I grew up reading The Birmingham News as a kid, I began my career there. I worked side by side with people I had previously known only as bylines — Clarke Stallworth, Peggy Roberson, Al Fox, Clyde Bolton and many others. I was in heaven. To this day it is the most satisfying job I ever had. I was always proud of the product we created, and the work I did.
On Oct. 1, Advance Publications (aka Newhouse) implemented its much-discussed plan to put most of its news on its web site (AL.com) and publish a print newspaper only three days a week. I knew it was coming, because they had implemented a similar program in Michigan. Now, I get a paper only on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. (The Mobile Press-Register, Huntsville Times and New Orleans Times-Picayune have implemented the same schedule.)
So now, I read the local news on my tablet four days a week — sometimes using the Al.com app, sometimes visiting the site, but usually on an RSS reader.
The “digital first” strategy reflects one of the two current approaches to the newspapers’ struggle to survive. It’s well known — and even trite to say it now — that by giving away the news all these years on the Internet, the print media have lost their ability to sell it. So how do you get this toothpaste back into the tube?
The first approach is to start charging for it again. There are dozens of wrinkles to this, and some appear to be working. The New York Times allows readers to read a certain number of pages before asking for a monthly subscription. Some papers now restrict online news to those who subscribe to the paper product. Others are trying a metered “pay by the article” approach. A few (notably the Wall Street Journal) never did give it all away, and they seem to be more stable.
The second approach is to bank on growth in online advertising, either with or without paid subscriptions to a print product. Alabama Media Group is going this route — continuing to charge for the print newspaper three days a week and relying on print and online advertising to grow and become the revenue streams for the future.
So now I’m going to shift from my reasonably objective summary of the landscape and offer a reader’s assessment of how it’s going so far. I can’t say how it’s working financially; Newhouse is privately held, and notoriously secretive. About all we know is that they’ve been one of the richest and most successful publishers for decades.
My observations apply only to The Birmingham News, because that’s the only print newspaper I’m receiving, but by all indications, they are approaching things in the same way in all four cities.
Online content. Advance rushed things. After a disastrous experiment with some sort of canary yellow, they quickly subdued the colors on the site, and now the Al.com and Nola.com sites are more of a blog style. If you use an ad blocking extension in some browsers (including Chrome), the AL.com logo and search bar disappear. The mobile version seems easy enough to use, at least on my Android. But if you’re one of those folks who prefer to use the desktop setting on a full-size tablet, the dropdown menus are hard to use. Of course, they’d rather steer you to the app anyway, which better enables them to deliver ads. But that strategy backfires, because a lot of us don’t like loading our devices with dozens of news apps, so we use an RSS reader like Flipboard or Google Reader. That’s not good for the publisher, because ad delivery options are more limited when the content is being delivered through somebody else’s app.
Print Newspaper. On the three “print” days, I had hoped that the Alabama Media Group would take on more challenging projects, such as backgrounders and investigative work. Instead, we seem to be getting more soft features with little immediacy. There seems to be more local news, but most of it seems to be stuff that just comes out of routine city council meetings. Nobody seems to be putting a lot of work into the local coverage — undoubtedly because the staff cuts have limited resources for this. Staffs of the three Alabama newspapers have been combined, with a few others hired just for digital writing. A reporter in Mobile simply isn’t going to write stories that are have much appeal in Huntsville. I still hope they will eventually remember that their only real product is local news.
Sadly, I’ve seen little evidence of that. What I get next to my bowl of cereal in the morning is a forgettable hodgepodge consisting of some that’s old and much that’s irrelevant.
But it’s early. We’ll see where it goes.