In August of 2006, The Birmingham News held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark the opening of its new headquarters facility at 4th Avenue North and 22nd Street. Constructed at a cost of approximately $25 million — not including sidewalk and curb improvements funded by the City of Birmingham — the new structure had been a source of some controversy among local historians and preservationists, who had objected to the abandonment by the News of the historic building across 4th Avenue, in which the News had operated since constructing it in 1917 (that building would be demolished in 2008 to make room for a parking lot for the paper’s employees).
The intensity of those objections was quelled considerably by the undeniably striking design of the new building. Its red brick exterior featured ornamental elements that echoed those of the old building, and was bisected by a metal-and-glass atrium that rose above the roofline of the main structure.
The management of the News clearly intended to make a statement. Even as it nodded to the long history of the News — the paper began publication in 1888 — the new headquarters of Alabama’s largest newspaper was built for the future. A story published three days after the ribbon cutting reported that publisher Victor Hanson III “sees the new building as a symbol of the paper’s continuing presence in Birmingham.”
“I think it is certainly a sign of continuing, long-term investment in this community,” Hanson was quoted. “It’s a sign of stability and optimism.”
Even as Hanson made his hopeful declarations about the future of the News in Birmingham, the corporate ground beneath him was shifting. The paper’s owner, Advance Publications, already was well in motion toward its stated goal of becoming primarily a digital company, focused on the development of its online presence at the expense of its daily newspapers. Today, eight years after the News moved into its sleek and modern new home, the Advance business model has rendered terms like “stability” and “optimism” as quaint as a linotype machine.
The value of journalism
Hanson, then 52 years old, stepped down as publisher of the News late in 2009. That’s when Advance — which owns more than 35 other newspapers across the country, as well as, among other holdings, the Condé Nast family of magazines that includes such titles as Architectural Digest, GQ, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair — reorganized its three major Alabama dailies — the News, The Huntsville Times and The Mobile Press-Register — into what is now known as the Alabama Media Group. Hanson’s retirement ended nearly a century of association between his family and The Birmingham News, dating to the elevation of his grandfather to the paper’s leadership on the death of its founder, Rufus N. Rhodes, in 1910.
Under the Hansons, the News had long cultivated a “family” atmosphere at the paper, with many long-term employees who spent most or all of their careers there, under what was widely referred to internally as a “job for life” policy. The paper was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for its editorials calling for the reform of Alabama’s tax system, and won another in 2007 for reporter Brett Blackledge’s investigation into political and financial corruption in the state’s two-year college system. While never considered a great newspaper, in terms of providing a journalistic force for progress in the community it served, the News nevertheless was ingrained into the community, its status as the paper of record and a dependable source of news virtually unquestioned.
With the consolidation of its three Alabama papers, Advance began what would be several rounds of layoffs and buyouts of employees. That culminated in June 2012, when the three papers collectively fired more than 400 people — including more than 100 at The Birmingham News — as the company prepared to cease daily publication and move to its current three-days-a-week print schedule, beginning that October.
In making the transition, the local leadership of the Alabama Media Group promised that the decreased frequency of its newspapers would result in “enhanced” print coverage of local news and community affairs. Instead, the papers have become less and less relevant, while the Al.com website has become a haven for “clickbait” headlines that lead to 300-word stories that offer little to nothing in the way of substance or context, and for anonymous commenters who use the mask of user names to spew all manner of bile, a good deal of it explicitly racist.
Still, the site will draw something on the order of one billion page views this year, which makes it a success under the Advance business model. And meanwhile, the dwindling number of seasoned journalists who remain with the Alabama Media Group continue to ply their trade, producing meaningful stories and commentary that rarely make it into print, and are quickly lost online in the flood of quota-driven posts of “content” that churns constantly on the Al.com landing page.
“It’s not that we’re not producing good journalism,” says one of the company’s reporters, speaking — like other AMG employees who commented for this story — on condition of anonymity. “It’s that the company we work for doesn’t value good journalism.”
“I had to post something”
“I couldn’t agree more that there is a problem with the news model. No one has a bigger problem with our news model than I do.”
That statement was made by Evan Belanger, who at the time — last September — was a reporter for the Alabama Media Group (he left the company in October to accept a job in his native New England, with Central Maine Newspapers). Belanger’s comments came when this writer confronted him, via cell phone, regarding a story he had written about the apparent misappropriation of federal Title I education funds by the Birmingham City Schools. His story called into question an article by Weld staff writer Cody Owens that reported the misappropriation.
The Weld article included an emailed quote from Tommy Bice, Alabama’s state superintendent of education. Owens had provided Bice with documentation of the misappropriation, and Bice confirmed, in response to a direct question, that his department was “aware of” and “looking into” the matter.
