Category Archives: media

The future of journalism? It depends on the consumer.

Editors note: I will be one of the panelists participating in WBHM’s next installment of Issues and Ales at Cantina’s* Pepper Place location on Thursday evening, October 4. We’ll be talking about the future of journalism in North Central Alabama.

I figured before I appeared before a group talking about my thoughts that I should share some of them here on the site. Please feel free to chime in here in the comments section or come on out Thursday evening.

New Birmingham News boxes downtownEveryone seems to have an opinion about it – the future of journalism. I’ve recently watched one forum take place in New Orleans (courtesy of the folks at the Oxford American) and awaiting hearing what happens at one my digital compatriot Andrew Huff will take part in later this month in Chicago. This is all while I prepare to add my voice to the cacophony of viewpoints about North Central Alabama’s journalistic future following the recent changes at the Advance Media Group titles – including the one here in Birmingham – on October 4.

I haven’t written much of anything these last three weeks because of it. I’ve been wondering if we’re asking the right questions – or rather, the right people.

The future of journalism is now. It also is much more reliant on the habits of those who seek to consume content, those funding it, and those willing to create what’s needed for it to be consumed. It’s tough to fully represent all of these interests when most of the voices included on these panels represent those producing the content. I was wondering if I was the only one thinking this way; thankfully, that’s not the case

It’s not even news anymore, it’s content. It can be user-generated or about something that may entertain now but fades into obscurity when compared to items that can shape the future of a community. It also means it doesn’t have to come from a “trusted news source” – at least not initially.

I’ve been wondering if the question to be posed shouldn’t be, “How will the public choose to receive their news?” Most seem to acknowledge it will be a platform and layout agnostic world (as new products like Quartz appear to recognize), but we haven’t actually figured out how to customize that experience in each community. We still seem set to take an assembly-line approach – one that could be detrimental to the long-term survival of journalism as we know it.

As some of us like to point out on occasion, the sentence hanging above the entrance to Birmingham’s City Council chambers states “The People are the City.” If anything, we’ve done a great job listening to what we think advertisers want while not necessarily identifying how to marry that with how our community chooses to take in the news of the day. You may be surprised to learn about resources to help you do what you want if you do talk with them.

I’m not a fool. We can’t always wait to hear from the community. The publisher of my hometown paper took a now celebrated approach that made sure the Old Gray Lady was profitable enabling it to share “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” It is important to remember though that advertisers like to go somewhere where there’s people. It doesn’t hurt that they listen to consumers and have diversified just enough to be dangerous.

Those leading the reformation of the news process need to be willing to look at how to modify the wheel, not necessarily reinventing it. In my case, it’s even involved seeing if a local brewery would be willing to take a chance on creating a porter for our relaunch of our monthly offline gatherings (the first batch will be available at Good People Brewing Company on October 11). It also means completely revamping our online store and making a big push starting Thursday afternoon to sell some shirts (& reintroduce our voluntary subscriptions) in order to fulfill previous orders and to generate operating capital so I can let some folks join me in chasing windmills across Red Mountain.

Would having a porter release work for you? It depends on if your community loves craft beer as much as Birmingham does (by the way, we love it a lot). We’re a community that loves to voice our opinions though there are times we seem scared to stand by them. You need to ask your community what works for them.

It may work. It may not. I figure it’ll be fun regardless.

Is it a crisis in journalism? For those who have lost and will continue to lose their jobs, yes. For those the list of others I mentioned in the beginning, it’s more of a maze they’re trying to navigate through to see what works best for them. We need to be listening to them more about what they seek. Perhaps some new opportunities for niche publications exist for those who’ve recently been forced out at legacy publications.

There’s the idealistic approach that many take stating we must provide something of value to our community. Our community hasn’t necessarily voiced their opinion about how they want to receive their news. Or have they? Are they even paying attention? The reactions one person in Louisiana stumbled across may surprise you.

What does the community want? What does it need? Have we asked them?

At the end of the day, we can spend more time talking about best practices and not about silver bullets. It’s still only part of the solution – one that sometimes points to what’s useful instead of what’s new.

André Natta is the stationmaster for

Photo: New Birmingham News boxes downtown. acnatta/Flickr.

*The “i” everyone thinks is in the front of the name Cantina as it appears in its logo is actually an upside down exclamation point.

A local's suggestions for digital media moving forward

Editor’s note: While this site’s been quiet about what’s been going on over at The Birmingham News, there’s still been discussion going on elsewhere. Comments made by Scott Schablow caught our eye, leading to our first ever Storify piece and a brief look at what else has been happening out there recently.

As always, we’d appreciate any comments you have.

Reading into the Alabama Media Group plans (a lot)

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

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

How to change what's on the dial

I had two reminders in the last week that it was WBHM‘s (our local listener-supported station’s) fall pledge drive. The first was while I was driving to cover last week’s Design Review Committee (trust me, we did get a couple of things from the meeting, just nothing that we can publish… yet). Driving to the meeting I tuned into NPR’s All Things Considered (it’s a hold over from my days in Savannah – if I’m actually listening to something besides local talk in the morning, it’s ATC).

The second was from a MySpace bulletin sent by a regular reader of the site and someone that I really would like to hang out with some more just to figure out what makes him tick. It was the second reminder that made me begin to think about the power of the wallet.

Everyone is aware of the power of the wallet, or as it’s normally referred to, the “money talks” approach. Now I have heard both sides of the argument about whether or not people should use pledge drives to influence what a station plays, but I’ve never really offered an opinion about it, until now. It’s especially interesting to me as people who frequent the web are still upset about the pending forced shutdown of internet radio stations as we know them and the growing ability to find your “voice” on numerous websites and blogs without relying on a standard being placed before you.

People who have this belief that listener-supported radio can change at will don’t seem to realize that when they send in their contribution during the midday classical music show that they really can’t complain if they really want to hear jazz, or News & Notes, or see more in-depth series like Birmingham: The Urban Divide produced on a more frequent basis. They spoke with their wallet and said that they wanted to listen to classical. And there’s nothing wrong with classical. When you’re typing a story at lunchtime and you know that you want some background noise but realize that a) ESPN will distract you if you’re at home and b) you’ll just start singing along if you listen to just about anything else, you want classical.

I’m also not saying to hold back your contributions to WBHM or any other listener supported station. Trust me, if we were actually making money right now I’d be making my contribution to them either sometime during Marketplace or Tapestry. I just figured that those that say that nobody listens to them about programming options need to realize that the power is in your hands if you ever decide to use it. It will not change if you continue to not say anything.

The same argument could be applied to public television, but my use of the power of the wallet would be different there. I was silly enough to get an HDTV (for an insanely low price) a few years ago, leading to my new obsession over crisp clear pictures and what were incredible shows on the national PBS HD feed. I’m never going to blame APTV for not carrying the signal because the cost was insane and at the time it was only servicing those of us lucky (or crazy) to have paid for or found a good deal on a set. But I will still be upset with them for not getting Charlie Rose, though I guess I can watch it online nowadays, now can’t I?


André Natta is the publisher and managing editor of The Terminal. To submit letters in response to this commentary or to contact for general information, use any of the methods listed on our contact page.