Taking Alabama News Online

Today, many of Alabama’s largest print newspapers are shutting down their presses and not printing a Monday or even a Tuesday paper.  The Birmingham News, The Huntsville Times and the Mobile Press-Register aren’t being delivered to anyone’s homes this morning because their parent company, Alabama Media Group have made the collective decision for them to prioritize online distribution as opposed to putting yesterday’s news on dead trees.  They are now only printing three times a week and are instead putting their day to day reporting on the AL.com mothership that encompasses all three papers.

In theory, I think this is a fantastic idea.  Print media simply can not keep up with the real time nature that online journalism provides.  Reporting the news as it happens has much more value than delivering it in the morning the next day without any interactivity.  But I’m not so sure that Alabama Media Group is playing it right.  I think the paper in my current town, The Huntsville Times, is home to fantastic reporting and genuinely great and friendly people.  But I fear that the “from the top” decisions that have been made for them could devalue what they’ve spent a long time building.

Here are some of the problems I see with the transition:

Hyperlocal: I talked about this early on in the year, and I still hold the claims that I made in that post.  To summarize if you don’t want to go through that, hyperlocalization is the concept of journalism at a microscopically local level.  It drills news down to a neighborhood basis that reports what is directly relevant to someone in their specific area. Now that our Alabama newspapers have focused their attention online, it should be much easier for them to do this.  On the first day of the transition, I was disappointed to see that AL.com has no feature that intuitively allows this from their home page.  You can select a town like Birmingham or Huntsville, but this does little to really make that reporting uniquely and directly relevant.

What I would like to have seen is something that lets me get only the local news from my small neighboring towns like Harvest or Monrovia. The customization allowed for by an online platform should make this easier, but it hasn’t happened yet.  Here’s hoping this is in the cards for the future.

Interactivity: First, let’s talk about the elephant in the room.  AL.com is home to some of the most racist, vile, disgusting, and offensive comments available anywhere online.  Shifting focus online means that the people behind these comments have more of a spotlight.  There’s no way to spin it, this is a terrible thing.  I’ve noticed that moderation has become better, but anytime there is a controversial topic in the news, the rats come crawling.

Aside from that, interactivity has to be implemented better.  Now that reporters are more than just a name in the dateline, I would really like to see them become more active in comments and in social media.  They also have to stop thinking of journalism as a “we speak, you listen” affair.  By nature of being online, it’s now an ongoing conversation.  Journalists have to think of themselves as much more than writers, they have to be media personalities that audiences can identify as authoritative in their beats.  There are some Huntsville Times and AL.com writers who have done this well, but it doesn’t appear to be a standard of any sort.

Education: This morning, I was surprised to find that some sort of paper was delivered to my house.  But it wasn’t a paper, it was a large guide instructing people how to use the digital functionality provided by Alabama Media Group.  The first problem is that you have to explain it.  Yes, it’s true that not printing a paper and going online is a huge change and it takes a while to get people to warm up to that.  But you shouldn’t have to put a large guide in their hands that shows them what to do and how to do it once you’ve made that switch.  It should be intuitive and feel like second nature, not like you have to go through a seminar to know what’s available or how to use it.

Apps: All Alabama Media Group papers have recently released apps for Android and iPhone, but unfortunately they aren’t good.  Below is the App Store rating for the main app as of the morning of the big switch on October 1st:

That’s not going to cut it.  Many reviews complain that the app continually crashes and has severe user interface problems.  Apps are currently the economy of mass digital communication, and it doesn’t appear that Alabama Media Group is ready to play there yet.  Sure, you can give it a great PR spin and say things like “we’re learning” or “we know there’s work to do,” but the app has been available and regularly reworked for almost a year now.  You can’t learn for that long and expect to survive in an area in which other news providers have great platforms already out there.

Additionally, if you look at the front page of AL.com, there’s no way to even know that an app is available at first glance.  There are some small links in the footer, but no App Store or Android buttons advertising their availability.  This is typically common now, so I’m unsure why this wasn’t a high priority on day one.

Neglect of Rural Alabama: Perhaps I’m a little biased because I’m from Small Town Alabama, but this is still the most egregious offense to me.  Much of Alabama still does not have reliable broadband access.  And also, owning a tablet or smartphone is not an economic option for many of the people still in Rural Alabama.  These aren’t just elderly and retired citizens, but also those that are socio-economically disadvantaged.  If you haven’t ever been more than a half hour drive from the bubble of a metro area in Alabama, do it and you’ll quickly see what I’m talking about.

The online shift takes many of these people out of the equation.  They don’t have reliable access, many not even have a device to access anything with, and likely relied on a daily printed paper as one of the few sources of information to the outside world.  Perhaps this isn’t a viable market for those within Alabama Media Group anymore, and they decided to cut their losses.  If so, it opens up a market for localized papers that hopefully can fill the hyperlocal void that hasn’t yet been filled.

In summary, I do think that the individual papers within Alabama Media Group are doing a fantastic job.  In my media market in North Alabama, I think we’re spoiled with the hard working and well connected people at The Huntsville Times.  The new challenges I partially listed are at their feet, but weren’t laid out by them.  Instead, it’s Alabama Media Group who are creating challenges for themselves.  I do really applaud them for making a bold and forward thinking move, however I don’t think they’ve gotten off on the right foot.

Alabama is home to the best storytellers in the world.  Regardless of the platform, this will always be true.  I’m really excited that our newspapers are now doing it in an area that allows for much more, and I hope  Alabama Media Group strengthens and tightens their focus in order to take advantage of it.

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