Is Birmingham Ready for an Online Newspaper?

I talk too much.

Often, when I write, I short-circuit much discussion by telling you exactly what I think. The lack of ambiguity can be a wet blanket on comments and discussion.

So I’ll take a different approach here.

John Archibald recently wrote a solemn and respectful column about the latest round of buyouts at the Birmingham News. It was leaked to Facebook by Kyle Whitmire (@secondfront on Twitter) and I mirror it here for those with access issues. Read his piece, then tell me in the comments. Given:

  • the cuts at the Birmingham News
  • the trends in the industry
  • the local economy
  • and the available talent on the street, with deep source connections to the city…

You tell me

I want you to help me answer the following questions:

  • Is the time ripe for an online-only competitor to the News?
  • What hurdles still need to be cleared?
  • Can it happen bottom up, with writers still writing then merging effort? Or will it take top-down financing?
  • How long will it take to pull it off?
  • How long is the window for launch?

The discussion is yours, Birmingham.

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  1. Sean Kelley says:

    If Birmingham can manage to support umpteen independent tabloids over the year (there were once four monthly parenting magazines operating at the same time), there shouldn’t be any reason that it can’t support at least one online venture. The problem is that there are already a half a dozen online ventures supported by big money (, NBC13, Bham biz journal, etc.) and a dozen solely supported by the volunteer work of their owners. That doesn’t include large conglomerates that offer the key mobile data (calendar listings, menus, classified ads) that would make a local publication work and which enhanced search makes pointless–although, I would concede a really clever journalist could support an app provided they had time (and income) to pursue data points (like shopping discounts, bar deals, etc.) that would appeal to a younger demographic. But would that audience also consume content about city council meetings, etc.? Would revenue around that audience support the more altruistic efforts of a news organ — you know, like football coverage and Over-the-Mountain weddings? (Okay, that should have read city council meetings, business filings, criminal proceedings and cats rescued from trees.)
    I doubt it, unless you can get granny hooked on consuming content via smart phone and figure out what she wants.

  2. Ike,

    Is the time ripe? Absolutely! The News has had run of this town since the Post Herald shut down several years ago. I’m just not sure the resources are there for anyone to make a run at it.

    I think the finances would have to be on place first, and I think the initial operating budget, to make a serious run at the News, would have to be somewhere between $500,000 – $1,000,000 per year (minimum) to make a serious run at the news.

    Which brings is back to the age-old question that ALL newspapers are struggling with – “How do you monetize online news content?” Thus far, few have found a good answer for this. If you find that answer, you can start this online news service yourself, because you will be a very rich man!

    Just my 2 cents, which on today’s economy is worth about $.000000412.

  3. Sorry for the typos in the previous post. Typing this on my phone and didn’t self-edit!

  4. Kyle Whitmire says:

    Ike, thanks for posting this so the outside world can see it.

    Three things strike me about this whole episode.

    First, The Birmingham News routinely reports on layoffs, buyouts and whatnot at businesses throughout Alabama, ostensibly because those cuts impact our communities at large.

    As Archibald argues so well, the buyouts at the News have an important impact on Birmingham, and yet, the News does not see fit to report this important story. That’s hypocrisy, plain and simple.

    Second, the News brass seems to have been under the impression that this never would see the light of day, that they are still the arbiters of news. They think they still control the spigot.

    That’s not the world we live in anymore. I can distribute information faster with my phone than they can with that greasy beast of a machine on Fifth Avenue North. If they don’t realize that, then they’re in real trouble.

    Third, what kind of idiot management makes a boneheaded decision like this when morale at the paper is already so low? Where was their foresight? Had they no idea where this was going? Can they turn it around without somebody losing their jobs?

