Advance to go digital-only at four of its papers in Alabama and Mississippi

The sun is setting on print in Birmingham, Albama, and several other communities served by Advance newspapers. Photo (cc) 2020 by drjoshuawhitman.

When I speak to audiences about the future of local news, inevitably I’m asked if I think newspapers at some point will end their print editions once and for all. I always respond that I’m not a good person to answer that question — 25 years ago, I assumed they’d be long gone by now. Not only are they still here, but even as digitally focused a news outlet as The Boston Globe was still making more than half of its money from print as recently as a year ago.

I do think that we’re going to see newspapers cut back on print days, eventually moving to one big weekend print paper with digital distribution the rest of the week. But that’s not going to happen as long as publishers believe there’s still money in print advertising and circulation, both of which command a premium compared to digital.

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Which is why I was intrigued by an announcement by the Advance chain last week that its three Albama and one Mississippi newspaper will end their print editions altogether by early 2023.

“We remain deeply committed to serving our local communities and are producing high-quality journalism and reaching more people than ever before,” said Tom Bates, president of Alabama Media Group, in a statement published by AL.com. “At the same time, we’re adjusting to how Alabama readers want their information today, which increasingly is on a mobile device, not in a printed newspaper.”

I’m not going to snark. Advance is a privately held company owned by the Newhouse family, and I think they are genuinely trying to find a way forward. In Massachusetts, Advance owns The Republican of Springfield and MassLive.com, which are run more or less as separate operations.

A better analogy to Alabama and Mississippi, though, is Advance’s New Jersey properties. Advance publishes the largest daily newspaper in that state — The Star-Ledger of Newark — and two smaller dailies, The Times of Trenton and the South Jersey News, as well as several smaller publications. All of them operate under the NJ.com banner, and the emphasis is on digital subscriptions. There’s a unified newsroom of about 115 journalists who feed stories to both NJ.com and to the print editions. It’s similar to what Hearst is doing in Connecticut with one newsroom serving the New Haven Register, the Connecticut Post, several smaller papers and the digital-only CTInsider.

The difference in Alabama is that Advance is ending the print editions and focusing on its digital-only operations, shutting down three Alabama papers — The Birmingham News, the Huntsville Times and the Press-Register of Mobile — and The Mississippi Press.

Is this smart? In 2012, Advance cut The Times-Picayune back to three days of print at a time when broadband penetration in New Orleans and the surrounding area lagged behind other parts of the country. An outcry resulted, and the move was reversed the following year. But the damage had been done; The Times-Picayune, a once-great paper that had served as a lifeline following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, ended up being acquired in 2019 by an independent daily, The Advocate of Baton Rouge.

Even so, 2012 was a long time ago. Today, according to the Alabama Media Group, AL.com is in the top 10 of local news websites in the U.S., reaching about 11 million users each month. Statista reports that broadband penetration in 2019 was about 81% in Alabama and about 76% in Mississippi; no doubt those figure are higher today. (By comparison, that number was 88% in Massachusetts.) Still, Alabama and Mississippi are among our poorest states, and the move away from print is going to leave some people behind.

“The print side of our business does not make economic sense in Alabama,” Bates told Alexandra Bruell (free link) of The Wall Street Journal. Bruell reported that the circulation of Advance’s three Alabama papers is down to around 30,000, a drop from 260,000 a decade ago.

So this seems like a good time for Advance to try moving into a digital-only future. If it enhances the bottom line, then other publishers can be expected to follow suit. And if that, in turn, provides a boost to Advances local journalism, then that will be good news for everyone.