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Questions on the 1-year anniversary of the Alabama Media Group

John Archibald has now joined in sports-nerd-bingo.

A post shared by Kyle Whitmire (@warondumb) on

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.

And this week, Alabama Media Group announced plans to move in early 2014 to a leased location downtown; a previous report had indicated the company’s move was contingent on selling the facility, asking price $21.4 million. (No word on where sister company Advance Central Services will go.)

Before looking ahead to year two, let’s examine the key questions from the last 12 months under Alabama Media Group’s digital first strategy.

• As both companies’ leaders are replaced with those with no previous ties to Alabama, how will that affect the quality of local coverage?

• Have the journalists who replaced some of those fired in 2012 improved local coverage? Digital initiatives? Community interaction?

• How many unique visitors did al.com have each month in 2012 before Oct. 1? How many unique monthly visitors does it have in 2013?

• What was the monthly advertising revenue in 2012 and 2013 for print ads, classifieds and online?

• Which coverage areas have improved in the past year? Which coverage areas have faltered?

• Will Alabama Media Group be able to sell its current building at $21.4 million?

• Will a competing daily newspaper enter the Birmingham market, as has happened in at least two other Advance cities?

• And lastly, are we, the people of Birmingham, better off today with the Alabama Media Group than we were a year ago?

Update Oct. 2: Amount of local news on page 1 for Oct. 2 edition? 0 percent.

Birmingham News

Click on image for larger view.

Additional reading:

The Birmingham News turned 125 today. So obviously we had to have a giant cake.

A post shared by This Is Alabama (@thisisalabama) on

The Birmingham News turned 125 in March.

Birmingham News building demolition

Photo: m.rags (CC)

The demolition of the previous headquarters of
the Birmingham News in 2007, constructed in 1917.

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ADVANCE CRISIS: The insanely obsessive guide to the Birmingham News/al.com implosion

By Wade Kwon

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.

Before that explosive announcement, Advance’s online portal al.com joined nola.com and mlive.com in a drastic and comprehensive site redesign. Reaction by readers nationwide — as Advance switched all its sites over to the 2012 look — was overwhelmingly negative.

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.

See full coverage of Advance Publications.

Before reviewing the Advance Crisis of the last 12 months, just look at the other major events on Birmingham’s media scene during the same period …

A look at the ups and downs since Advance’s restructuring of its Birmingham operations …

May 2012

May 24: Birmingham News reporters tweet the stunning morning announcements on publishing schedule and company reorganization.

At the same time, the media release appears on al.com, similar to the one on nola.com and that would appear in coming months for other Advance properties.

Naturally, layoffs were part of the deal.

I threw in an appropriate hashtag.

Birmingham News staffers (and others) weighed in via Twitter.

While New Orleans felt the ire of a large, loyal readership, Birmingham faced a more muted response. That afternoon, New Orleans residents spring into action with a Save the Picayune campaign. No such reaction in Birmingham.

May 25, 2012 newspapers

Mobile finds layoffs ‘exciting’ for its May 25, 2012, edition.
[larger version]

May 25: Print editions across the state splash the announcement across the front page.

May 30: Our special Media of Birmingham report details worries about layoffs and the new model for the Birmingham News.

May 31: Another Media of Birmingham report shows one key company, al.com, seemingly lost in the shuffle. While the newspapers would fire hundreds, al.com would fire only one employee.

Continued on page 2 …

Media of Birmingham, the final phase

patio mixer

It’s been a good run, one that will continue online.

Media of Birmingham will no longer be an active networking organization. The board of directors, which started in July 2010, voted to disband on Aug. 7 and to turn organizational control and assets back to me, Wade Kwon.

I thank board president Sally Reilly and the other directors for their service during the past 2 years. Their efforts have continued the group’s outreach and training among Birmingham-area media professionals. In addition, they have raised $883.94 through ticket sales to events.

As you may recall, I formed the board in 2010 to take responsibility for the organization. The duties had become too time consuming for myself and another volunteer. This was my last-ditch effort to keep the group going and to create a sustainable model.

