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Reading into the Alabama Media Group plans (a lot)

06.6.2012 by André Natta · → 6 Comments

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The old and new Birmingham News headquarters. Bob Farley/f8photo.There’s been something nagging at me for a while now about the impending changes scheduled for the three Advance Publications titles based in Alabama (including Birmingham’s newspaper of record). You may have heard something about it.

It finally clicked in my head late last night, essentially changing the focus of what I thought had been a pretty solid piece about my thoughts regarding the reduction of The Birmingham News‘ print schedule. I’ll apologize if what follows seems a bit dry. I promise if you follow along, the potential outcomes (even if currently unlikely) become very interesting.

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around exactly what these changes would mean locally – and not just from the perspective of layoffs and the resulting competition. I kept trying to figure out some other potential results of the shift in focus. The News will still be the go to source for legal notices; their maintaining a print schedule allows them to meet the requirements for the state’s revised legal notices law; it passed back in March (after being introduced in February) and was explained (for the benefit of Alabama Press Association members) in a video later on during the session. The new rules took effect on June 1. By the way, the revised law does not seem to be easily interpreted for online-only publications at this time. Final passage appears to be a compromise for those organizations looking to go online only and those still wanting the notices to appear in the paper.

The new media organization will also be able to maintain its full APA active membership since it will meet their criteria:

…bona-fide newspapers of general circulation that are issued daily, weekly, semi-weekly or tri-weekly in Alabama…Bona-fide newspapers are those which have held a second-class mailing permit for one year and are published for the dissemination of news of general interest,” according to APA bylaws. Active membership is a voting membership. Dues are determined by paid circulation, as shown on the annually published postal statement of ownership.

What The News will not be is a daily newspaper. You may be laughing right now saying, “Of course not, silly André. They’ll only be printing three days a week.” Funny you should bring that up; current FCC regulations define a daily newspaper as any publication printing four or more days a week. Yeah, that was a nice tidbit of information to learn. This becomes important since it means that the new Alabama Media Group could be allowed to be bought by a local television station down the road and not be in violation of current rules prohibiting a daily newspaper and a local television station having the same owner – rules that are currently scheduled to be kept in place when they’re up for review.

It becomes even better when you think of it in another way – this new organization could buy or launch a television station of its own if it wanted to and not have to worry about FCC regulations. Those broadcast geeks reading – the exemption being considered only applies as a blanket approach to the top 20 designated market areas, or DMAs, in the country; we’re #40. Considering the possibilities that exist now thanks to the available digital television spectrum, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched of an idea. While the antennas may need to remain atop Red Mountain, the studio wouldn’t, leading to a creative spin on the efforts undertaken in Michigan earlier this year – one making the stories and information available as more than just another digital voice. It’s probably why I don’t see them using any of their existing properties if they don’t stay in the building on 22nd St. & 4th Ave. N. and probably going to Southside.

This all only makes sense to me because I’ve heard several people refer to The Birmingham News in recent months as a multimedia company – one that could turn to streaming or digital video and audio to augment its print and online written product. If it wasn’t already in their minds before –  “You’re welcome.”

It wouldn’t quite be a return to the days of the media powerhouses of more than thirty years ago and the fear of lack of diversity of voices associated with it. This is partially because of things like WordPress and Twitter making sites like this one possible. It still wouldn’t lessen the blow of print reduction though and it wouldn’t necessarily guarantee it was reaching more people – things I still believe are possible unfortunately – at least in the short term.

It is something that could potentially diversify revenue streams – since at the end of the day, journalists have to eat. Even if none of it comes to be, you’ve now been given a glimpse into the mind of one of the folks trying to figure out how this new age of journalism will work.

There’s one last side note I’d like the folks up in my hometown to consider as they prepare to have their teams in Alabama and New Orleans undertake this new approach. The Newhouse Foundation is an extremely valuable part of the journalism ecosystem – particularly in the northeastern United States. The philanthropic organization provides scholarships to those studying journalism and is a major supporter of Syracuse’s school of public communications. While it is not part of the company per se, it would be nice for it to consider stepping outside of its unwritten rules (as it has on other occasions for extremely worthwhile causes) and making contributions to efforts that ensure the passage of information from journalists to those who starve for it. It’s not like there’s currently enough adequate Internet coverage.

Perhaps a significant gift to our city’s financially strapped library system would be a great place to start. This would help provide venues for Internet access to those who don’t have it at home and space for community gatherings with all of those “one man bands” that are about to be unleashed into these communities.

I’m constantly told I’m an optimistic person when it comes to the future of Birmingham. That optimism can only be spread if it is easier to share the information needed to have critical discussions about what’s going on in the city. As much as I’m not a big fan of the changes and worry about the future employment of people who I respect dearly, I’m also watching (and hoping) to see if one of those voices responsible for shaping that conversation can survive and endure as we move forward.

André Natta is the station master for bhamterminal.com.

Photo: The old and new Birmingham News headquarters, 2009. Bob Farley/f8photo.

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5 comments
erushing
erushing

It would be wonderful to see Newhouse/Advance to invest in keeping our community informed, no matter what the method, as the Knight Foundation has done in Knight newspaper markets and in other markets through partnerships with community foundations. More power to this idea!

acnatta
acnatta

 @erushing It'd be great to see something like that done in the Southeast in general. It feels like most of the partnerships and models for advancing journalism are limited to the East and West Coasts. It'd be nice to have some of these groups take a look at the efforts underway not just in Alabama but throughout the region and help us nurture and grow them.

KenBooth
KenBooth

Although I suspect the changes are purely a reaction to the current economics of print/digital publishing, your observation about broadcast ownership rules is useful for speculating on what may happen in the future. A broadcaster would be a good partner for the Alabama Media Group and I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to hear about Newhouse acquiring a Birmingham station in the next few years.   I should also point out that the Alabama newspapers and al.com have been doing multimedia for many years now, generating quite a bit of original video. It’s clear that the Internet is going to soon disrupt the cable market and it will be interesting to see how local properties react. Media companies like Advance have been testing the water with online video for years and are eager to take advantage of that sales channel.  

KristenHeptin
KristenHeptin

 @KenBooth I see WIAT or WVTM as ripe for this.

John
John

Solid analysis. And an excellent suggestion, re: JCLC.

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