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Sunday, October 5, 2008

Why Are Newspapers Struggling?

I recently attended a retirement party for a friend who worked at The Birmingham News.

My friend worked at the paper for 43 years, so he was pretty much ready to retire. But he wound up leaving the paper a bit earlier than he had planned. That's because the News offered a buyout package to certain employees. My understanding is that about 85 employees received the offers, and my friend couldn't afford to pass it up.

I enjoyed the retirement party, and it gave me an opportunity to get my first gander at the inside of the News' swanky new digs in downtown Birmingham. I saw only a portion of the first floor, but the building looks like a huge improvement on the old building where I spent 11 years toiling for the late, great Birmingham Post-Herald.

As I ate my cake and drank my punch, I wondered: Why is this newspaper in such a less-than-stellar financial position that it is offering buyouts to veteran employees?

The News is our fair city's only daily newspaper, so it pretty much enjoys a monopoly on the market.

When numerous newspapers folded back in the 1970s and '80s, the explanation was that TV news had made afternoon papers obsolete and only a handful of cities were big enough to be "two-newspaper towns."

Now it seems that some cities aren't big enough to have even one thriving newspaper. So you have to ask: Why is that?

Newspaper types have been wringing their hands at professional gatherings for years, trying to figure out what ails their industry.

Many articles have been written about the problems facing newspapers, and one of the best ones I've seen recently, titled "The Demise of the Washington News Bureau," is written by John McQuaid at American Prospect.

McQuaid notes that Newhouse News Service recently announced that it would shut down after Election Day. This hits close to home here in Birmingham because Newhouse's Advance Publications is owner of The Birmingham News.

And Newhouse is not alone in tightening its national belt. McQuaid reports that newspapers in San Francisco, San Diego, Des Moines, Pittsburgh, Hartford, Toledo, Houston, Salt Lake City, Montana, Wyoming, and Maine have all cut back or eliminated Washington coverage in the past two years. Even the Chicago Tribune is considering cuts at its Washington bureau.

This is a disturbing scenario. At a time when we need more watchdogs in Washington we are getting fewer.

I'm sure there are multiple reasons for the gradual implosion of the newspaper industry. But one reason stands out in my mind, particularly here in Birmingham.

The one thing that a major newspaper can do better than any other form of media outlet is to report. And I'm talking about serious reporting--investigative, hard-hitting, fearless, insightful--without regard to political oxes that might be gored.

This is an area where The Birmingham News, in spite of its recent Pulitzer Prize, has come up short.

Yes, the News won journalism's biggest prize for its reporting on the Alabama two-year colleges scandal. But consider the stories the paper has either ignored or given only passing attention:

* The abusive practices of federal prosecutors in Birmingham (Alice Martin) and Montgomery (Leura Canary);

* The apparent railroad job and wrongful conviction of former Governor Don Siegelman;

* The connections between the Siegelman case and a similar case in neighboring Mississippi involving attorney Paul Minor;

* The dirty-money trail that helped funnel $13 million from Jack Abramoff to Governor Bob Riley's campaign;

* The stain gambling interests have placed on the Republican party in Alabama and throughout the Deep South;

* Efforts by GOP presidential nominee John McCain to hide the Abramoff-Riley connection;

* The deleterious effect Karl Rove has had on Alabama government, particularly in our state courts which he helped shape in the 1990s.

* The grotesque corruption in Shelby County, which is just south of Birmingham and represents our state's area of most rapid growth. This should be an area of enlightenment, but it is run like a banana republic--or worse.

We're just getting warmed up with this list. But serious reporting on these kinds of topics would make The Birmingham News an indispensable read. But by failing to address these and other important subjects, the News has made itself dispensable. And its recent buyout of veteran employees reflects that.

I have personal experience with the News' approach to reporting. Hannah Wolfson, the newspaper's UAB beat reporter, contacted me several weeks ago about my termination at the university after 19 years of service.

My impression is that Ms. Wolfson recognized it as an important story and wanted to treat it that way. And it's not an important story necessarily because it involves me. But it is important for at least the following reasons:

* UAB receives more than $400 million a year in federal research funding, and part of its grant proposals is a requirement to abide by federal law and avoid discriminatory practices. My case is just one example of UAB failing to live up to its obligations.

* I've become aware of several other instances of unlawful behavior by UAB toward its employees, and one of them has international implications. In fact, it is apparent that the university's human-resources problems go way beyond my case.

You will be reading about these other cases here at Legal Schnauzer. But you probably won't be reading about them, or my case, in The Birmingham News.

Why? My guess is that some editor up the line torpedoed Ms. Wolfson's story idea, probably because it would have cast an unfavorable light on some of the paper's favored Republicans.

As leaders of our community's only daily newspaper, editors of the News have that kind of power. But when they wonder why their bottom line isn't so hot, they should look in the mirror.

And when they wonder where their readers have gone, they might look at Web sites like Harper's.org, Raw Story, and Locust Fork World News & Journal. That's where real Alabama news, important stories The Birmingham News ignores, is being reported.

1 comment:

bigjman said...

One word: Internet