Alas, even the board was unable to continue after 2 years. If you’ve ever served as a board member, a nonprofit volunteer or staff member, you’ll know that it can be difficult to find capable, passionate advocates who are not paid (or paid very little). Without active leadership, no organization can hope to grow or even maintain viability.

Finances

The money will remain frozen in a bank account until Dec. 31, in case any vendors have outstanding invoices. Former board president Sally Reilly will help monitor the bank account until it is closed in 2013.

To renew the domain and domain mapping for the next 12 months, I spent $20.20 this week, as I have done in the past 2 years.

If you believe Media of Birmingham owes you money for past services, please contact me by Dec. 14.

On Jan. 2, the money will be allocated as follows:

1. Approximately $80.80 for domain and domain mapping through 2017.

2. The remaining $800 (minus any bank service charges) to be donated to a Birmingham-area 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. If your organization serves media professionals — journalism, advertising, marketing, public relations, new media — and is interested in receiving this one-time gift, please fill out this form by Dec. 14.

(Note: I automatically remove the Alabama Social Media Association from the running because of my conflict of interest as one of its board members.)

Channels

On Oct. 31, the Media of Birmingham email list, Facebook group and LinkedIn group will be closed. These channels require trained volunteers for upkeep and, by my assessment, have not been tended to in a long time.

I sent a note today to each of these groups.

(I still have to sort through some of the leftover MOB email. You haven’t lived till you’ve sorted through 2,000 pieces of email, trying to guess which, if any, have been answered.)

Website

The good news is that this site, MediaofBirmingham.com, will remain up and running for at least the next 5 years. And likely forever, or as long as we have websites, as the cost is relatively small.

I will continue to post reports about the ever-changing landscape of Birmingham media, as time permits. Our colleagues and neighbors have shown a continued interest in news about our various industries, companies and outlets.

I welcome guest contributors. If you’re interested in contributing stories, photos or video, contact me.

Note: Because of time limitations, I will no longer be posting job listings, event notices or media releases.

You can continue to receive the latest updates by RSS or by email (subscribe using the form in the right sidebar).

Evolution

When I helped create this organization 9 years ago, little did I know how much turmoil our city’s media outlets and agencies would endure:

  • the loss of two daily newspapers;
  • the shrinking of every TV operation;
  • the rise and fall of so many magazines and nondaily newspapers and blogs and other sites;
  • the annihilation of local radio;
  • the war on Alabama Public Television;
  • the evaporation of thousands of local jobs;
  • the spawning of boutique agencies, independent professionals and digital specialists; and
  • the birth and death of groups for media types.

Never has the need been greater for veterans and greenhorns to connect, not just online but in person. To network, to learn, to comfort, to laugh.

I wish our fellow Birmingham groups — those that have been around and those yet to be — as much success as we have seen this past decade. I’m proud of having been part of such a robust organization, and look forward to continuing to serve you through my occasional reporting and writing on this site.

Thank you for being a part of the MOB.

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

Please feel free to ask questions in the comments below or using our contact form.

Nick Patterson quietly (shh!) named new editor of Weld

By Wade Kwon

Nick PattersonAlternative newspaper Weld for Birmingham added Nick Patterson, left, to the masthead on its latest issue Thursday. And weldbham.com published his first stories for the site this week.

Both Patterson and publisher Mark Kelly declined to comment on the hire until after the organization’s planned media release sometime this week.

Patterson said by email:

“You will still have to speak to Mark. After you clear it with him, I’ll be glad to talk to you.”

Kelly said in an email:

“We plan to issue a statement within the next several days on Nick’s hiring and a few other recent and upcoming developments.”

In a follow-up email, Kelly wrote:

“[Patterson] does not need my permission to speak to anyone. However, as both the publisher and the person with responsibility for Weld’s external communications, I would be remiss in treating you differently than other media outlets by providing you, or allowing to be provided to you, any exclusive information prior to its planned general release — at least in the case of personnel matters and other internally generated news about our company which rightly should come first from us.

“We are tremendously pleased and excited about Nick’s association with Weld. But, as it is of a piece with several other moves we have implemented, are in the process of implementing, or plan to implement in the near future, it is our intention to address all of this news in a unified manner, in accordance with a timetable we have established, and in a way that is fair to all media outlets involved.”

