North Jefferson News, Gardendale, AL

October 9, 2012

Robert Carter: Empty space, and a fear of the future

By Robert Carter
North Jefferson News

COMMENTARY — Fair warning: This sports column has very little to do with sports this week.

Last Monday, I walked out my front door and turned to my right.

A space that is normally occupied by a rolled-up newspaper had a small booklet, purporting to show readers how to use a website.

Tuesday, that space was totally empty.

My first instinct was to call the delivery guy. He rarely slips up, but it does happen.

Then I remembered what day it was, and my heart sank a bit.

Monday was the first day in more than a century that “The Three Sisters” — The Press-Register in Mobile, The Huntsville Times and, locally, The Birmingham News — did not publish a daily edition. All three, along with The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, went to a Wednesday-Friday-Sunday printing schedule this week, making those four cities the first major metro areas in the United States to not be served by a daily paper. More will follow later this year, as their parent company shifts its emphasis from print to digital.

In this business, we knew this day was coming. Few thought it would come this soon, be this drastic a change and happen here first. But it has.

I mentioned this to a local coach a few days ago, and he was astonished. “I would think you would be glad, since you guys compete with Birmingham!” he exclaimed.

Strictly speaking, he was correct. We strive to get much of the same news coverage, and with the advent of the Internet, we also trying to beat each other with the news. The Big N has much more manpower, of course, and usually beats our two-person editorial staff to the draw — but not nearly as often it used to, which says a lot about their situation.

Community papers such as the NJN are faring better, relatively speaking, because we often provide closer-to-home news that the big-city operations miss. That’s typical across the country. Even so, we aren’t immune to the movement of our industry, which is why you’ll find The Ol’ Sports Editor covering an accident scene or a council meeting these days.

Competitor or not, I hate to see what’s happening downtown. That’s partly because I spent a portion of my career there, and still have a number of friends working there, though that number is far fewer this week. Some of them called me looking for work when the word got out about the cutbacks at The News — I wish we could have hired them all, as they’d make a heck of a staff. Many who remain are uneasy, to say the least.

The Birmingham News was one of those papers that every up-and-coming reporter wanted to work for. Its staff did not flinch from covering the tough stories, and it won two Pulitzer Prizes. I ended up there in part because I actually beat them on a story while I was the managing editor of a short-lived weekly newspaper in Hoover.

But the guy who hired me saw it all coming. About a year after I came on board, prep sports editor Ron Ingram left after almost 25 years with The Big N to work for the Alabama High School Athletic Association. His parting words: “Boys, big-city papers are dying. If something better comes along, even if it’s a smaller paper, take it while you can.”

I did. So did one of my colleagues, who is now my counterpart at the Shelby County Reporter. Now we look like smart guys, if only for a moment.

The newspaper world is moving toward digital at a rapid pace, and as a former computer programmer, I actually like the neat things we can do online. The problem is that a lot of people will lose their jobs as the transition is made, simply because there is no longer a dead-tree edition to print and distribute. The ad revenues are not enough to make digital profitable yet, though that is changing as we wrap our collective minds around that thorny issue.

It will take some time to sink in, though, that I won’t see a current daily paper in my town for the first time in my life. When I was growing up in southern Kentucky, I had four different ones each day — my hometown daily where my career started, one from neighboring Bowling Green, and two from Louisville. Three are still at it today.

Ron may have been right, but that doesn’t make me any less sad today.