State media shake-up

Last night David Carr ran a piece on his Media Decoder blog pointing to big changes coming to the Times-Picayune in New Orleans.

The T-P management found themselves behind the curve. Many of their employees heard the news elsewhere. It was a morning of scramble in New Orleans. In Alabama the next domino tipped. Sister papers in Huntsville, Birmingham and Mobile all announced their similar changes. Starting this fall their dailies will be gone. There will be a greater emphasis on the online news content. They’ll publish a dead tree version three times a week. A new company, Alabama Media Group, is being formed:

The change is designed to reshape how Alabama’s leading media companies deliver award-winning local news, sports and entertainment coverage in an increasingly digital age. The Alabama Media Group will dramatically expand its news-gathering efforts around the clock, seven days a week, while offering enhanced printed newspapers on a schedule of three days a week. The newspapers will be home-delivered and sold in stores on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays only.

A second company, Advance Central Services Alabama, will handle production, distribution, technology, finance and human resources, and will be led by current Birmingham News President and Publisher Pam Siddall. Both companies are owned by Advance Publications, Inc.

Driving these changes are rapid advances in how readers engage with news content across all platforms, print and digital.

Carr likely tipped their hand, forcing this announcement before Newhouse and Advance had hoped. But there is also a sense of inevitability here. The writing has been on that particular wall. These are market trends, economic realities and publishers moving with their audiences.

Now, before anything else: Clearly there are tough, uncertain days ahead for many employees, and that’s more than a little regrettable.

There will also be a lot of opportunities in store, as well.

The reaction I’ve read (see below) from the community has generally been one critical of the paper reduction. Interestingly, few have discussed the news outlets’ online growth. Perhaps people feel too deeply about the newspapers, despite their shrinking circulation. Perhaps they don’t have faith in the ability of the company — with many of the same staffers, mind you — to do the job online. One person’s interpretation of the reaction is as good as the next. Alabama Media Group needs to get out in front of that, and I’m sure they will. But, between today’s news and the new site rollout, they’ve had a busy week.

Some readers will initially be marginalized. That will be unfortunate. (Someone might have suggested that that number is declining for a variety of reasons, that subscriptions for the papers here and elsewhere have been in decline for years. Also, the numbers for the website have soared. They probably then suggested they are taking the long view. Wouldn’t that be refreshing for a news outlet?)

How many people who take the paper will feel they’re getting less of a service when this goes into effect? Think quality over quantity. I’m hoping it is a really great three-day paper which buttresses an incredible online effort. If that happens it will be driven by the strength of great reporting on the site.

The question we must really and seriously consider is “How will these developments serve the community?”

If it puts more people in coverage areas and reaches under-served communities, great. If it means more watchdog journalism, marvelous. There will need to be more than mullet tossing pictures from the beach and A-Day coverage from the quad — but I’m a traditionalist. If the coverage is there, and the coverage is good, good things will come.

This is a sea change rather than a sinking outlet desperately signaling they’re drowning. Hopefully the staff (there are plenty of hardworking, talented people at each paper and at al.com) that stay on and the readers/viewers they work for will give it a good chance.

The idea is that The Huntsville Times, Birmingham News and the Press-Register will continue on, expanding their coverage with more reporters on the ground. Those outlets, which have long been sister publications, will become much more collaborative. There will be growing pains. There will also be streamlining. The key, as always, will be in the quality of the content. If the quality goes up, the communities win.

The Montgomery Advertiser will this fall become the state’s largest daily. Gannett recently announced they’ll soon be putting that publication behind an online paywall.

There is a lot to consider here, and obviously this situation is still developing. We’ll revisit this quite a bit, no doubt. Meantime, here is a collection of the reactions found on Twitter in the hours immediately after the announcement. These are representative rather than exhaustive. I gathered these through Twitterfall, using key word searches relative to the cities, publication names and parent company ownership. They are arranged here chronologically.

Disclosure: I worked for Advance at al.com for four-plus years, long before all of these developments came to pass. Good people; good company.

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