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

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.

9 Responses

  1. “Birmingham lost a newspaper in 2005 when The Birmingham News Company decided to shut down The Birmingham Post-Herald.”

    I’d like to point out that Scripps Howard actually closed its paper the Post-Herald though you could make the argument that when the two papers switched delivery schedules in early 90s, the News to morning, that the switch eventually killed the P-H.

    Pretty much you put my thoughts on the subject down. Nicely worded.

  2. Thanks for that clarification; I misunderstood the article I read on the history.

  3. No, actually you probably have it more correct than my memory. Chris tells me that the News bought out the PH JOA which would have ended PH. My recall though is that Scripps was selling the paper. I’d asked my PH friends but it’s still a raw subject for some.

  4. A few comments as a former Post-Herald employee (and former News employee) …

    1. “Birmingham lost a newspaper in 2005 when The Birmingham News Company decided to shut down The Birmingham Post-Herald.” This is factually incorrect. As with other joint-operating agreements (JOAs) around the country, the News terminated the JOA. E.W. Scripps, owner of the Post-Herald, decided to close the newspaper and sell assets to the News.

    2. Mrs. Tutor wrote: “You could make the argument that when the two papers switched delivery schedules in early 90s, the News to morning, that the switch eventually killed the P-H.” The cycle switch hurt the Post-Herald, but in my opinion, the Post-Herald was done in by its own mismanagement: failure to market itself; routine cuts in budget, personnel and newspaper size; failure to adapt to readers’ changing habits. All things you pointed out above in your post.

    3. “And the point about the origin of news is very valid.” To you, it’s very valid. To millions of casual readers, it’s of no consequence. That’s not saying it shouldn’t be, but it’s simply not.

    4. Some people on Twitter have commented that the “This is our story” slogan comes off as negative. No slogan will win over everyone, but “This is *your* story” might have worked better.

    5. I think (and I’m just guessing here) is that you believe the News should invest in improving its *print* product. I believe that the News should invest in adapting to seismic changes in the way people consume information. You frame it as a lost cause because newspapers can’t win against 24-hour cable news and Internet. The way I would frame it is that the News has in-depth knowledge of a community. What’s the best way to get it out there and monetize it? In 2011, it’s not by printing once a day and serving an audience that’s mainly over 65.

    That being said, I don’t believe the News has the resources or the willpower to adapt through better training, retention, hiring and innovation. And that is truly a shame.

  5. I, originally, wasn’t going to comment on this, mainly, because my thoughts about it were so cynical that they made even me uncomfortable, but, I wanted to touch on one part of the previous comment.

    David and I share a lot of the same ideas about the newspaper industry, what’s wrong with it and what it might take to fix it. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I think when he refers to the investment needed to improve the “newspaper” both specifically the News and the industry in general, it’s not just the narrow vision of creating a better ink and paper product. But, rather, you use the ink and paper product as a basis for improving your entire operation.

    You keep hearing the word “community” battered around, especially in the larger newspaper chains, but they wouldn’t know a community if it came up and bit them in the ass. They go through people so fast employees don’t get a chance to even memorize their zip code before they’re off to somewhere else. Papers like the News (and I know very little about it, specifically) like to think big on what they cover and how they cover and like to make broad, sweeping gestures and plans such as this, but they forget that where they need to be focusing in order to get readership, whether it’s print, on-line or written in the sky, is the smaller community picture. Even in the big city.

    I was exclusively a “small town” newspaper man for my 16 years. But, the most important lesson I ever learned was from Rubye Del Harden who said the best way to get people to read your paper was for them to be able to see their faces in its pages. And she didn’t mean just literally.

    For the “newspaper” business, and I’m talking every aspect of publishing, not just paper and ink, to not only survive but thrive, it just isn’t a matter of catching up with what gadget they get their information on. It went through that in the 80s and 90s and failed miserably. It’s about forming a bond with the community it serves. It’s abut having people who are around long enough to create a bond with the community in which they work as well. Getting to know a place, whether it’s 7,000 people or 7 million.

