
Advance owns the Birmingham News and Birmingham-based al.com, as well as the weekly Birmingham Business Journal. Its Ann Arbor (Mich.) News ended its print run in 2009 after 174 years, switching to an all-online model at annarbor.com with reduced staffing and a twice-weekly print edition.
“No offense to its staff, but AnnArbor.com, online at least, is a constantly updated blog, which gives equal play to impaled cyclists and rabid skunks as it does to politics and crime. The printed edition is newspaper-like, but with a different style and less gravitas than its predecessor.”
Also, it was announced that the News’ 37-year veteran Tom Scarritt, editor since 1997, would retire in the fall. He became the newspaper’s vice president in 2001.
Andrew Beaujon at journalism institute Poynter reports that the News’ Sunday circulation jumped significantly between March 2011 and March 2012, while the rest of the week fell:
“The Birmingham News’ average Sunday circulation increased from 153,023 to 173,187, a 13 percent increase mostly attributable to the inclusion of ‘YES! Your Essential Shopper,’ a home-delivered collection of flyers. Its average daily circulation declined 7.5 percent, from 112,209 to 103,729.
“The Press-Register’s Sunday circulation was basically flat, going from 103,300 to 103,373 and its daily circ dropped from 87,518 to 82,088; both figures rolled in distribution of The (Pascagoula) Mississippi Press.
“Average Sunday circulation rose 1 percent at The Huntsville Times, to 68,092 from 67,286, and daily fell 5.5 percent, from 47,366 to 44,725.”
The Birmingham News, the state’s largest newspaper, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for reporter Brett J. Blackledge’s investigation into corruption in the state’s 2-year college system. Wednesday, it was a finalist for several Green Eyeshade Awards, including its extensive coverage of the April 27, 2011, tornadoes and its 2011 series on “Reinventing Our Community.”
Some Birmingham News staff members are still in shock over the surprise morning bombshell announcement. Siddall said to them at the meeting, “At the end of the day, each employee has to decide if they believe in the new direction.”
History buffs know today marks the fifth anniversary of the last edition of the Birmingham Post-Herald.
Up 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.
His most recent column appeared Wednesday, but his Friday and Sunday columns didn’t run in their scheduled slots.
Is he on vacation? Did he take a buyout?
We asked Archibald and editor Tom Scarritt for comment; we received no reply.
Instead, MOBster Kyle Whitmire was kind enough to share a copy of Archibald’s most recent column, one that apparently will never run in the News. The column focuses on newsroom staffers who took buyouts and the recent economic troubles that plague most daily newspapers. Archibald notes that more than 500 years of reporting experience have walked out the door in just 2 years.
And the last time anyone saw Archibald in public? He was on a panel last Tuesday night at the Birmingham News for a Society of Professional Journalists event. The topic of discussion?
Journalism and ethics.
• • •
John Archibald: You have a right to know about News buyouts
It’s hard to look at Ginny MacDonald today and not hear the Neville Brothers in my head, singing their version of that old hymn, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
Won’t you please drive real slow?
That Miss Crazy, that you carry,
I sure hate to see her go.
I hate to see her go.
Plus, I want to see the bumper snicker on her hearse. What does it say?
Reports of her death have been greatly exacerbated.
No. Ginny Mac — Birmingham News transportation diva and Driver’s Side columnist — is not exactly dead. Not to you, anyway.
But today is her last day as a full-timer in the newsroom. She’ll keep writing a weekly column on Mondays, but no more front page stories from her about bridge collapses, speed traps or trooper madness.
Why do I tell you this? Because you buy the paper, most of you, and you know Ginny. You have a right to know that she, like so many experienced and trusted news gatherers, has taken a company buyout.
Today is a dark day at The News. It marks the last day not only for Ginny, but for health writer Anna Velasco. By May veteran political writer Tom Gordon — with more stored memory than an iPad — will be gone. So will young Erin Stock.
It’s not just a News thing, it’s a news thing. They tell us, in fact, that our readership is good and ad revenue is rebounding. But technology and economics have worn on profitability in all news operations. Ours is no exception.
