Saving the Newspaper: “This Is Our Story”


The Birmingham News Multimedia Co.'s employees gathered Thursday, Jan. 6, 2011, to celebrate the launch of a new print, broadcast and online marketing campaign. (Photo by Joe Songer-The Birmingham News)

“This is our story.”

With those four words, The Birmingham News will launch an aggressive branding and marketing campaign on Sunday using advertisements in print and online, television commercials and billboards, the company announced.

“For too long, we have allowed other voices to shape public perception about us and those public perceptions are inaccurate — the false perception that we’re dying; the false perception people don’t read us; the false perception that we are no longer relevant,” News Publisher Pam Siddall told employees Thursday.

“We’ve got to go on offense,” she said. “We have an amazing story to tell about us to go along with the amazing stories we tell about others every day.”

— The Birmingham News, via al.com

Ever since I went to the Mississippi Press Association convention back in summer of 2009, any time anyone in the newspaper industry talks positively about the health of the newspaper industry, it reminds me of the “I’m not dead yet” scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. When the newspaper industry was truly healthy, or, more accurately, when it was as healthy as it was even when I was a part of it, no one felt the need to discuss that at length. We talked about things like covering the news.

That said, I like The Birmingham News slogan. A lot.

As a former newspaperman, it’s sad to me watching the decline of the industry. Sadder still because the newspaper industry is dying at its own hands. Not since the music recording industry in the early Naughties has there been an industry so devoted to doing itself in. The largest part of that, and we’ll get back to this in a minute, is failing to understand that quality profits come from a quality product.

But the other half of it is that newspapers have spent the latest 30 years fighting a war by continually investing their efforts in battles they can’t win, instead of those they can. Thirty years ago, the enemy was television, and increasingly cable in particular. Since then, the internet has joined the fray, but fighting with many of the same weapons as cable news — immediacy and ubiquity. Cable and the internet can put you in Baghdad as something is happening. Your local newspaper can’t. Period. End of story.

And yet newspapers try to fight the war by somehow figuring out how they can emulate that with local reporters and dead trees. It’s a foolhardy battle, and one that was lost before it began.

Instead, newspapers should be fighting the battles that they can win; they should be investing in the areas that are as one-sided in their favor as those other areas are for new media. The newspaper’s strength isn’t Baghdad, unless that newspaper is actually in Baghdad. The local newspaper’s strength is in-depth coverage of its community. Nobody sticks TV news or the internet to their refrigerator.

And so many newspapers just don’t understand that. That fact was driven home to me heavily a few years ago by one of the newspapers where I used to work, The Times-Post in Houston, Miss. The newspaper was bought out by a chain that operates several Mississippi newspapers, Journal Publishing, and renamed The Chickasaw Journal, after the chain’s flagship paper, The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. The Times-Post name had heritage in that community going back, if I recall, over a century; in my opinion, it belonged more to the people than to the publisher. Changing the name demonstrated where the local community and its heritage ranked in Journal Publishing’s priorities.

The Birmingham News’ new slogan hits the proper focus exactly. This is the battle they can win — Tell the story of their community, better than anyone else.

And that, I like.

And the point about the origin of news is very valid. Every day, millions of people read unknowingly newspaper stories without picking up a newspaper when they go to Google or Yahoo! for news. Much of what we think of as internet news really starts with the newspaper. And the irony is, if internet news ever kills newspapers, internet news will die the next day.

But I have to take exception with the part about perceptions. Yes, it’s good to create positive perceptions about the industry. But you can’t ignore the fact that the negative perceptions about the newspaper industry also start with the newspaper industry. Birmingham lost a newspaper in 2005 when The Birmingham News Company decided to shut down The Birmingham Post-Herald. It would be understandable for Birmingham citizens to see that as a negative reflection on the state of the industry. Newspaper across the country are laying off reporters en masse. Again, it’s understandable if that creates negative perceptions.

Newspaper chain owners are focused on profits, and, as the industry changes, are increasingly working to generate those by improving their margins by cutting costs. If a newspaper makes the same amount of money, but has fewer reporters, it’s more profitable. Better for business.

The problem is, cutting costs almost invariably means cutting the quality of the product. You simply cannot cover the local community as well if you have fewer reporters on the streets in that community. And then the owners want to charge subscribers the same amount for a lower-quality product, and are surprised when circulation drops, and then want to charge advertisers the same amount to put their message in front of fewer eyes, and are surprised when ad revenues drop.

The new slogan, the new focus for The Birmingham News is a step in the right direction. If they mean it, it’s a huge step.

If they’re just throwing a huge champagne party for poorly-paid staffers, then it’s a show of bad priorities. But I’m going to be optimistic.

But the fate of the newspaper industry will ultimately come down to one thing, and one thing only.

Apple is now the second-largest company in the world. In the mid-1990s, it was on deathwatch, just as the newspaper industry is today. How did it go from being almost dead to being on top of the world? It did what it does well better. Even during the leanest times, Apple continued to work to improve its products. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, he stopped the company from trying to figure out how to make products cheaper to increase margins, and focused on creating products people would actually want to buy. He stopped investing in losing battles, and started fighting winning ones.

That’s the decision now facing the newspaper industry. The industry can continue the way it is going, seeking the immediate gratification of maximized profits from lower costs. Or it can stem the tide, and actually invest in producing something people want to buy. Quality profits from quality products. The life or death of the industry depends on which of those two options they choose.

But, in the meantime, there’s not much blood left in the stone.