Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Time marches on...but "new" newspaper stumbles

Look, I get it.  This blog, after all, deals in part with how rapidly changing technology affects media.  I understand why my local daily newspaper, The Birmingham News, has gone to only three printed papers a week while attempting to shuttle subscribers to their online affiliate,, and a "digital edition" of those three papers they intend to print and toss my way each week.

And while I may be a curmudgeon, I am not the typical newspaper-loving curmudgeon who simply refuses to accept such dramatic change to a daily habit.  Again, I understand the technological...and, more importantly, the economic...factors that are driving this thing.  Just as with books, radio, TV, and all other media, there continues to be speedy change and it will be difficult for many of us--even those who have grown up during a time when all this came about--to adapt as this parade becomes a foot race.

But The Birmingham News is stumbling right out of the block.

I won't even go into the snafu of trying to get my subscription renewed, an adventure in which they wanted to charge me the same seven-day-a-week rate for only three papers a week, then offered me a stunningly low price to renew, but then somehow cancelled my existing subscription in the process, a month before it ran out and the new delivery deal started.  Or later refused to honor that stunningly low price, saying it did not even exist on their rate card, but still lowered the price somewhat...after finally re-starting the subscription I had already paid for.  No, I won't even go into that.

Today was the first day of the "new, expanded" daily paper.  To soften the blow, the paper has continually promised that those three printed editions each week would be well worth giving up the other four days.  I did miss my Monday and Tuesday papers, but with the promise that those three papers a week would offer much more content and features, I awaited anxiously the delivery of my Wednesday edition.  Since this was the first one, I figured it would live up to the hype and be an example of what was to come.

I was even a bit nostalgic as I walked down and found it, halfway down the hill next to the driveway, under the crepe myrtle tree, amid the briers, where the carrier has consistently thrown it for the past ten years, despite my complaints and the 150 feet of nice grass frontage on the street where he/she could have more easily tossed it.

Upon lifting it, it did seem to be only about the same weight as the usual Wednesday paper, with all the food ad inserts, but I still hoped the content was all that was promised in all those comforting articles the paper has been running for the past few months.  Here is what I found inside that tightly bagged publication:

  • Once the inserts were set aside, the paper actually seemed slimmer than the usual day...except for Mondays, which has recently more resembled a pamphlet.
  • Typos!  Lord, the articles I perused were full of typos.  I have heard that many employees have been furloughed at the paper, and it appears some of them were copy editors.  You would have thought, with three days to produce this, their first edition  under the new deal, they would have had ample time to edit their copy.  Guess not.
  • The editorial page was practically vacant.  Today, on the day of the first presidential debate, I would have loved to have seen some of the usual columnists' opinions, one way or the other.  Even the editorial cartoon...which has been a mish-mash anyway since their last full time cartoonist fled for greener pastures...was of a naked angel distributing what appear to be printed newspapers, carrying some kind of cryptic sign that seems to make a reference to the paper's move to digital.  The cartoon was in color, though.  Maybe that is what is meant by "new, expanded."
  • No separate "Local" or "State" sections of news.  They were crammed into the front section, and even that was taken up with two big ads for employment at the new Birmingham News.  Two ads the paper has been running for all those new jobs for which they are hiring...after the furlough of long-time staffers mentioned above who were, apparently, unable or unwilling to move to the digital world.
  • Apparently the number one worry among miffed subscribers has been how this new publication schedule will affect those polar opposite sections, the obituaries and the comics.  Well, I see several dead folks who had the audacity to go to their rewards on a day when their obit would not be printed--except somewhere amid the bits and bytes on after their interment.  And does running three days' worth of comic strips, crossword puzzles, Sodoku, Dear Abby, and Jumble in one fell swoop give the same experience as it once did?  It certainly does not fill the promise of "expanded," though the actual, physical size of the puzzles is certainly EXPANDED.  They are huge!  At least I can cheat and identify that one obscure word in Jumble by simply flipping over a few pages. Unless it is the last one in the bunch, then I have to wait until Friday to cheat.  And I can enjoy a triple dose of Dilbert...once I finally locate the strips among the huge conglomeration of cartoons across those six pages full.
  • I don't know what it was, but something was missing in the paper today.  There was little substance at all.  The "Food" section was combined with the "Living" section, yet even jammed together, there were only three pages of content before the comics and puzzles.  "Business" was slim, too, but I suppose I should be thankful they still ran the "Alabama Stocks" listing and in much bigger font.  If I didn't cynically suspect they did that to fill space, though.
  • The "Sports" section.  Goodness.  When I heard "new, expanded," I thought immediately of how they would now go into greater depth in their sports coverage.  Maybe expand baseball coverage some since there are still some divisional races going on.  NASCAR is at Talladega this weekend, so racing coverage would be huge.  Alabama is the number one college football team in the country and the Auburn Tigers and the real local team, UAB, are having a tough year, so now they can spend more time and newsprint delving into the teams, players, strategy.  Nope.  There appears to be even less content!  In an effort to fill even the six pages of "content" in today's sport section, they used a bigger font to list the games upcoming this weekend as well as the betting lines, and on the second page, they put a picture four columns wide of a guy on a surfboard in France.  On a surfboard in France!  Baseball?  Today's games were listed.  Not even divisional standings.  By default, I have to go online to see what's happening.  College football?  The short roundup of each of the teams consisted mostly of material from the coaches' MONDAY news conference!  And their lead sports columnist's offering today has at least three of those serious typos mentioned above.  Oh, and of those six pages, one full page was an ad for
Okay, it was their first "new, expanded" paper.  Maybe they are honing it, pacing themselves.  But they've known for months now that this edition would be landing beneath my crepe myrtle tree amid the briers.  Seems they would have come out smoking, not only meeting but exceeding the expectations of guys like me who would be a tad cynical no matter what.

It didn't happen.  And, by the way, they are fumbling the whole digital thing, too. has a less than impressive user interface, even after some clean-up they have done lately.  And it is especially baffling to those accustomed to a printed paper, who want to scan not only headlines but the first paragraph or two of a story before committing to clicking to read it all, putting up with pop-up ads, flashing icons, peel-down corners, and more.

Apparently, they anticipated the angst.  Monday morning, I glanced out my window and saw what appeared to be a newspaper in the drive-way...not beneath the tree in the briers.  Huh?  Turns out, it was a publication attempting to tell folks how to navigate their new source of news on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and  And it took them eight pages to try.  Eight pages filled with confusing but colorful stuff.  I can only imagine what most of those receiving it thought.  And how the ones for whom it was obviously targeted--those with limited computer skills--would react.  

Is there some irony in the fact that the publication attempting to give instructions on using the News's new digital platform contained almost as much content as their "new, expanded" printed edition that landed in my brier patch today?

Don Keith


Wade Kwon said...

Thanks for your analysis, Don. I haven't seen the print product in some time, so it's interesting to hear from someone who knows it and can compare the recent daily edition to the new supposedly expanded 3x/week edition.

John Krupsky said...

Thanks for your critique. You certainly spent some time scrutinizing the new product. My wife will likely agree with many of your comments when she gets to look at the Wednesday edition more this evening. She had only 10 minutes to see it early this morning.

Don Keith N4KC said...

Thanks, Wade. Somehow I imagined The News would want to make the transition to less-frequent printed editions as easy as possible to its remaining subscribers. That was why I figured that very first edition would be a wonderful example of what they could expect. Didn't happen. That opportunity has been squandered.

And John, it didn't take me long at all to examine that day's paper. I finished it in a few minutes!

Now, I'm about to walk down and see what Friday brings to my briar patch.