As Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi points out (free link), while it is illegal to leak grand jury information, it is not illegal for a news outlet to publish a story based on that leaked information. An outrageous breach of the First Amendment in Atmore, Alabama, where a reporter and the publisher of the weekly Atmore News face criminal charges for committing journalism.
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.
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.
The Alabama state employees’ pension fund is on the rampage once again.
The Eagle-Tribune newspapers north of Boston axed two of its local publishers on Wednesday, while a third was moved to the position of regional advertising director. The sole surviving publisher, Karen Andreas, will become regional publisher of the daily and weekly newspapers, magazines and websites. The dailies are the Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, the Daily News of Newburyport, the Salem News and the Gloucester Daily Times.
According to the paper’s Alabama-based owner, Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. (CNHI), “the reorganization is designed to refine the structure of its Massachusetts and New Hampshire properties to align them with the strategic print and digital objectives of the company in the North of Boston market.”
But CNHI, whose major investor is the Retirement Systems of Alabama, has been assiduously hacking away at its Massachusetts properties for years, laying off scores of employees and regularly subjecting those who’ve stayed to unpaid furloughs.
Here is the complete body count:
- Al Getler, publisher of the Eagle-Tribune, and Sheila Smith, publisher of the Daily News, are out.
- Mark Zappala, publisher of the Gloucester Daily Times, is the new regional ad director. Although it’s not mentioned in the official story, two sources tell me that Zappala will replace Tim Brady, who was also let go.
- Andreas, publisher of the Salem News, moves up to regional publisher.
We are Salem News readers, and we are grateful that the paper has been able to keep together much of its skilled, experienced staff. At some point, though, this has to end. I would love to see CNHI try to find local investors to take the paper off its hands. Some days there are so few ads in the News that you wonder how they make payroll.* Is that just the way things are? Or could someone else do better?
*Update: Having heard from an insider, I should clarify. Pick up almost any daily paper, especially early in the week, and you’ll generally find that it’s remarkably thin compared to how many pages it would have comprised, say, 10 years ago. But I have no information on the CNHI papers’ profitability or lack thereof, and my off-the-cuff observation should be taken as no more than that. I also have no doubt the ad salespeople are working their butts off. It’s the out-of-state chain ownership that I question.
Photo (cc) by Joanna Poe and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.
The Alabama state employees’ pension fund is taking the axe to its newspapers on the North Shore and in the Merrimack Valley — again.
CNHI, the Birmingham, Ala.-based chain that owns four daily newspapers and four weeklies north of Boston, has eliminated 36 full- and part-time jobs. The dailies affected by the layoffs are the Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, the Daily News of Newburyport, the Salem News and the Gloucester Daily Times. The chain whacked 52 jobs in 2008.
“We have done our best to weather economic difficulties, but like many companies we must take further steps to sustain the long-term success of the company by reducing staffing levels again,” a CNHI publisher, Al Getler, said in a statement posted online.
But it’s not all bad news for CNHI — if you’re fortunate enough to be near the seat of power. The company recently announced that it would move to Alabama’s state capital, Montgomery, and take up residence in a 12-story building being constructed by its chief investor, Retirement Systems of Alabama. The move is expected to take place in 2012.
We subscribe to the Salem News, and we continue to be impressed with the good job done by the reporters, photographers and editors every day. (Disclosure: Mrs. Media Nation was a Salem News photographer until eight years ago.)
But working conditions have been pretty difficult. For the past several years, most employees have had to take roughly a week of unpaid furlough every quarter. And now things have gotten considerably worse.
No doubt management is having a difficult time of it. The Salem News is pretty light on ads most days. But hollowing out the product year by year is a recipe for eventual closure, not revival. If there is a vision beyond continued cutting, it’s certainly not apparent to readers — or to the journalists who still work there.
Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery.