|The Birmingham News building|
I've been pretty much a lifelong fan of newspapers, and it always pains me when one goes under. But if a newspaper ever deserved to go out of business, it's The Birmingham News. And that's where it appears to be headed--along with its sister Advance Media publications, The Huntsville Times and Mobile Press-Register.
Actually, it's premature to say the three Alabama newspapers are going out of business. But yesterday's announcement that this fall they will begin printing three days a week (Wednesday, Friday, Sunday) means their days as print entities are numbered. Birmingham-based author and blogger Don Keith predicts that the papers no longer will be printing at all within two years, and my guess is that he's right on target.
Why would anyone subscribe to a "daily" newspaper that comes out three days a week? It's one of the dumbest business strategies I've ever heard of. I would suggest that the papers cease print operations immediately if they can't function as true dailies.
Do the News, Times, and P-R have futures as strictly digital news organizations? It's possible. But with the infrastructure of print operations in place--and the burden of their associated costs--it looks like they face a rocky ride.
The Advance Media spin machine is playing this as a reaction to changing technology. But I would submit it's more about bias, backward thinking, and old-fashioned incompetence. You might call yesterday's announcement Don Siegelman's Revenge.
Throughout the 2000s, one of our nation's most important stories was the decay of the U.S. Justice Department under George W. Bush. It was a coast-to-coast story, but several of its most compelling chapters unfolded in Alabama, led by the prosecution of Siegelman, a popular former Democratic governor, and former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy.
Coverage in the Advance Media newspapers consisted mostly of cheerleading pieces for Bush-era prosecutors Alice Martin and Leura Canary. The papers made almost no serious effort to address compelling evidence that the cases were driven for political reasons by Bush strategist Karl Rove and his associates.
At the same time, the papers provided fawning coverage of Republican Governor Bob Riley, in spite of powerful evidence that Riley might have been running one of the most corrupt regimes in state history.
In essence, the News and its brethren became house organs for the Alabama Republican Party. The papers were blatantly geared toward white, suburban elites--of whatever political stripe. The papers ignored a huge portion of their possible audience--those of color, those who are liberal, progressive, middle class, poor, forward thinking.
In the midst of the "Information Age," when the need for real journalism is stronger than ever, The Birmingham News failed to provide information and analysis that addresses serious issues.
Businesses that ignore huge chunks of the market, in competitive and tight economic times, usually suffer the consequences. That's what happened to the Advance newspapers in Alabama.
They aren't dead yet, but their breathing is labored. And it's not likely to get smoother any time soon.