But it hurts. In all, since buyouts were offered in 2008, The News has lost more than 500 years of reporting experience. Decorated reporter Dave Parks — who pretty much discovered “Gulf War Syndrome” — went. State editor Glenn Stephens, who could pilot a newsroom through a storm with an even keel, is gone. Food writer Jo Ellen O’Hara left us, as did outdoors writer Mike Bolton.
We’ve lost 32 people in the newsroom. Twenty were reporters, the real workhorses.
That may look small next to losses at the Raleigh News and Observer, which has seen its news staff fall from 250 to 115, or the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which cut 93 news staffers in one chunk last year. But it hurts.
If there is good news, it is that The News still has 125 people working to gather the news in Alabama’s largest newsroom.
Still, we mourn the losses to the News family. We mourn the loss to readers, to this community, to the republic.
“This not just a problem for journalism, this is a problem for democracy,” he said. “What a democratic society does not know, it cannot act upon.”
He is right. You need to know. Think of what you know of your government, and try to separate it from the news. Alabama’s most notable corruptions — Don Siegelman, Guy Hunt, Larry Langford, Jeff Germany, the 2-year college system — all started with reporters on the ground. Issues such as the county’s bond debt and crime in neighborhoods bubble to light in the press.
Those of us left in the newsroom will keep digging. For readers. For the republic. For ourselves, for Ginny and Dave and Anna.
We believe there will always be a need, and a market, for news.
There better be. News, as Roberts put it, is “democracy’s food.”
“If we are going to come up with solutions, then democratic society has to understand that there is a problem,” he said.
Occam’s RazR: “Is Birmingham Ready for an Online Newspaper?”
Capstone Report: “The News today is more interested in hiding the truth than reporting it.”
The Ben Franklin Follies: “I don’t believe a news enterprise committed to investigative reporting and quality journalism can produce profit margins that will satisfy Wall Street, hedge funds or institutional investors.”
• • •
Update: The Birmingham News did run Archibald’s status in the print edition. However, you can judge the progressive wording.
April 16: “John Archibald is taking a break.
His column will resume Wednesday.”
April 18: “John Archibald’s column will return soon.”
“I told them at that time that I’d try to make it work, and if not, I’d walk away from it. … I had been here for 11 hours and just couldn’t do it. I was angry.
“I don’t think it (not publishing the column) was a good call, but I understand the pressures (Scarritt is) under.”
“I believe strongly in the future of newspapers and the vital role they will play in our communities going forward. I believe there are ways to talk about our current challenges that recognize we do have a future.”
Co-assistant managing editors Chuck Clark and Scott Walker are now co-managing editors, effective today. Clark oversees metro, business and features, while Walker oversees editing, production, photo, art and sports.
Hunter George is stepping down at the Birmingham News on April 30. The newspaper’s executive editor sent an e-mail to his newsroom colleagues on Wednesday to announce his departure:
At the end of April, I plan to retire after 42 years in the newspaper business. That career includes
covering Jane Fonda while getting pepper-gassed at the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach,
interviewing Otis Redding, Little Richard and B.B. King,
covering one Super Bowl and two Orange Bowls,
enticing 30 Miami cops to leave their duty posts and meet me at the FOP hall to complain about the chief,
covering a Beatles concert,
covering two plane crashes,
covering the 1972 Senate race in Florida,
supervising 150 summer interns,
working 40 election nights,
taking a call from Jimmy Cagney at 8:30 on a Sunday morning,
and telling the executive editor of The Miami Herald that there was nothing going on one morning and having him respond: “There’s plenty going on; you just don’t know about it.”
What we journalists do is more interesting than what most people do. It has been a privilege to work with you for the past 12 years. I shall think of you all fondly and I promise to call whenever I see a typo.
The News has seen several changes at the top, most recently the arrival of new publisher and president Pam Siddall. Also, buyout offers have been made to the entire staff, with the deadline extended till March. Parent company Advance Publications will end its “no layoffs” pledge at the end of next week.
No word on if or how George’s position will be filled.
Welcome to Media of Birmingham, a news and information site about journalism, advertising, public relations, new media and marketing based in Birmingham, Ala. The site went online in 2006, and the group behind it was founded in 2003.