  5. As Archibald points out, a properly-functioning democracy depends on voters who are informed about issues (and, I would add, sufficiently educated and thoughtful to properly evaluate information and issues). Quality news journalism is at the foundation of an informed citizenry.
    Quality news journalism encompasses investigative reporting—that takes time, money and other resources. A key question when evaluating the future of traditional journalism (regardless of delivery platform) is how much profit is “enough” for the owner or investor.
    The acceptable profit margins might be lower (and achievable) if the owner is an individual, or a small group of individuals, committed to quality journalism. At the present time, I don’t believe a news enterprise committed to investigative reporting and quality journalism can produce profit margins that will satisfy Wall Street, hedge funds or institutional investors. Case-in-point: I’ve read more than one account of the decline of quality standards at The Wall Street Journal in the past year since it was acquired by you-know-who.
    Based on the evidence in the marketplace, investors and owners are increasingly giving up on the notion that quality journalism can lead to increased revenues. The focus is on cutting costs, rather than using quality content to increase circulation (eyeballs). The content continues to shift to fluff, celebrity news, shock opinion and regurgitation of wire content available from multiple sources.
    I think an online newspaper that delivers quality content on matters of public importance could survive under the right conditions:

    • Owners committed to journalistic excellence;
    • Owners committed to profitability but who don’t necessarily aspire to achieve the Richard Scrushy lifestyle and who don’t have Larry Langford’s taste in clothes; and
    • A business model that markets the news content to the educated citizen who values knowledge and truth over a political ideology.
      I don’t know if there are journalists and investors with the motivation and desire to meet these conditions, given today’s media challenges and partisan environment. The time is probably right to try to leap over the abyss. Wait much longer and it will be too late. The market (like nature) abhors a vacuum. And what’s left of the media-content consumer who is interested in news will find something else to fill the void.
      I fear what happens to our democracy, nation, state, county and cities if we DON’T have a committed group of independent-minded individuals with the resources to deliver quality journalism.

      I appreciate the efforts of all who remain committed to delivering quality journalism in these very challenging times.

  6. The available talent from recent layoffs and general turnover is too great in Birmingham for this not to happen. Combine them with the freelance writers and bloggers that have accumulated over the years and you would have a formidable editorial staff. It would not have to be backed by outside capital; an entrepreneurial pursuit is certainly a possibility and would allow such a publication to operate free of corporate constraints.

  7. Richard Dixon says:

    Immediate thoughts on this piece? Yes, it is sad. I’ve loved newspapers since I learned to read at age 3 and found out they were delivered to the door everyday.

    Upon further reflection, though…it’s a little like complaining about downsizing at the buggy-whip factory. Let’s face it, the world wide web can get me the same news in real time, 24 hour news can give me updates faster than the newspaper, and long-form journalism like 48 hours and60 Minutes can give me in-depth stuff. If there was still a market for newspapers, they wouldn’t be hurting in circulation or ad dollars all over the country.

    It’s 2010… and, as a radio guy, I’m well aware of the fact that my industry might be next!

  8. I’ve nearly finished Robert McChesney and John Nichols’ The Death and Life and American Journalism where they cover various options, including low profit limited liability companies (L3Cs) or (employee owned stock plans) EOSPs and …  Tremendous work as usual from these two gems.  For a jumping off point to pondering possibilities, I’d highly suggest their book.

  9. I think Sheree summarizes the issue well. It’s not that journalism is dead. It’s that the bastions of the enterprise have allowed it to get too big to sustain itself in an era of flux.

    What we are seeing is similar to what happened in the housing bust. Everyone has been jumping on a bandwagon without taking a step back and looking where the bandwagon is heading.

    History vindicates the notion that there is a critical point when bigger is no longer better.  Persia, Greece, Rome, Britain, Germany: why did they fail? Because they got too big to sustain themselves.

    Why did Britain lose to America in the Revolutionary War? Why does America have such a hard time maintaining peace in Afghanistan or Iraq in spite of our larger numbers?
    Because the underdog has the advantage of being unencumbered.

    Because the revolutionary has nothing to lose.

    When people keep mourning the loss of newspapers, it’s only because they are not thinking about reality (as the empires before them did not). I have no problem with newspapers closing, because the last five years have made me shrug my shoulders at their output.

    It’s not that I’m tired because I’m stupid or bored with reading.

    It’s because I’m tired of paint-by-the-numbers stories.

    I’m tired of the tendency to elevate currency over accuracy.

    I’m tired of a lack of citation.

