Monday, January 31, 2011

A Conservative Newspaper Thinks a Marketing Campaign Will Save It

The Birmingham News building

Alabama's largest newspaper, The Birmingham News, has launched a marketing campaign in an apparent effort to turn around its declining financial situation.

The campaign, called "This Is Our Story," only shines a light on the cluelessness that seems pervasive in the News' hierarchy. We had to chuckle at the notion that marketing gurus could save a bumbling newspaper from the ash heap of history.

Unlike many of my fellow Americans, especially the younger ones, I am a devoted newspaper reader. In fact, I read The Birmingham News, even though I hate it. It's our only local daily, and reading a newspaper every day is part of my routine that, so far, I haven't been able to break.

Maybe this is wishful thinking, emanating from my background as a journalist, but I don't think daily newspapers are destined to become dinosaurs.  The decline of newspapers, however, will not be turned around with marketing gimmicks. It will take this thing called journalism. Perhaps the gurus at The Birmingham News have heard of it.

To be sure, the problems of newspapers have multiple causes. For one, the industry's fundamental business model is springing holes left and right. But it does not help that many newspapers have forsaken the very thing that makes them unique--solid, hard-hitting, independent, objective reporting.

The News long has been a right-wing outfit on the editorial pages. But over the past eight to 10 years, its news pages have come to read like a house organ for the Republican Party. We've learned that conservatives tend to think non-conservatives are stupid, that we don't notice even the obvious. But here is a clue for the higher ups at the News: Your would-be readers who don't share your ideology are well aware that you've become a partisan tool.

It would be interesting to know how many blacks in Alabama subscribe to The Birmingham News. I bet the percentage is minuscule. It would be interesting to know how many moderate to progressive whites subscribe to The Birmingham News. I bet that percentage is only slightly higher than minuscule.

The News clearly is written for the white, affluent, Over-the-Mountain crowd in Birmingham--and a similar crowd in Montgomery. But that represents only a fraction of Alabama's population. Many conservatives, we suspect, aren't interested in daily news and analysis anyway. Their minds already are set in concrete, and facts mean nothing to them, so they are a limited audience for a news organization.

Meanwhile, The Birmingham News largely ignores potential readers who are interested in what only a  newspaper can provide--real, bold, in-depth journalism. Consider some of the numerous stories the News has largely ignored, probably because they would upset their conservative base. We outlined them in a previous post:

* 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 Mississippi 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. Shelby County should be an area of enlightenment, but it is run like a banana republic--or worse.

How does the News miss obvious stories? Consider a recent capital-murder case in Shelby County. A man named Ryan Gerald Russell was convicted for the murder of Katherine Helen Gillespie, an 11-year-old cousin for whom he was serving as legal guardian. Russell has been sentenced to death, and based on comments on local Web sites, that decision seems to have been met with widespread approval--from people who apparently have read little about the trial.

If you study news coverage of the trial, however, you find this nugget from the Shelby County Reporter, citing the testimony of a forensics expert named Ed Moran:

Moran said the bullet jacket recovered from the body could not be marked back to any of the guns he examined. He said there was not enough microscopic markings on the jacket for him to make a conclusion.

I don't pretend to be an expert on bullets and jackets and such. But that sounds like the forensics guy could not conclusively determine what gun was used in the shooting, much less who fired the gun. And yet, a man is heading to death row in this case.

Has The Birmingham News questioned the handling of the Russell case? Nope. And that's probably because almost all of the public officials in Shelby County are Republicans, and our local newspaper simply must not question the actions of GOPers.

As long as The Birmingham News continues to feature the work of incurious reporters and spineless editors, no marketing campaign is likely to pull it out of the ditch.


JSS said...

Right on! In the quest for more advertisers, newspapers are forgetting their raison d'etre. Most of the big dailies seem to be making a good transition to web-based papers with or without subscriptions, and their advertisers are thrilled to be on board with hyperlinks.
Now go WRITE something for Pete's sake - so that you can show your advertisers a decent market share LOL

mikkrikk said...

I made the point on that "this is our story" reveals a lot about the Birmingham News..that is, it may not be the truth, but we are sticking with it. Apparently I touched a nerve. In a truly rare event, I had several exchanges with at least two writers/editors in the comments that day.