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.

Smorgasbord* of Awesome!

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how I had bought an original Arlo & Janis comic strip. Not long afterwards, I mentioned that to my counselor, Devry Coghlan (in passing, not seeking help for it, thankyouverymuch). And she said that she and her husband had one as well. Her husband is Huntsville Times managing editor Curtis Coghlan, who spent a fair bit of his career in Mississippi, where he got to know A&J artist Jimmy Johnson.

So last week, Johnson starting posting on his web site the strips he drew for a comic he pitched unsuccessfully, Lost Key. And with one of the strips, he wrote this:

Yes, I misspelled Mr. Buffett’s surname. I blame my old friend Curtis for that. My first serious exposure to Jimmy Buffett’s music was from a collection of cassettes Curtis copied for me from his vinyl albums. In the process of labeling the cassettes, Curtis misspelled “Buffett,” and I went on to compound the error. Not only did I listen to Jimmy’s music without paying, I didn’t even spell his name right. I believe I subsequently have purchased enough legitimate Jimmy Buffett music and merchandise to atone.

Now, Curtis isn’t that unusual a name, but, even so, I was curious enough to check with Google, and, sure enough, found this older post on Johnson’s site:

Speaking of music. Yes, yes, yes, I know. I misspelled Jimmy Buffett’s name. At the time this was drawn, 1985, my entire collection of Buffett music consisted of cassettes copied from the albums of my friend, Curtis Coghlan. Somebody, I honestly can’t say whom, wrote the name down incorrectly on the blank cassette labels. So, that’s how I thought it was spelled. That’s my excuse, anyway. I don’t know the excuse of my editors at United Media. For what it’s worth, Mr. Buffett has the distinction of being the first musician ever mentioned in the strip.

My counselor’s husband is the guy that introduced Jimmy Johnson to Jimmy Buffett’s music. That’s kinda cool. Like meeting the brother of that girl that told Abraham Lincoln he should grow a beard.

*See what I did there? Since a smorgasbord is like a “buffet”? I mention this only so that I can tell my favorite buffet-synonym story, in which a much much younger David went to some buffet restaurant that called their buffet by a term I’d not heard before, and so I unknowingly misunderstood it as a word I was familiar with. It says something about young Dave that I misinterpreted “Country Sideboard” as “Country Cyborg,” which I picture as a mix between The Six Million Dollar Man and The Dukes of Hazzard.

Snakes Like Jazz

I have a Google alert said to notify me when new articles are posted that include my name, so I was kind of surprised yesterday to learn in this article informed me that there’s another David Hitt in the area of nearby Decatur, AL. And then I read the story, which was even better:

OAKVILLE— A 9½-foot python stretched along a country road in Lawrence County has folks wondering about their fate if they had met the creepy creature before it met its fate.
Shelby Scott Hembree lives nearby. She saw the snake when she stopped late Wednesday afternoon to assist a neighbor, David Hitt. She thought his pickup was having mechanical trouble.

“Come look what we found,” he and his passenger, Donald Miller hollered.

Let me just point out for the record that I would watch every episode of a television series about the author of Blue Like Jazz and I driving around the country in a pick-up truck looking for snakes.

Dying Is Easy; Comic Strips Are Hard

Dear The Huntsville Times,

You’ve no doubt heard by now that on October 3, the final strip of Cathy Guisewite’s comic “Cathy” will be published.

I would like to encourage you to make the most of the opportunity that this presents.

Looking at your daily edition comics page, one finds that there are 19 comics strip you publish (including the not-technically-a-strip single-panel Dennis The Menace).

The top strip on the page is Peanuts, which has been re-runs since the death of its creator, Charles Schulz. (Though, ironically, few if any of those re-runs have featured Rerun.)

Located near Peanuts on the page is For Better or For Worse, which has also been in re-runs since the retirement of its creator, Lynn Johnston.

Further, of the remaining 17 strips, I believe another six have continued beyond the death or retirement of their creators, with new writers rehashing the same jokes told over the last few decades — in the case of Blondie, the last eight decades, as of next month.

To your credit, it deserves mention that, I believe, three of the four comics The Times runs daily in locations other than the comics page are all fresh strips created by contemporary writers.

I encourage you to use the vacancy that Cathy creates to publish another deserving contemporary strip.

While living in Indianola, Miss., I had the opportunity to become friends with cartoonist Mark Pett, who actually published two syndicated cartoons, and to hear about the challenges faced by those trying to break in to the market. It’s unfortunate to me that so much current talent goes to waste in favor of cartoons written years ago.

Personally, I would endorse Jimmy Johnson’s Arlo & Janis, the best comic strip currently being written, but I’m not dead set on that.

