A look into the process of ending 4 print editions at Alabama Media Group

By Peter Bale

INMA

New Zealand and the U.K.

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Welcome to the latest Newsroom Initiative newsletter.

We’ve all talked about going digital first for years, but we all know newsrooms that are still trapped in newspaper — literally paper — thinking. Routines and reporting are too often still geared to a paper production schedule, and the incentives, especially related to ego, can be skewed towards the front page of the physical newspaper.

There are many reasons for this, not least decades of history and an understandable love of a finished edition. Some publishers still derive significant revenue from paper editions, especially where they have perhaps failed to develop a subscription strategy for digital or where they’ve held on too long to the idea of a purely advertising-funded model.

Newsroom culture can also be a key driver where senior editors are seen to think about the paper edition more than the digital product or allow news planning and deadlines to stay stuck to the newspaper deadlines rather than when their digital audiences are actually there.

In this edition of the Newsroom Initiative newsletter, we’ll take a look at an American news group that has truly broken that conundrum and taken the step to close its paper editions.

Tellingly, it did it in a long-term, planful way — not driven by short-term factors but a process of managed decline in its print circulation and progressive investment in a range of digital products.

I reckon it is an example of how it can be done. We will follow this trend with a couple of case studies over the next few weeks.

No need to weep for newspapers

Publishers worldwide are rethinking newspapers, reducing editions, cutting pagination, and shutting down paper production entirely.

We may weep for the loss of some of these tangible and historic imprints, but there are rational and even positive reasons to make the step to close print and move faster to digital, especially if your digital revenues are growing and your newsroom is up to the challenge of going digital.

Honouring its time as a printed newspaper, The Alabama Group thanked its local readers as it ended its printed editions.
Honouring its time as a printed newspaper, The Alabama Group thanked its local readers as it ended its printed editions.

That was the calculation at Alabama Media Group, which last month ended its remaining newsprint publications under three titles in Alabama and one in Mississippi and went digital.

“Several years ago we really asked ourselves ‘what business are we in’ and we decided we’re in the news business more than the newspaper business,” Tom Bates, president of Alabama Media Group, told me in an interview. “There’s a lot of things we've been doing and we have a larger newsroom than we did five years ago and we’re reaching more and more people … we developed over time a portfolio of products, trying to do different things for different people.”

Costs are an accelerant to transition

All publishers face spiraling newsprint costs — up 20% in the past year in the United States — as well as expensive printing and distribution, and the difficulty of getting paper and maintaining aging presses. Those trends are driving the acceleration of digital strategies, and newsrooms and titles that haven’t yet adapted may be left behind and struggle to make the transition.

Alabama Media Group, part of the privately held Advance that holds the Newhouse family media assets (including the Condé Nast magazines) went all in on digital and has never really looked back as its digital revenues grew and made tough decisions on print much easier. The Alabama operation has also been permitted to plot its own course.

Recently, revenue from digital overtook print, which signaled a change at Alabama Media Group.
Recently, revenue from digital overtook print, which signaled a change at Alabama Media Group.

Bates says he tracked the profit and loss separately for digital and print over time, watching digital steadily gain — a crossover point publishers have been praying for over decades —until relatively recently print started moving into the red and digital was firmly in the black.

“We were watching those and what drove our decision recently were two things: one, print was getting to the point where it was not profitable; and secondly, the unique thing for us among some of our peers is we were emerging with a profitable digital business,” Bates said, adding that the group had over time developed a strong digital advertising base.

The newsroom was a big part of the decision, and there may be important lessons for other publishers in what Alabama Media Group went through — to not just wring its hands about the challenges to its newspapers but use it to rethink its entire journalistic and business mission.

“I’ve found people in the newsroom have been willing participants in this conversation,” said Kelly Ann Scott, the vice president of content (the editor-in-chief). “We spend a lot of time on the [internal] communication, but who doesnt want their work to be memorable … . Thats ultimately what this is about: creating memorable work that has an impact and has as many people as possible reading it. Thats a pretty appealing mission to get people on board with if you think about it that way.”

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be

When I first contacted Tom to write this piece for the Newsroom Initiative newsletter, he stressed that he was optimistic about the businesses and wanted to ensure we were talking about “innovation, but less about the halcyon days, or decline, of print.” That struck me as a great way to look at this since we tend too much to look at media in crisis, especially print media.

