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For 3 big Alabama newspapers, the presses are grinding to a halt

A copy of <em>The Birmingham News</em> rests on a rack at the downtown public library in Birmingham, Ala. The company that runs the newspaper and two sister papers says it will permanently stop print publication after Feb. 26, 2023.
Debbie Elliott/NPR
A copy of The Birmingham News rests on a rack at the downtown public library in Birmingham, Ala. The company that runs the newspaper and two sister papers says it will permanently stop print publication after Feb. 26, 2023.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — It's gotten harder to find a sidewalk newspaper box to buy a copy of The Birmingham News, but you can find the latest edition at the public library downtown.

Sherrel Wheeler Stewart pulls a food stain-splattered copy hanging from a spindle.

"A lot of people read it," she says. "Look at this spaghetti sauce."

Stewart is a former editor and reporter who spent nearly two decades working for the newspaper, and she has fond memories.

"The front page used to be that place that was, I guess you could say, sacred," Stewart says. "To pick up that Sunday paper, open it up and see your name at the top ... it was just special."

But holding that Sunday paper will soon be a bygone thing.

Big loss for Birmingham

The Alabama Media Group says that after Feb. 26, 2023, one last Sunday, it will permanently stop the presses for The Birmingham News, The Huntsville Times and Mobile's Press-Register. The company had already curtailed publishing from daily to three times a week in 2012 — part of a restructuring by parent company Advance Publications that also affected New Orleans' The Times-Picayune.

Stewart says the move to digital only is a loss for a metropolitan city like Birmingham and the nearly 200,000 people who live there.

"It's just not a good thing," she says. "Birmingham is on the move. I think a city like Birmingham needs a printed newspaper."

She might get sad about the end of the print era, but even she acknowledges that she mostly gets her news these days from the papers' digital site, AL.com.

Newspaper executives say that's where the audience is.

"In an effort to try to deliver more news to more folks and follow where people were going, we've made the decision to stop printing next year," says Alabama Media Group President Tom Bates.

The numbers bear it out. A decade ago, Bates says, the combined daily circulation for the Birmingham News, Huntsville Times and Press-Register was about 260,000. Now it's down to roughly 30,000, he says, compared with AL.com's daily reach of about a million people a day.

"The growth on the digital side for us has been extraordinary," Bates says. "If our job is to get out important stories, we need to get them out the way that people want to receive them. ... Our goal is to do more journalism, not less."

The shift means closing a printing facility in Mobile and the loss of a little more than 100 jobs, mostly in production, circulation and advertising. No newsroom cuts are expected, says Kelly Ann Scott, the editor in chief and vice president of content for Alabama Media Group. She plans to add to investigative teams and other areas of focus.

"As we've evolved with our audiences to tell stories in different ways and different platforms, we've added people in different directions," Scott says. For example, videographers and podcasters. "We've definitely diversified the types of positions we have in our room."

Print-to-digital has been a long time coming

Longtime local journalists saw this day coming.

"I mourned the newspaper a dozen years ago, frankly," says John Archibald, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for AL.com who has been with The Birmingham News since 1986.

Archibald says he hardly ever sees the print edition anymore. It might sound like heresy for an old-school newspaperman, but he says that's the future of journalism.

"While I have nostalgia for print and I love the newspaper, it's not the paper that I love. It's the notion of going out and covering news that people need to know," he says. "We are all in this industry learning how to do that in this environment."

What's happening in Alabama is where local papers have been headed for a while, says Penny Muse Abernathy, a visiting professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

"It is part of a whole progression as we've seen the diminishment of daily newspapers over the past two decades," she says.

Abernathy is the author of annual reports on the state of local news around the nation. The 2022 report found that at least 1 in 5 of the 100 largest newspapers in the U.S. are now publishing two or fewer times a week in a print edition.

Retired political scientist Natalie Davis and a group of others gathered at the lunch buffet at the American Legion in Homewood, Ala. She worries about what will be lost when <em>The Birmingham News</em> is gone.
/ Debbie Elliott/NPR
Debbie Elliott/NPR
Retired political scientist Natalie Davis and a group of others gathered at the lunch buffet at the American Legion in Homewood, Ala. She worries about what will be lost when The Birmingham News is gone.

Newspapers as a binding force in the community

As papers disappear, Abernathy says the question is whether digital publications can play the same role in civic life that newspapers traditionally have.

"The best, strongest, most committed daily newspapers really help bind together a state," Abernathy says. "And I think that's really what you're dealing with is what is the relevance of these papers in a digital age? Who is setting the agenda for the topics that will be discussed, debated and decided on?"

Alabamians have been reading The Birmingham News since the late 1800s.

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin says it will be an adjustment no longer having a print edition.

"It will be a shock to the system," he says.

Woodfin, 41, is a digital-first news consumer, but he knows not everyone in this city is wired that way.

"We embrace the innovation," he says. "I would just hope we still find a way to communicate with every generation."

He cites his stepmother, Yvonne Fluker Woodfin. She's been steadfastly clipping and collecting newspaper articles about Woodfin's political career. When he calls her up to get her take on the end of the papers' print publication, she sounds concerned.

"Well, I think it will make a lot of people not be aware of what's going on," Mrs. Woodfin says.

Digital access is a concern. During the pandemic, public schools here found that about 1 in 5 families had limited or no internet access.

Even so, you don't see newspapers like you used to scattered around tables at the coffee shop or local lunch counter.

Some longtime Birmingham News subscribers talked about the paper's end during a recent lunch buffet at the American Legion in Homewood, Ala., a close-in suburb in Birmingham's metro area.

"We call this our government in exile table back here," says Al LaPierre, a former executive director of the Alabama Democratic Party. He's sitting at a long table of politicos who get together here every Wednesday.

LaPierre says he's really not surprised that the newspaper's days are numbered.

"I noticed a few years ago even — you bought the Birmingham News on a Saturday or Sunday and then you'd seen it on their media site the day before, so why get it?"

One of the joys of my life is reading the newspaper.

But across the table, retired political scientist Natalie Davis defends the paper. She still subscribes, and worries about what will be lost when it's gone.

"The newspaper is probably the only thing left where if everybody reads the story in the same way and gets the same facts then you have a baseline, and that will go away," Davis says. "That's what newspapers do."

Retired veterinarian Chandler McGee stops by the table, and says the paper has been a lifeline.

"I'm 84 years old," he says. "One of the joys of my life is reading the newspaper."

He lives in a retirement community where he says few residents get news online.

"I think it means, especially for senior citizens, that we're going to be cut off from what's happening in our city and our state," McGee says.

Alabama Media Group executives say that's not their intent, and believe that everyone in the three metro areas they serve should have a way to access their free content online, whether on a computer or smart phone.

AL.com columnist Roy Johnson came to Birmingham in 2015. He'd been a longtime sports writer at Sports Illustrated and The New York Times, and various national magazines, some of which are no longer in publication.

"I really have lived the life that represents the evolution of the media industry," Johnson says.

He says the distribution method might have changed, but the mission remains.

"One of these days, we're going to have to explain to our grandkids why we put words on a piece of paper, balled it up, rolled it up, put it in a car or truck, drove it around and threw it on people's driveway. And that's how they got their news," he says. "It'll be like the Pony Express to us."

Johnson's advice to longtime print readers: This is the digital age, so come along.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.