I will say, however, if somehow this works out like Peanuts and FBOFW and ends up with Cathy re-runs continuing to take up space on the comics page, no offense, but I will cancel my subscription. I believe firmly in newspapers (the best e-reader out there), I believe firmly in subscribing to newspapers, and have encouraged fellow newspaper alums to continue subscribing to to their local papers even if they don’t read them just to support the industry. But if the industry is so moribund as to make a decision like that, it probably deserves to die. Just sayin’

Thank you for your consideration,


Hide Your Kids! Hide Your Wife!

OK, so, if you haven’t yet, watch the WAFF 48 television report about an apparent attempted rape at a housing project in Huntsville.

Now, I’ve never worked television; I don’t have a lot of respect for television news. I’ll be the first to admit, the interview with Antoine Dodson was more than a bit entertaining. But was it news? Really? Or was the entertainment value the only reason it was included? Should it have been?

But, then, I’ll have to be honest. During my newspaper days, if I’d gotten an interview like that, I would have been really tempted to use it, just because the quotes would be too good to pass up. Everybody in town would be talking about it the day the paper came out. There’s differences in presentation between newspaper and television, but is there a philosophical difference in using the interview between the two media? I would like to think that my using the quotes would have been somehow different, but it’s hard to explain exactly what it is.

Thankfully, WAFF was kind enough to share their philosophy on sharing the interview:

What!? Really? You had no idea that it would get this kind of attention? Not sure that Antoine wouldn’t have exactly the right perspective on that: “You are so dumb. You are really dumb. For real.” Were they seriously including the interview for any reason other than entertainment value? Or are they just trying to act like they were taking the high road?

Either way, watching the follow-up video leaves me devoid of any respect for the station. If they were including it because it was entertaining, they’re going way too far in taking the moral high ground in these piece. “Victims have the right to speak out”? Part of my wonders if they’re not trying to construct a rationalization to explain away their holding an underprivileged minority up for ridicule.

But more frightening is the possibility that they really believe this. I fought battles for the First Amendment too often to like hearing the word “censoring” thrown around lightly. Not airing someone’s opinions in a newscast is not censorship. WAFF has never interviewed me on air. Have I been censored? Or is it only censorship if you conduct an interview and don’t use it? Do they really use every minute of interview footage they record? Or are they censoring everything else?

I think the journalists have some responsibility to the truth. If, as a journalist, you’re covering a story and discover in the process of your investigation that “they’re rapin’ errbody out here” — wives, husbands, kids — then that’s the sort of thing you really should mention in your coverage. So either WAFF has been hugely neglectful in their coverage, or they are, in fact, not raping everybody in Lincoln Park. And if they’re not, then why do you interview footage saying they are? That’s not an opinion, it’s bad information. And, on the part of WAFF, a lie.

On the other hand, without WAFF making the decision to air the interview, this would not exist:

So, what do you think? Should the interview have been aired? Why or why not?

Sounds of Solons

This is the latest in my series of blog entries taking a fresh look at a variety of topics over the next year. I’ve set up a page on the blog explaining the project and linking to my entries. This week’s topic is “Your elected leaders.”

My brother is running for city council.

I mean, really, it would be pretty tough for me to write a post about elected leaders without mentioning that fact, wouldn’t it? Arguably a little lacking in the “full disclosure” department.

It’s been interesting for me because, to be honest, my level of knowledge about local politics is pretty minimal. I have some small amount of knowledge that was unavoidable, but, unlike the rest of my family, I just have no passion for it. I’m very much the Billy Carter/Roger Clinton of the Hitt clan, I’m afraid.

In my defense, however, I come by it honestly. That wasn’t always the case. A decade ago, I knew far more about local politics than I do now. Heck, a decade ago, I knew more about local politics than most of the local elected leaders.

During my newspaper days, it was my job to know. In a series of small towns in Mississippi, I got to know the local politicians, got to know the system, got to know the community. I not only knew how things worked, I knew why.

And that’s exactly the problem today. I grew up no different from my brothers, very much interested in politics, and even minored in political science in college.

But through my work in newspapers, I got a very different sort of political education. Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once famously said that all politics is local, but I would go one step further. All politics is personal.

I understood politics in the communities I covered because I knew the people involved. Well. I knew where they lived. I knew where they’d worked. I knew who their families were. I knew who supported them financially, and who those people’s families were. And I knew how all of those things came together to define how the political system in the community worked.

Trying to follow local politics now is like listening to Beethoven on a xylophone. The basic information is there, but so stripped down of its full richness as to make it no longer the same thing. I can read in The Huntsville Times about the city council, but I don’t understand in the same way. I don’t know these people. I don’t know why they really do what they do. I don’t know who they are beholden to, and what those people’s interests are. And as a result, anything I read seems so superficial as to be pointless.

But now, there’s a chance that, depending on how things go in August, politics becomes personal again.

Could be interesting.

Not My Type …

… but I wish it was.