Belanger’s story on Al.com led with the phrase “Despite reports to the contrary,” and included a link to the Weld article. Belanger quoted Birmingham school officials who denied the state’s interest in the matter. The story also said, without quoting, that a representative of the state education department told Belanger that no formal complaint had been filed in the matter, and that therefore no investigation was underway. The story was edited later to include a quote in which a spokesperson from the department attempted to walk back Bice’s comment to Weld. Subsequent Al.com posts referred to Weld’s reporting of the misappropriation as “allegations.”
In the conversation that followed the posting of his initial story on Al.com, Belanger insisted that he had not intended to question the veracity of Weld’s reporting (“I’m not saying there’s no investigation,” he stated. “I’m saying that they said there’s no investigation.”). But he also acknowledged the inherent flaws in a news model that favors quantity over quality and puts pressure on reporters to produce content that meets their daily quota of online posts, but may or may not result in solid journalism.
“My editor saw the story Weld posted,” Belanger explained. “I was told to confirm [Bice’s quote]. I couldn’t confirm it, and I had to post something. So I posted what I had.”
Whether intentional on Belanger’s part or not, the manner of reporting news stories in a way that disparages the reporting of other media outlets is not confined to AMG’s Birmingham operation. In Mobile, the well-established weekly Lagniappe has endured numerous such instances, including one that ultimately prompted a correction by Al.com and the Press-Register following a story that stated flatly that Lagniappe’s reporting had been erroneous.
“They’ve gone out of their way to try to discredit stories we’ve run,” says Rob Holbert, a founder and the co-publisher of the 12-year-old Lagniappe. “And more than once, they’ve jumped into a story or subject that we’ve been covering for weeks or months — and that they have ignored — and written about it as if it’s the first anybody’s heard of it. It’s become less frequent, but for a long time, if we broke a story, they wouldn’t cover it for anything, unless it was to try to discredit us in some way.
“In my opinion, that’s not what journalists do.”
What did AMG see?
More recently, AMG made another move that has called its commitment to sound journalistic practice into question, even among its own employees. The company hired reporter Natalie Pierre, who previously covered the Florida State football beat for The Tallahassee Democrat. The 25-year-old Pierre was brought on as a senior reporter, a position that had not existed at The Birmingham News since the creation of the Alabama Media Group. Perhaps understandably, that led to some internal rancor, particularly among some more experienced and long-tenured members of the AMG sports staff.
“The sports side in general was ready to go through the roof,” says a source at AMG. “There’s guys over there who’ve been covering sports for a long time, and none of them are senior reporters.”
That issue was only exacerbated on the evening of Nov. 17 — days after she posted her first stories for Al.com — when the respected media blog jimromenesko.com posted a link to an item from Oct. 2 on the national sports website Deadspin. The Deadspin item reported that Pierre had resigned from the Tallahassee paper after she was found to have plagiarized from a freelance writer’s work in a feature story about a Florida State football player.
Following Pierre’s resignation, the Democrat published a statement from its editor, saying that the paper’s management had “concluded that [Pierre’s story] was too similar to be pure coincidence, that pieces — at least — of the story were plagiarized.” Pierre issued her own statement via her website, nataliepierre.com — the statement has since been removed from the website — saying that, “While I did not intentionally plagiarize another journalist’s work, I take full responsibility….”
While admitting her error, Pierre also indicated that it was not the sole reason for her resignation from the Democrat. The Tallahassee paper is owned by the Gannet chain, which, in a process similar to that used by AMG owner Advance Publications, is reducing staff at numerous of its newspaper holdings, including requiring current employees to re-apply for their current jobs.
My decision to resign from the Democrat came in part because of the current climate of the newsroom, Pierre wrote. The majority of my former co-workers were all required to re-apply for their positions…while I was exempt from the process that will result in a number of great journalists being laid off.
A source inside the Democrat newsroom, who asked not to be identified, questioned why, in view of the circumstances surrounding Pierre’s resignation from the Democrat, AMG — which knew about Pierre’s plagiarism when it hired her — would expose itself to criticism by hiring someone with so little reporting experience. According to the source, while Pierre had been with the Democrat for three years, most of her work until very recently had been posting videotaped interviews and features to the paper’s website.
“She officially became the beat writer this summer,” the source says. “She had written a little bit before that, but mainly she was a videographer. It’s not like she had a lot of equity built up. She wasn’t ready for the job here. So what did [AMG] see from the few [newswriting] clips she had that made them want to hire her after she got caught plagiarizing?”