    I’m tired of a definition of “news” that everyone seems to mind-numbingly accept. A bomb goes off in Iraq, a murder downtown. I’m tired of hearing about it. It’s just white noise to me now-like the “news” of the conflicts between Eurasia and Oceania in 1984.

    This is happening. It’s not going to stop, so it’s time for journalists who have a passion for their profession to eject from their hurtling juggernauts before they explode, and strip the profession back down-not to build a  new empire, not to follow Hearst (or his fictitious counterpart and his declaration of principles), Murdoch or the myriad others in their footsteps (whether their reason to be in those footsteps be pure or otherwise), but to see this as an opportunity to improve news.

    If good journalists don’t do it, then someone else will, and their intentions may not be noble. This is a brave new world; do you really want such people in it?

  10. I feel uniquely qualified to answer, having been through two major publication implosions in Birmingham. What’s going on at the News has an eerily familiar feeling.

    * Is the time ripe for an online-only competitor to the News?

    This is an outdated question. This presumes that the News is a primary driver of content in town. The time was ripe 10 years ago.

    An online-only news outlet would not just compete with the News, but also several other publications, TV, radio, blogs, Facebook, Twitter and outright apathy.

    * What hurdles still need to be cleared?

    The biggest hurdle is the assumption that high quality news content can win an audience and revenue. Is anyone reading or commenting on this post paying for any news content? I just dropped my subscription to Newsweek, and nearly dropped my Entertainment Weekly sub, except it’s still barely worth $10 a year. That’s right, I renewed it at a steeply discounted rate.

    I just about all of my news online. I rarely click on ads. I am actively helping to destroy what I love: quality content.

    The revenue problem can and will be solved. But the answer will not come from corporate media, as long as it serves the interests of shareholders over citizens.

    * Can it happen bottom up, with writers still writing then merging effort? Or will it take top-down financing?

    It could happen from the bottom up, but it will take sharp focus, big risks and a lot of cash to burn.

    * How long will it take to pull it off?

    Not to sound glib, but as long as it takes.

    * How long is the window for launch?

    As long as we have news to report and consume, the window is always open.

  11. I think Wade said it all very nicely. I also think it can happen from the bottom up, and I think that is the most likely and stable situation. With all the talent that at loose in Birmingham, it has to happen. The problem, of course, is how to make it viable.

    • Vickie, I think Richard Scrushy was on the verge of bankrolling something before his house of cards came up a couple of jacks short.

  12. With respect to Vickie, it doesn’t have to happen. Lots of journalists lost their jobs in Birmingham over the past decade, and most went on their merry way. People tend to forget that even stubborn journalists grow weary of the poor pay, long hours, bad treatment, resentful public and gloomy job prospects.

  13. As someone who has worked in both newspapers and Internet, I’ve wondered when someone would seriously ask the question about an independent, online-only news source in Birmingham.

    By independent, I mean an online outlet that is not an offshoot of an existing media outlet. The TV stations all have their websites, but they contain practically nothing more than scripts and footage from their regular newscasts., of course, has no news-gathering staff of its own to speak of, with all content coming straight from The Birmingham News and its sister newspapers in Huntsville and Mobile. There’s some extra web-only content, but that is primarily in the form of blogs from reporters, so without the newspapers, either dies or hires the former reporters and photogs. As for other outlets, I can’t think of anything else locally other than my current newspaper, The North Jefferson News in Gardendale — and most of our content comes straight from our print edition, though I am increasing the web-only content bit by bit.

    Yes, there is a lot of journalistic talent floating around out there, and there will be still more when The Birmingham News completes its downsizing at the end of April. It is almost inevitable that someone, or some group, will try to start a web-only news site. But if it is going to work, it will take money and a lot of it. You’ll have to spend to advertise, just to create mind-share, and you’ll have to spend to feed the talent. You’ll also have to have patience, as something like this doesn’t happen overnight. It can happen, and sometime down the road it will.

    Right now, I’m very happy at my little suburban twice-weekly. We provide the community-based news that the big paper can’t or won’t anymore, especially since they combined their north and east zone editions on Wednesdays. We have a supportive corporate parent that doesn’t meddle too much editorially. Surburbans are still hanging on and even making money, while big metros are withering away. Take Atlanta, for instance, where suburban dailies in Marietta and Gwinett County have picked off the affluent readers while the Atlanta Journal-Constitution pares itself down to oblivion.

