What the future of news looks like in Alabama after Advance cuts staff by 400

To people who've never been to Alabama, it's a single place, synonymous with the Deep South and whatever that means to you.

Those who live in Alabama know it's a long way — physically, mentally and culturally — from the 300-year-old city on Mobile Bay up to the home of “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and on to Huntsville near the Tennessee border.

Though the newspapers in those cities have been owned by Advance Publications for some time, for years each was the center of its own solar system. The only place they shared a home was online, a statewide news portal where the al.com brand eclipsed their nameplates.

In the last few years those newspapers have learned to set aside their rivalries and play nice. Editors share the next day's budgets and let one another use their stories. The Birmingham News and Press-Register reporters covering Auburn and Alabama sports work together rather than trying to scoop the other guy. The papers also share statehouse coverage.

And with the radical restructuring and downsizing announced Tuesday, those independent operations hundreds of miles apart will become even more intertwined.

They won't quite resemble the bureaus that, in more profitable days, covered satellite towns for big-city papers. But the changes made Tuesday indicate that they'll be less independent, and more culturally similar, than before. It's like the difference between the 13 colonies and the Confederate States of America.

Most coverage of Advance's decision to stop printing the four papers daily and cut staff has focused on The Times-Picayune. It's easy to see why: New Orleans is a storied city, and its newspaper has told those stories well.

There are 356 driving miles between Mobile and Huntsville.

But with no nearby siblings in the Advance family, the Picayune and nola.com will remain editorially and operationally independent. The changes in Alabama, on the other hand, involve the consolidation and cooperation of newspapers in very different communities — one home to Mardi Gras, another known for its steel plants, another for NASA.

What's happening in Alabama looks like an extension of the strategy that the company spearheaded in Michigan. First it replaced The Ann Arbor News with AnnArbor.com and curtailed publishing, then it extended the approach to newspapers around the state and gave them one online home: Mlive.com.

You can get a picture of what the Alabama Media Group will look like by seeing what was cut this week and what was left.

First, the numbers: The news staff in Birmingham has been cut from 102 to 41, according to lists included in Tuesday's severance offers. (Chuck Clark, managing editor of the News, said in a comment that this figure is off; the true numbers, he said, are 47 left of 112). In Mobile's newsroom, about 20 of 70 or so are left, according to a source there. (The original version of this story estimated it at about 16.) And in Huntsville, 15 people remain out of 53 in the newsroom, a 72 percent reduction. Overall in Huntsville, 102 of 149 people lost their jobs. Those cuts at the papers come after two rounds of buyouts already had thinned staff. (All sources asked to remain anonymous because they're worried about keeping their severance or the jobs they were offered Tuesday.)

This staff photo was taken as part of a marketing campaign for the Birmingham News, which cut about 40 percent of its editorial staff on Tuesday.

The papers have open positions, so the final newsroom count will be higher than the severance offers indicate.

The larger cuts in Huntsville and Mobile are partly due to the fact that copy editing, page layout, ad production and customer service all will be moved to Birmingham. And for Huntsville, printing will move there too. People in Mobile told me that the ad sales staff had been cut too, though it's possible some will be replaced. It seems like it would be hard to sell local ads without local salespeople.

That doesn't mean the news operations will be subsumed by Birmingham, according to Mike Marshall, editor of the Press-Register in Mobile and my boss when I worked there for five years.

Though Advance got rid of managing editors at all the papers in Alabama (and in New Orleans) a content director will oversee each “hub,” as the news operation in each Alabama city is being called.

Speaking of the situation in Mobile, Marshall said, “I would disagree that it's a bureau that's tethered to some central organization. It will be autonomous.”

The Mobile newsroom, which after vacancies are filled will have about half the current staff, “will be a hyperlocal operation.” The staff “will cover the hell out of local news.”

But he agreed that the approach is a hybrid of a statewide operation and independent newspapers.

Sports reporting, according to people I talked to, will be overseen by editors in Birmingham, one for high schools and one for college. Each newspaper kept its marquee sports columnists, who also will report to Birmingham. But it's unclear if they'll continue to write columns.

The exception is that in Birmingham and Mobile, one sports reporter will answer to the hub's content director.

The newspapers have eliminated their opinion departments. In Birmingham, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer Joey Kennedy was offered a job as a “community engagement specialist,” though his colleagues don't know what that job entails.

And the newspapers won't cover their surrounding communities as deeply. Nearly all the “zone” reporters in Birmingham lost their jobs. In Mobile, bureaus dedicated to covering the bedroom communities across the bay have been closed. The editor overseeing that operation was invited to stay on as a reporter.

Photojournalism doesn't appear to be a priority, considering that just two photographers are left in Mobile and Huntsville, and three in Birmingham. Nor does business coverage, with all or most of those reporters fired. Mobile and Birmingham will rely on wire services for their national political reporting after they cut those positions.

But you can see vestiges of the old newspaper beats: city council, cops, courts. Some people will be called “enterprise” reporters, which appears to have been assigned to those used to doing heavy lifting.

Some of the journalists who remain have been offered job titles that are based on broad subject areas, like an “industry” reporter or a “human rights and equality” reporter.

In Birmingham, a few people were offered “buzz reporter” positions. One said he wasn't sure what that was – across the company, the job descriptions are vague – except that it wasn't the sort of thing a newspaper reporter would be called.

Some of the titles sound like what you'd hear for employees of, you guessed it, The Huffington Post. A Web-lean, Web-first operation with loosely-defined beats.

The other similarity between the new approach and Huffington: clicks. Those who received job offers got letters that said, “the components of your total compensation package may be reevaluated but your opportunity to make the same total compensation will not be reduced.”

They don't know what that means, but like their colleagues in New Orleans, they suspect the company wants to pay them based on page views and engagement with readers.

One question for those who are left is how management will decide to use their limited resources. Reporters have been told that the papers will need more reporting, not less, which obviously is hard to reconcile with the number of severance offers.

Will the content directors make the same decision as some online-only news outlets, going narrow and deep? Or will they adopt the local TV news model, with general-assignment reporters moving from story to story?

The cutbacks and consolidation raise another question central to the nature of a local newspaper. What makes it local?

It's not where the press is located; plenty of papers are trucked in from outside plants. It doesn't seem to be based on where someone sits when he place stories and photos on a page.

Is it a local paper if you don't have an editorial board to weigh in on matters of local importance, to call out the school board and complain about lousy streets? Is it a local paper if you rely on stringers to cover the big football games and miss the Cinderalla story that a beat reporter would've nailed?

Advance seems to think a local newspaper is three things: a small group of reporters, advertisers who need your paper whether it's published three days or seven, and some readers. Fewer, every day.

Correction: The original version of this post said that Huntsville's newsroom was hit the hardest, but the percentage laid off there appears to be about the same as in Mobile.

  • Steve Myers

    Steve Myers was the managing editor of Poynter.org until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens, a nonprofit investigative news site in New Orleans.


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