A risky proposition
Pierre did not respond to an emailed request to be interviewed for this story. An initial email addressed to Alabama Media Group president Matt Sharp, vice president for content Michelle Holmes and director of sports Roy Johnson also went unanswered, but Johnson replied to a second email requesting comment. His response, in its entirety, was as follows:
Thanks, Mark, for reaching out again. Unfortunately, we’re going to decline your request for an interview. As you might imagine, we’re all focused on getting Natalie acclimated and helping her succeed. Her hiring in an internal personnel matter and — I’m sure you’re not surprised by this — we don’t comment on those for myriad reasons, including employee privacy. It is great to work for a company that believes in second chances, when merited. We’re proud of how Natalie has handled everything — with openness and honesty — and we’re proud to welcome her to our sports team. She’s a talented young journalist who now has an opportunity to do great work again. We’re excited that she’ll be doing so for us.
According to sources at AMG, the response to the company’s knowledge of Pierre’s plagiarism prior to hiring her has been less enthusiastic than Johnson’s statements would suggest — though it also should be noted that some inside the newsroom have risen to her defense. While none would comment for attribution, the general attitude in the wake of the initial consternation among the staff seems to be summed up in a comment made by one employee.
“This was Roy’s hire, and Michelle signed off on it,” the AMG employee says. “They told some of the staff that they’re convinced [the plagiarism] was a one-time screw-up, and that they believe she deserves a second chance. Without getting into that, I think the general attitude is that folks are just going to focus on doing their own jobs and let that sort itself out. I don’t think there’s any doubt that they’re taking a risk.”
The implications of that risk already have materialized, another AMG employee says. When Al.com ran a story last week about the Birmingham City Schools hiring a teacher who had been connected to a cheating scandal in Atlanta’s public school system, one of the first comments, the source says, “was along the lines of, ‘Al.com hired a plagiarist, why should we care about this?’”
Concerns about AMG’s credibility are well placed, says Chris Roberts. A onetime Birmingham News reporter who is now an associate professor in the University of Alabama’s journalism department who also maintains a blog called Doing Ethics in Media, Roberts offers the disclaimer that he doesn’t “know all the facts in this case,” but agrees that employing a known plagiarist puts the employer on a slippery slope.
“Plagiarism is the no-no of our business, and everybody knows that,” says Roberts. “When I teach media ethics, I don’t talk much about plagiarism, because stealing from others without giving them proper credit for their work is a black-and-white issue. I don’t tell my students not to go out and murder someone either. When something is that obviously wrong, you shouldn’t have to tell people not to do it.”
At the same time, Roberts acknowledges that there are any number of high-profile national journalists — Mitch Albom, Maureen Dowd, Fareed Zakaria — who have been caught plagiarizing and not lost their jobs for it.
“Some news organizations give people a second chance and some don’t,” Roberts says. “We live in a world of second chances, and every organization has to make its own decisions about that.”
The gap between content and news
Earlier this year, the Alabama Media Group moved out of the striking new $25 million building that The Birmingham News had opened so grandly only eight years before. It now occupies renovated space at the historic Young & Vann building on 1st Avenue North that is better suited to a staff that is much reduced in size from the paper’s headiest days.
The new space reflects the philosophy behind AMG’s — and Advance’s — digitally oriented news model, in which reporters don’t need desks — or, for that matter, even to show up in the office on a regular basis, as long as they’re meeting their quota of posts to Al.com. It probably is too early to make any categorical judgment of the relative merits or drawbacks of that model, but it also is tempting to find in the company’s ever-shrinking physical presence a metaphor for its diminished status in the community.
On the other hand, Chris Roberts suggests, the decline of The Birmingham News might just be viewed as the latest example of the results of outside ownership of Birmingham’s local institutions, harkening back to its days as an iron and steel boomtown.
“Birmingham is a town that has been run by out-of-state interests for a long time,” Roberts says. “People in Birmingham and Jefferson are used to that, so what’s one more? Of course, the News has never been beloved, partly because it has covered a community where people have never gotten along. Even so, what they do, the moves they make, affects people in a pretty large geographical area.”
In Mobile, Rob Holbert sees a similar problem, in terms of the impact of continued cutbacks and the corporate devotion to “content,” at the expense of real news. His newspaper, he says, has benefitted from the ongoing fallout — but that doesn’t mean the community is not suffering from the absence of a daily paper and the active participation of a locally owned, or at least locally managed, news organization in community affairs.
“People have lost interest in the Press-Register,” Holbert says. “The public has realized that Al.com is focused on clickbait. They’ve realized that the ownership is not part of the community, and not interested in being part of the community. When we founded Lagniappe 12-and-a-half years ago, we weren’t setting out to be the newspaper in Mobile. But that’s what we’re becoming, and it’s not just due to our hard work, though we do work hard at being good journalists. It’s also because our competition seems intent on doing away with journalism.
“I see the same thing happening in Birmingham.”
Cody Owens contributed reporting to this story.