    The daily newspaper business should sit down and take a look at the weekly newspaper business. Not the big chain weeklies which are making the same mistakes as the dailies, but the smaller, local chains and those few independent and family owned papers that are still out there. The small, family-owned weekly here in my home town will be up and running long after the Birmingham News and dailies like it have bitten the dust. Why? Because when people pick up the paper, they see THEIR newspaper, THEIR community, not just a corporate idea of what they should see of their community. And it’s not reading about who came over to Miss Betty’s house for Sunday dinner, it’s about the fact that every person who works at that newspaper office knows how important it is for the “newspaper” to hold a mirror up to the community.

    The mirror for Birmingham may be a little bigger than the one needed for Water Valley, but the idea is the same. Sadly, I think there are too many people in the business today who have forgotten this, or, worse, who never learned it in the first place.

  6. Great insights, jgurner. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Wade — Thanks much for the feedback! Some thoughts:

    1) Thanks for the clarification. I read up on the history, but misunderstood.

    3) I still think the concern that newspapers drying up will cause online news to dry up is a valid issue even if most people don’t understand it. And, like they say in the story, I think it’s an important thing for more people to understand.

    4) Interesting point. I hadn’t thought of the “us” versus “you” angle; I read “our” as inclusive of the community, i.e., this is the story that we all, community and newspaper, share. And, like I said, I think it’s important to have a strong sense that the paper is deeply connected to the community. However, if the slogan is seen as being exclusive, it would have the opposite effect.

    5) I’ll admit, I have a bias here; when I left the industry, the paper I was at not only didn’t have a Web site, we didn’t even have internet in the office. (I’m really not as old as that makes me sound.) So I do tend to think in dead-tree centric terms. That said, I’m not necessarily as concerned in investing in the print product so much as investing in what I think makes it unique — reporters on the streets in town. My issue isn’t with using electronic medium or a staggered online publication schedule, it’s with trying to boost the national news package to compete with national news sources instead of focusing on the local, and on focusing on speed when competing with television stations instead of focusing on depth. That CAN be done in print, and, right now, in my opinion, the print product still offers the best package to fully showcase the depth of what the paper offers, but it can increasingly be done in other ways, as well.

    Joe — Exactly.

  8. Interesting discussion going on here, guys. Makes me sad, really, but I can’t argue with it.

    One thing that has hurt me so much in the regional newspaper business has been what’s happened with the Daily Journal in Tupelo. When I worked there, I loved it. It was a true regional newspaper, focusing on its 15 counties first, then the nation, then the world, and not trying to be anything else.
    When it metastasized the first time, I thought it might actually be for the best all around. I thought that having the Journal, with that “community service first” mindset in the driver’s seat, might actually help save some of the small weeklies that were struggling with survival.

    But something went badly wrong at the Journal. All the people who truly cared about it, about the newspaper and its role within a community, either died or left. And the financial side won.

    Now it metastasizing over and over, gobbling up weeklies, stripping them of their own (sometimes long and storied) identities, and turning them into a bunch of Journal Mini-Mes with little personality left.

    It hurts my soul.

    I love the local newspaper business. Have for years. And I loved the Journal with a purity that was probably silly but dammit, I believed in it. Now it’s just another profit center. And sure, the profit’s still going back into the community rather than just lining some individual’s pockets, but still. Still.

    I miss the Journal. And now, in my old hometown, I miss the Advertiser, which is now the Monroe Journal. And no, it’s not the same.

    Wow. I didn’t expect all that to come out. I believe you may have touched a sore spot. 😉 Keep it up.

  9. It seems to have become a competition in Mississippi, and particularly between Journal Publishing and the Emmerich group.

    Both are growing pretty quickly, and both seem determined to buy up papers before other people can, either outside groups or the other.

    I suspect that’s not entirely the case; I think there are some cases where they’ve split up purchases that came up at the same time. And, to be fair, they’re probably saving some papers that might otherwise disappear.

    But, at the same time, I think the rapid expansion is causing some Wal-Martization of the papers they’re buying — making the franchises a bit more generic in the process of expansion.

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