By BENÉT J. WILSON
On Aug. 21, All Digititocracy published a story about how the Birmingham News, owned by Alabama Media Group (AMG), laid off Barnett Wright, the last black news reporter in a city that is 73 percent black. The reaction was swift and the story went viral.
As part of the story, I reached out to Wright, Birmingham News news manager Alex Walsh and any official from AMG; Wright declined to comment, while Walsh and AMG did not return phone calls — until Saturday. I received an email from Michelle Holmes, AMG’s vice president of content, asking for a correction to the story.
In her email, Holmes said “ it is simply false to say that we have laid off “the last black reporter at the Birmingham News.”
In my reply to Holmes, I wrote that Mr. Wright is the last black boots-on-the-ground reporter covering hard news in a city that’s 73 percent black, which was included in my story. “While there are other black journalists in your newsroom, which I did note in my story, they cover sports, curate content, take photos and serve as engagement editors,” I wrote. “This to us is not the same as covering actual hard news in Birmingham, a city with a 73 percent black population and one that was front and center in the Civil Rights Movement.”
In her response, Holmes wrote that she continued her request for a correction. “Sports reporters are reporters. Not sure anywhere in our industry we’ve ever discounted sports reporters from the ranks of reporters,” she wrote.
While I agree with her point about sports reporters being reporters, I disagree with her characterization of the Birmingham News’ coverage. I can’t think of many media outlets that would send sports reporters, no matter how talented they are, to cover police, city hall or race. Cities — especially majority black ones like Birmingham — need to have dedicated, diverse journalists to cover these topics.
When asked how the Birmingham News plans to cover news in a majority black city without having at least one black reporter, Holmes said that Alabama Media Group is looking for diverse journalists who have extensive digital skill-sets.
Holmes noted that AMG is looking for diverse journalists, including ones for its new AL.com Studios, a digitial video platform. “For those positions, we are seeking video journalists with proven ability in digital storytelling, and advanced shooting and editing experience,” she wrote. “In general, for all our roles, we are looking for journalists with strong digital acumen who are committed to storytelling, experimentation, and a willingness to deliver significant journalism on multiple platforms.
“I can unequivocally say we want, and continue to seek, a diverse staff to help us find and tell more stories here Alabama. I welcome hearing from interested candidates; they can reach out to me directly at email@example.com.”
AMG, a subsidiary of Advance Publications, has disrupted its news operations across the country. In Cleveland, for example, Advance took away several beats from The Cleveland Plain Dealer, including the police beat, but left behind the more experienced reporters who covered the beats. The beats were moved to cleveland.com, where younger reporters were put in charge of them. One result earlier this year was poor, early-stage reporting of the shooting death of Tamir Rice, a 12 -year-old unarmed black child killed by a police officer who has a troubling past.
Advance Publication laid off nearly half the newsroom staff (600 people) at the New Orleans Times-Picayune and halted daily publication of the paper in the name of digital innovation, but readers accused Advance of sacrificing news coverage.
Founded by Sam Newhouse in 1922, Advance Publications has also been criticized for how it is currently handling its other news operations, including The Oregonian and its web portal in Michigan, mlive.com, which covers several cities including Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Muskegon, Flint, Saginaw, Bay City, and Jackson.