By MIKE HERNDON
After 23 years in journalism, most of which was spent as a sportswriter, I’ve been out of the game for nearly eight years now. And I still occasionally get the question: “Do you miss it?”
The answer is the same now as it was when I left: I miss how it used to be. I don’t miss how it is now.
When I left AL.com and the Mobile Press-Register in 2015, we were increasingly aggregating stories from other sources instead of going out and and covering or developing them ourselves. Where we once had local leadership and at least felt like we had some input into decisions that affected our beats, editorial oversight had been shifted four hours away and was not particularly interested in input on anything. Where we once were a team of professionals working toward a common goal – putting out the best paper we could – it felt like we’d become a collection of competitors pitted against each other for page views, each protecting his or her own little patch of turf, watching the analytics in real time on our laptops.
So no, I don’t miss that.
Last weekend, my former employer printed its final newspaper. The Press-Register and its sister papers, the Birmingham News and Huntsville Times, will now be online only on their web platform, AL.com. On Saturday night, many of my former colleagues met at the Press-Register’s not-so-old building on Water Street to watch the presses run for the final time. I’ve heard from some who were there that it felt like a wake. I was out of town at my daughter’s final competitive swim meet, which sort of felt that way too.
In both cases, it was sad, but also inevitable. Athletes can’t keep doing what they do forever, and once the internet came along we should have realized the eulogies were already being written for newspapers. I will admit to being as slow on the uptake on this as anyone – or nearly anyone, since I never called it a “fad” like some people I won’t mention. Once the Press-Register, News and Times went to three days a week and shifted their focus to “digital first” in 2012, the end of the paper product for all three was just a matter of time.
Will I miss it? I’ll miss how it used to be. I won’t miss how it is now.
I haven’t subscribed to the Press-Register since we were told in 2012 from a circulation call center somewhere out west that our employee discounts would no longer be honored. If the paper product was becoming an afterthought, why should I continue paying for it? But I still see it occasionally in the grocery store or the barber shop. Earlier this week, I thumbed through the Living section while waiting for a long overdue haircut and nearly every story was from the Washington Post, asking me to care about a meteorologist in D.C. or some supposed national trend that had only scant relevance locally.
Former Birmingham News sports editor Tom Arenberg, whom I feel like I’ve gotten to know over social media better than I did when we worked in the same chain, isn’t mourning the papers’ death, either. Digital platforms are a far better means of delivery, he wrote in an insightful post on his blog, and in terms of efficiency, that point can’t really be argued. You can reach more people with more information at a fraction of the cost.
But that information, that content, has to come from somewhere. You either generate it with your own manpower, or you pull it from somewhere else.
In the early years of the transformation, AL.com generated what it could and pulled the rest from any and everywhere and the result was way too much. Its site was like a firehose, spraying as much information as possible at its audience in the same rolling queue, hoping that something would stick and feed the page-view beast. It looks far better structured and curated now than it was when I left, although some of its content is now behind paywalls.
Call me a dinosaur, though, but I prefer reading a paper, just like so many of the people I see around town who tell me the same thing, all of them over 40. I still check out books from the library, too, so take that for whatever you will. I’m reminded of my antiquity every semester in my newswriting class at the University of South Alabama, when I ask how many students read an actual newspaper and no hands are raised. Occasionally there will be one, but it’s always someone who writes for the campus paper.
We grew up with newspapers. They grew up with the internet. It’s as simple as that.
Newspapers won’t all die out tomorrow. Major outlets like NYT and WaPo may soldier on for a while, and I can see a need for small-town weeklies in rural communities for several years to come. But as broadband access improves and smaller outlets are bought out by larger chains, there are going to be fewer and fewer of them. And, eventually, probably none.
That’s probably why, if the word I hear is accurate, my former employer is just going to scrap a press that was brand new and state of the art around the time my oldest daughter was born, and not even bother trying to sell it.
The real mourning for journalism in Mobile, Birmingham and Huntsville should have been done a decade ago, when the majority of each of those once-great newsrooms was thrown from the ship and set adrift. There are still talented journalists doing good and important work in each of those cities, and I will continue reading that work in some form, but there are far fewer of them. The model, as with so many other bottom-line businesses, has become doing more with less.
But that’s a lie. What you get with less is less.
Categories: Mystery Punch
I miss the way it used to be, too. Back when I left it in 1993. I recall hearing from friends still at the paper that they weren’t allowed to be on Facebook during work hours. That’s when I knew leadership didn’t have a clue what was ahead.
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