Alabama Media Group had already cut back on editions but last month finally ended its print operations. Birmingham News, Huntsville Times, and Mobile Press-Register, and the Mississippi Press in its neighbouring state — all ceased print publication as of Sunday, February 26. Circulation in the Alabama papers had fallen to the low 30,000s — a fraction of five years ago. 

Print circulation at the four newspapers had fallen significantly in the past five years.
Print circulation at the four newspapers had fallen significantly in the past five years.

Bates says he wants to move as many of those readers across to digital but won’t give a target.

It was a big call, but there was an inevitability to it given the evident success of the Advance news site AL.com over recent years and a steady decline in the size of the print audience. 

The group has other online titles under its umbrella, such as The Alabama Education Lab, This is Alabama, People of Alabama and the Birmingham, Huntsville, and Mobile editions of The Lede. The latter is a seven-day-a-week e-edition though not a facsimile newspaper for the section of the audience that still wants that curated edit of the news rather than a conventional Web site. The group has also pushed strongly into the newsletter trend with 20 different editions.

By the time the decision was taken, the economics were clear, according to Bates. He says digital revenue in the Alabama group rose 67% in the past five years.

“We look and say what is the business model for each of these products, whos the target audience, and whats the business model — always with an eye toward the fact that profit from print circulation was going away,” Bates said. “The print funded us for a long period and gave us a runway, but all along we’ve said that we’ve got to start running towards digital.”

Newsroom in progress shock

A big question for me was how the newsroom took the closure of the print editions. It seems to me it’s still often the case that while talking about the transition to digital and supposedly going “digital first,” many newsrooms are actually still geared to the timetable of print and especially to what makes it to the front page of tomorrow’s paper.

It seems at Alabama Media Group, that transition had already occurred rather than being driven by the final decision to abandon print. It has also reinvested savings from closing print operations in areas such as investigative journalism and campaign-style projects like its Education Lab, which works to promote improvement in Alabama primary education. 

It has expanded its editorial team to more than 100 people in the past five years.

The management process in the newsroom has been critical, and when Scott describes it, the planning sounds more familiar to a product team than an editorial team.

“We do a rolling annual roadmap for our newsroom,” she told me. “We have goals each year. We do a statement of what we want to do for the year ahead. We talk about what are the projects and things that we know are coming out for the next year and a half. And we set priorities because if you dont, the daily news cycle will eat you.”

She speaks warmly of veterans on the editorial team who made themselves relevant anew by focusing on their mission to inform readers no matter what medium they were working in, whether learning about podcasting or newsletters.

She credits one 30-year print veteran of developing “product thinking,” allowing her to get over the loss of print to focus on what Scott calls “Big-J journalism — the work we do that takes apart Alabama and puts it back together better than we found it. It’s the stories that change lives, laws, and minds in the state.”

Alabama Media Group has also kind of written the textbook on how to grow products to one side of its core new business, whether that is a production house for native advertising, events, or other assets of Advance, such as its movie production arm.

We will come back to this transition from newsprint to digital in further Newsroom Initiative newsletters. Perhaps you’d like to explain how your publication or newsroom is dealing with it, including the question of nostalgia and the sense of loss, or whether it’s full-steam ahead. Let me know at peter.bale@inma.org or the Newsroom Initiative Slack community. 

Recommended follow

Benedict Evans @benedictevans is a sagacious analyst of technology and media trends, often ahead of the herd and sometimes taking divergent views. His newsletter is a must-read if you want to stay on top of fundamental developments, and his podcast is profane and informative.

His latest big report, The New Gatekeepers, is an important perspective on who is really winning the battle for consumers, attention, and advertising. It may not be who you think.

Talk back

Tell me what you want to read and what you like or dont like in this newsletter, please. E-mail: peter.bale@inma.org. There’s also an INMA Newsroom Initiative Slack channel. 

About this newsletter

Today’s newsletter is written by Peter Bale, based in New Zealand and the U.K. and lead for the INMA Newsletter Initiative. Peter will share research, case studies, and thought leadership on the topic of global newsrooms.

This newsletter is a public face of the Newsroom Initiative by INMA, outlined here. E-mail Peter at peter.bale@inma.org or newsroom@inma.org with thoughts, suggestions, and questions.

About Peter Bale

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