    My old boss, Ron Ingram, left The Birmingham News after nearly 25 years, most as the prep sports editor, to take a nice job with the Alabama High School Sports Association. As he headed out the door he told us, “Guys, big city newspapers aren’t long for this world. If something else good comes along, take it while you can.”

    I did.

    (note from Ike – I added the links to North Jefferson News.)

  14. Will an online newspaper work in Birmingham? I have no idea. Will its success come at the expense of The Birmingham News? I highly doubt it.

    I know this whole thing with John created some good controversy where there really was none, but I don’t get those who believe everyone here is wringing their hands and worried about the ax falling. I know I’m not. In fact, I didn’t even know about John’s column until Monday. Why? Because I was too busy doing my job.

    And that’s what I’m doing today and plan to do tomorrow. If there is something I feel like fighting for in the editing process, I will do it and everyone here would encourage me to do so. If I lose my job, I will find another one. But I love what I do and I love the newspaper I do it for, so I fully intend to be here doing it until my retirement.

    I suppose I could worry about it and declare my own industry a dinosaur. The problem is, others have done the same with radio and televison and 24-hour news channels and the Inernet. The simple truth of the matter is newspaper content has never had any serious competition until it started competing with itself with the very same content through the Internet. At some point, someone will figure out how to monetize the Internet in order to pay for that content. They have to because in a free society that content is too valuable.

    But the best think I can do is continue to do my job just like John is doing and dozens of others continue to do here. If you love what you do and the management here aknowledges your contribution from time to time, what more can you really ask for?

    It’s like when the job pledge was taken away here and I some moaned and said that was what made working here special. I told them if that’s what made working here special for them, then maybe they should consider taking the buyout.

    Are things changing? Sure. Are they ending? I may be in denial, but I honestly don’t think so. 

    • Mi Michael – thanks for dropping in.

      Just to clarify, I am not signalling the death knell for newspapers, or even a particular one. I’m merely trying to get a handle on the ingredients that must be present to kickstart something in the present economy. (Aside from Richard Scrushy throwing money at it like it wasn’t his…)

      I think you nail one very big point early, that there is no guarantee at all that an independent online news source would take anything away from the News.

  15. John Cooper says:


    Appropriate to this discussion is the fact that until this morning I had no avenue to useful information on Archibald’s missing column.  There was a blunt comment in the paper that John would be missing for a few days, without any explanation whatever.  That pointed my ears forward.  He mentioned his absence later, but merely said, that gallant & loyal feller,  that the column’s absence was due to an editorial disagreement, no details included. 

    My wife has a saying, “If it doesn’t make sense maybe it just doesn’t make sense.  If it really doesn’t make sense, it’s politics.”  But, what was I to do to figure it out?  A letter to the Editor in the News?

    Now I know.  About the topic.  I don’t know about the solution.  I found the answer to my original question about what was going on here in the Web, & I certainly didn’t find it in the News.  That’s disgraceful, & Scarritt should be ashamed of himself.  & fired.

    John Cooper

  16. Dystopos says:

    Wasn’t Scrushy already bankrolling the feature articles in the Birmingham Times?


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    RT @ikepigott: Great discussion about the future of news in Birmingham (and YOUR community, too) | [please retweet]

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    RT @craigniedenthal: RT @ikepigott: Great discussion about the future of news in Birmingham (and YOUR community, too) |

  9. Greg Yaghmai says:

    RT @craigniedenthal: RT @ikepigott: Great discussion about the future of news in Birmingham (and YOUR community, too) |

  10. Ike Pigott says:

    Thanks to everyone who has weighed in on the issue of "When Online-only News Makes Business Sense" |

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    #sundayread @IkePigott asks: Is Birmingham Ready for an Online Newspaper?

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    A #sundayread tweeted on Monday: RT @WadeOnTweets @IkePigott asks: Is Birmingham Ready for an Online Newspaper?

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