Patterson spent the last 2 years working as a freelance media professional and communications director at the Birmingham Museum of Art. He worked for 10 years at Birmingham-based lifestyle magazine Southern Living as an associate editor.

Prior to that, he also had extended tenures at the University of Alabama at Birmingham as a media relations specialist and the Birmingham Post-Herald as reporter and columnist.

Note: The author worked with Patterson at the Birmingham Post-Herald and at Southern Living. In order to sidestep the inevitable media onslaught about this new hire, we have decided to publish a story before the media release.

Patterson replaces Glenny Brock, who left in May.

In early August, intern Walter Lewellyn was promoted to new media editor, replacing Kyle Whitmire, who left in July to join the Alabama Media Group.

Weld had announced Brock and Whitmire’s departures and Lewellyn’s promotion in print, on its site and via social media, but has, to date, remained relatively low-key about Patterson’s hire.

Tipsters alerted us in August about Patterson taking the editor’s job at Weld, but when asked to comment then, he declined and referred all queries to Kelly.

Patterson isn’t the first Post-Herald reporter to take on such a role. Darin Powell left the daily newspaper in 1999 to become editor of alternative newspaper Birmingham Weekly, working with Brock and Whitmire during his 3 years there.

More stories on the Weld for Birmingham

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

Whitmire departs Weld, leading to online acrimony from the publisher

Kyle Whitmire, Mark Kelly

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:

Weld for Birmingham cover, Paper Cuts“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.

Digital divorce

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.

Also:

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.

Where to find the story of the day on al.com

al.com front page al.com front page with boxes

The al.com front page on the morning of July 20, with the
version on the right showing the placement of the
Aurora shooting spree stories.

(Click to enlarge each version.)

The challenge of news sites is to present important and interesting headlines so readers can find them quickly. Typically, the most important stories can be found at the top.

On Friday, the day of the shooting spree at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., was one of many stories featured in the new al.com stream format. The big stories from Alabama included a bomb threat at a Cahaba Heights drugstore (including arrests) and the state board of education filing a lawsuit against the Birmingham school board.

Certainly the tragedy in Colorado that left 12 dead and more than 50 wounded grabbed media and public attention. The broadcast networks based their evening newscasts and hastily scheduled prime-time specials from Aurora.

The al.com front page has several ways to highlight stories: a banner across the top, a “Don’t Miss” flag (used for a story on an imprisoned former Jefferson County commissioner) and a top right box (used for Tuesday’s Tuscaloosa shooting spree).

The Aurora-related headlines did not have any indicators to help them stand out, as shown above, an odd choice given the clear reader interest (note the 192 comments for one version). One is near the top, just below a link to a recipe for Kalua Pork, while the other is just below an ad block.

al.com front page al.com front page

The al.com front page on the evening of July 20, with the
version on the right showing the placement of the
Aurora shooting spree stories.

(Click to enlarge each version.)

By that evening, a story on the shooting suspect can be found several screens down just below the ad block, as shown above.

If clicks to al.com pages are important in the new Alabama Media Group model (as they were in the previous template), why is the arguably most important story of the day so hard to find?

Good design gives readers a clear path to story hierarchy, through use of color, placement, size, even bold fonts. But in the river of headlines on al.com, it’s more challenging to locate the ones they want to see and click.

More stories on al.com

Birmingham News fires more than 100 employees

Advance cuts 400 jobs statewide, 200 more in New Orleans

Birmingham News staff

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.

Advance is cutting some 400 jobs at its Alabama operations, and another 201 in New Orleans. A report in the Times-Picayune says that is an overall staff reduction of 32 percent, with 84 of the 173 newsroom employees (49 percent) fired today.

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.

More than 100 vacant positions for the two new local companies will be filled before the fall, with some ads to appear on al.com this week. [Ads have been posted for Alabama Media Group and Advance Central Services Alabama.]

Little is known as to how many, if any, employees were dismissed at al.com, or how its organizational structure might change in the new company.

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.”

Additional coverage:

Also:

  • Birmingham social media expert David Griner set up a Twitter account @ALNewsJobs and Facebook page today to connect unemployed journalists with career opportunities.

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, al.com or Birmingham Magazine, please contact me.

News blackout at al.com? State’s biggest site at loss for words

al.com victory party

Staff members at al.com celebrate a contest victory
with a Google-sponsored party in January.

By Wade Kwon

While the Birmingham News’ reduction in print editions and jobs has received much attention, the plan to put al.com at the forefront has received relatively scant attention.

The largest website in Alabama recently changed its front page, and just today changed its dominant color from yellow to a warm gray (as did sister site nola.com). But aside from cosmetic changes, questions remain as to what’s next for the company.

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

Cindy Martin, president and CEO of al.com, will become president of the newly formed Alabama Media Group. Owner Advance has also created Advance Central Services Alabama, to be headed by News publisher Pam Siddall.

Martin and various al.com staff members declined requests for interview.

Martin told the Birmingham Business Journal that her new company will be based in Birmingham, with offices in Huntsville, Montgomery and Mobile. In an interview with ABC 33/40, she said, “We’ve really got to change our business to keep and stay ahead of the consumer media habits.”

And in the announcement, Martin said:

“We’re excited to bring together the quality journalism of The Birmingham News, the Press-Register of Mobile and The Huntsville Times and the up-to-the minute immediacy of al.com. This is obviously a dramatic change, but we believe our award-winning journalism, top-notch advertising services and the largest website in Alabama position us to be a healthy, growing company.

“There are always painful choices when you begin a process that will lead to people losing their jobs. But at the same time, we must position ourselves to be sustainable businesses going forward. The new companies we launch in the fall, we believe, not only achieve that, but will serve our growing audiences and advertisers better than ever before.”

How many staff members al.com will gain or lose, if any, remains to be seen, as well as how Martin and Siddall will work together in daily operations and hierarchy.

The Alabama Media Group management:

  • Vicki Applewhite, vice president of advertising at the (Mobile) Press-Register, will be vice president of marketing and strategy;
  • Mike Marshall, editor of the Press-Register, will be Statewide Commentary Director;
  • Dee Dee Mathis, director of sales at al.com, will be vice president of digital solutions;
  • Natalie Pruitt, vice president of advertising at the Huntsville Times, will bevice president of sales;
  • Kevin Wendt, editor of the Huntsville Times, will be vice president of content.

To mark the Times’ 100th anniversary in 2010, Wendt wrote:

“There remains no better avenue for disseminating information – both news and advertising – than the printed newspaper. … The printed paper, The Times included, will continue to adapt in times of change.”

The Advance Central Services Alabama management group:

  • Vicki Catlett, controller/treasurer at the Press-Register, will be executive director of finance and accounting;
  • Troy Niday, vice president of operations at the News, will be executive director of operations;
  • Diane Romine, regional vice president of technology at the News, will be executive director of technology;
  • Ellen Williams, human resources director at the News, will be executive director of human resources.

More stories on al.com

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.

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.

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

Birmingham News

By Wade Kwon

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.

Pam SiddallThis morning, staff members at the Birmingham News found out from publisher Pam Siddall in a hastily called staff meeting that they too would roll out the same plan for all Alabama Advance papers, including the Huntsville Times and (Mobile) Press-Register.

Wednesday marked the rollout of a new front page design for al.com, which had previously been debuted at Advance sites mlive.com and nola.com. The new look was met with much criticism from the readers.

See Twitter reaction from Birmingham News staffers

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.

All three papers will run on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, with special editions (such as Thanksgiving) as needed. Sunday papers will remain $2, and Wednesday and Friday papers will remain $1. Subscribers will also be given access to the e-edition.

News operations will be handled in “hubs” across the state.

Cindy MartinCindy 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.

Forbes blogger Micheline Maynard predicted that New Orleans would see similar results as Ann Arbor did:

“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.”

News industry analyst Ken Doctor is calling the transformation a “forced march to digital.”

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.”

See how the Birmingham News is implementing the new plan.

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.