With the discussion, anxiety and apprehension dying down after the cutbacks to three of Alabama’s top newspapers, many citizens and journalists have begun to reflect on the legacy they are leaving behind and the future they are picking up.
On May 24, al.com, the online home of The Birmingham News, The Huntsville Times and Mobile’s Press Register for the past 14 years, reported that the three newspapers would cut from seven- to three-day-a-week publishing, following a similar announcement by the Times-Picayune in New Orleans.
“These changes are just part of the natural evolution of where journalism is going,” said Jennifer Greer, associate professor and chair in the Department of Journalism at the University of Alabama. “These are not paper companies; they are news companies. We should focus on that.”
“This is something that, as we continue to evolve in the digital world, we had to discuss at some point, and our company decided to answer the question: should days of publication be on the table?” said Kevin Wendt, editor of The Huntsville Times. “And we answered yes.”
A new, digitally focused company, Alabama Media Group, formed in the wake of the change as an answer to readers and advertisers all over the state. The company will head all three newspapers and the website and provide news coverage across the state daily. However, printed publications will only be distributed on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.
A second company, Advance Central Services Alabama, will handle production, distribution, technology, finance and human resources for all three newspapers.
Both companies are owned by Advance Publications, Inc.
“On the days we publish, we will provide more printed content than we do today,” said Cindy Martin, president of Alabama Media Group. “We are increasing our sports coverage, local community coverage and packing seven days worth of comics, games and puzzles into the three days. We will also be featuring more reader comments and opinions than ever before.”
However, the publication change questions the meaning of a community, Greer said.
“It is really an evolution of how we define who our community is,” she said. “People who don’t subscribe to a newspaper (for home delivery) will still share articles online with friends. Our community, then, is constantly shifting based on content instead of geographic area. The challenge is not finding readers; the challenge is thinking about how we define our community.”
Consequently, after weeks of rumors, the three state papers suffered an even harder loss: The Birmingham News cut 60 percent of their editorial staff, and 400 employees throughout the state were laid off. Additionally, the Times-Picayune alone suffered a 200-man cut.
“There’s a bittersweet mix [of feelings in our newsroom],” said Wendt, who will be continuing with Advance Publications as the vice president of content for the Alabama Media Group. “Folks who will help build the new company are getting excited for the future, but anytime you work through a staff reduction, no doubt there’s a feeling of loss.”
Trying to cater to a digitally based consumer, the new companies hope to strengthen the communities they represent.
“Our goal is to build a sustainable news company, which will be a growth company,” Martin said. “We will aim to serve our communities and our major constituents, including our audiences and our advertising clients. We believe this will provide benefits to our employees and our communities.”
However, longtime readers of the traditionally daily newspapers question the seemingly drastic decision.
“[The Press-Register] is my family’s main source for news,” said Roger Gill, a University of Alabama junior political science major and Mobile native whose family has been getting the newspaper delivered to their house for four years. “My parents don’t really watch television or get on the Internet because of their jobs, so now they will be less updated on the news.”
Gill also worries about the effects of the cutbacks on his community, as the unemployment rate in the state of Alabama rose from 7.4 percent in May 2012 to 7.8 percent in June 2012.
“People don’t need to lose their jobs during this economy, especially from a company that has been such a steady part of the culture of Mobile for so long,” Gill said.
Rumors circulated that many faithful employees to the newspapers were being thrown out, only to be replaced by fresh-faced college graduates, more eager to get a starting job than to care about their pay.
However, Wendt strikes that notion down, explaining that a good newsroom needs variety to excel.
“Those were rumors coming out of New Orleans during the cutbacks at the Times-Picayune,” he said. “We have a great mix of journalists, and that means we have a great mix of experience. We want the experienced ones to teach the new ones in order to create a sustainable and diverse culture in the newsroom.”
Similarly, Greer agrees that journalists need to adopt variety into their skillset.
“It’s important for journalists to be flexible in order to do their job in a variety of formats. We all need to think video, text, graphics, photos.”
For the college student aiming for a career in the field of journalism, Wendt says that the best benefit is experience.
“I always say throw yourself into any experience you can get,” he said. “The thing that scares me, as a person who hires, is a resume with no experience on it. To think grades will get it is a mistake. You’ve got to get your foot on the door wherever you can.”
However, the country’s desire for truth may be the saving grace for the world of journalism.
“The delivery form is less important than how we do our job,” Greer said. “It’s the way the country is set up – for a strong, free, unencumbered news source. We have to remember that. It’s not vital for our community for us to stay strong – it is vital for our country. We must try to educate others, not just about journalism, but also about free press and why we are so invested in it staying alive.”