Monday, March 25, 2013

Daily printed newspaper VS. digital editions

By Don Keith

Well, it has now been since October that I have discussed in this forum the major changes in my hometown's daily printed newspaper.  If it has not happened where you live, wait, it will.  I do hope the implementation is better for you.

What happened was THE BIRMINGHAM NEWS decided to stop publishing a daily "paper" newspaper.  We now get a thin bundle of newsprint thrown in our driveways (or, in my case, far beneath the crepe myrtle bush down a steep, ivy-covered embankment) three mornings a week--Wednesday (grocery ads), Friday (car ads), and Sunday (lots of inserts but not many other ads or classifieds anymore).

The same thing happened with co-owned papers in Mobile and Huntsville, both in Alabama, which are owned by the same folks.  We were promised much more in-depth coverage in those three editions while immediate news coverage would be handled by the commonly owned web site AL.COM.  Another part of the promise was that the site could be customized, would feature the same reporters and columnists from the old tree-killing paper, would provide video and audio, and would be much faster with updates.

OK, sounds good to me.  Now, how do I think they have done after half a year?  I should confess that one impetus for this post was a recent multi-column article in a Sunday edition.  It was written by Kevin Wendt, the "vice president of content" (lower case theirs) for Alabama Media Group, the company's name after all the changes.  The article was headlined, "An update on our progress."  How do they think they have done?  I can save you the trouble of looking it up.  The gist is "pretty damn good!"  Wendt writes, "Digital growth has been explosive, circulation exceeded our expectations, our commitment to quality journalism and serving our communities remains steadfast, and Alabama Media Group's first-quarter business performance met our objectives."

Hey, I am merely a subscriber, but I can only say, "Well, whoop-de-doo!"

Frankly, I see the printed edition dwindling in size.  I am apparently missing all that expanded content.  I know they furloughed just about anybody who had a pulse at THE BIRMINGHAM NEWS.  They are pooling coverage among the few remaining journalists at all three papers.  Then they are expected to not only write a story but blog and update incessantly.  All without benefit of editing, apparently.  Typos and grammar errors abound!  Yes, abound!

By the time I get a paper, I have already seen or had the opportunity to see on the web site at least 50% of what is printed .  The paper sometimes seems to try to be slow so I have to go to AL.COM to get updates on stories.

Example: there was a story in a Wednesday morning paper about a spectacular accident the previous Sunday--SUNDAY--in Birmingham's eastern section in which a car ended up inside a store.  The story cryptically told us the driver "appeared to be injured and was taken away by ambulance."  There was no name, no condition of the victim, no mention of how the accident happened.  Just a picture.  Surely between Sunday and deadline Tuesday night, somebody could have followed up!

And sports scores.  Deadline must be about sunset.  If Alabama or Auburn play a game that ends after about 9 PM, forget about seeing a story or, usually, a score in a paper the next day.

Now to AL.COM.  What a mess!  I know user interface is subjective.  And this subject hates AL.COM.

First, it is about the most cluttered site out there, with all those peel-downs and dancing ads.  When I make my first visit there each day, it takes my computer a good 30 seconds just to bring up the page.  But even more disconcerting is the fact that it locks the whole thing up for that entire half minute as it flings untold scores of tracking cookies and junk onto my hard drive.  And before you say to upgrade my machine or web connection, let me make it clear that this is the ONLY web site I ever visit that treats me this way.

Try finding what you want to see on AL.COM.  Yes, I could probably personalize it some and filter out some of the out-of-town stuff.  But then I don't know what I'm missing.  Use the "Search" feature.  I may as well be typing in URLs at random.  If I get results, I could still be searching for hours, scrolling through miles and miles of totally unrelated and cryptic headlines, just to find the one I was looking for.  And I still have to click on it to see if it even  remotely resembles what I was looking for.

Forget following links that show up in the printed paper.  They are often wrong or take you to a general page on which you still have to scroll and scroll to find what you want.  Example: they do a neat little music feature in which a local artist or band records a video in a little travel trailer parked  behind a local club.  The paper does a short article on the group and refers you to AL.COM/entertainment to watch the video.  I swear that is the URL in its entirety.  Good damn luck!  Every time I've tried to find the video, I still end up having to search for the band by name, and that often takes me far, far afield from the video I'm seeking.

Those email updates.  OK, at their urging, I subscribed to a series of emails with links to updated stories on AL.COM.  First thing I noticed was that they often had the same story linked in both the left and right columns of the email.  Trying to make it look as if there is more content than there actually is?  That's my guess.  (Hey, the printed paper even does this.  They still have those huge weird-looking blank white spaces at the bottoms of pages that could hold at least one more story and picture...if they had one.)

The links from the emails usually work, thank goodness, so I can at least find the stories. Quite often, they are poorly edited and sometimes go days without being updated.  But why send me a link to the morning traffic 9:10 AM?!?  That's when I receive that one each day.  That wreck on Highway 280 at 6:20 AM is almost certainly gone by then.

Sports?  You really need to watch some of their sports videos.  Most appear to have been done with a cell phone.  Their features on things like recruiting or spring practice, with a "host" and a couple of guest "journalists" are the most amateurish productions you will ever see.  So are their audio podcasts.  Frankly, they are unwatchable and unlistenable and rarely informative.  That is especially the case when there are feeble attempts at humor.  These seem more like high school media students' work, not that of competent, professional journalists.  And certainly not those adept at audio and video.  Maybe they are high school or college students.  I don't know.

Okay, I'm getting nit-picky now, I guess, so I'll quit.  But despite Mr. Wendt's gushing update, I'm afraid that this one media observer/subscriber is not nearly as happy with how things are going as he and his company apparently are.  Maybe they are trying their best.  Maybe it will improve.  But man, it has to.  Could it be the simple fact that we have no other newspaper choice be the reason business is so good?  And that they are so gosh-darned happy about their early results?

(PS: I know and you know a lot of people lost their jobs in this transition.  Yet almost immediately, a big ad starting appearing in the Classifieds under "Employment" saying "We are hiring!"  It's easy to see it since classified ads have almost disappeared from the printed paper.  Yet, if you go the site they direct you to, there are practically no jobs listed as being open.  At least that was the case last time I went there.  What's the purpose of advertising jobs that don't exist?  Are we supposed to think, "Wow, these guys are doing great if they are continually hiring new folks?"  I dunno.  Maybe Mr. Wendt can explain that.  Or maybe the same folks do their employment pages that do the rest of AL.COM and I have to jump through some other hoops to see open positions.  No thanks.  My hoop-jumping days are over.)


Unknown said...

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Breaking news English

Anonymous said...

Amedeo, thank you for your comments. I agree that the importance of everyone reading news and opinion is greater than ever. However, the daily printed newspaper is rapidly going away...and there is nothing we can do about it.

Don Keith