3 big Alabama newspapers will end print editions on the same day The Birmingham News, The Huntsville Times and Mobile's Press-Register will soon go all-digital. In Birmingham, where people have been reading the paper since the late 1800s, the news hasn't been easy.

For 3 big Alabama newspapers, the presses are grinding to a halt

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Have you ever saved the front page of the newspaper as a memento of an important moment? Or maybe you clipped coupons and recipes. Well, in three of Alabama's largest cities, the printing presses will stop rolling early next year. That'll spell the end of the Birmingham News, The Huntsville Times and Mobile's Press-Register as they go all digital. It's part of a national trend in local journalism, one that has some Birmingham subscribers worried that they'll be left behind. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: It's gotten harder to buy a copy of the Birmingham News, but you can find the latest edition hanging from a spindle at the public library downtown.

SHERREL WHEELER STEWART: And a lot of people have read it. Look at this - spaghetti sauce on the side over there.

ELLIOTT: Sherrel Wheeler Stewart points out food stains splattered on the front page. She's a former editor and reporter who spent nearly two decades working for the Birmingham News.

WHEELER STEWART: Front page used to be that place that was, I guess you could say, sacred. To pick up a Sunday paper, open it up and see your name at the top - you know, that's - that was - I mean, it was just special, you know?

ELLIOTT: Stewart says the move to digital only is a loss for the community.

WHEELER STEWART: It's just not a good thing. I think a metropolitan city - Birmingham is on the move. I think a city like Birmingham needs a printed newspaper.

ELLIOTT: Ten years ago, the Birmingham News and sister papers in Huntsville and Mobile went from publishing daily down to three times a week. Even that will end after February 26, after parent company Alabama Media Group announced it will permanently stop the presses. While Stewart is sad to see the end of the print era, she acknowledges that even she now mostly gets her news from the paper's digital site, al.com. Alabama Media Group president Tom Bates says that's where the audience is.

TOM BATES: The growth on the digital side for us has been extraordinary. And so if our job is to get out important stories, we need to get them out the way that people want to receive them.

ELLIOTT: Bates says a decade ago, the combined daily circulation for the Birmingham News, The Huntsville Times and The Mobile Press-Register was about 260,000. Now it's down to roughly 30,000, he says, compared to al.com's daily reach of about a million people a day. Longtime journalists in the newsroom saw this day coming.

JOHN ARCHIBALD: You know, I've warned the newspaper a dozen years ago, frankly.

ELLIOTT: John Archibald is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for al.com and has been with The Birmingham News since 1986. Sitting outside a local coffee shop, Archibald says he hardly ever sees the print edition anymore. It might sound like heresy for an old newspaper man, but he says that's the future of journalism.

ARCHIBALD: Well, you know, I have nostalgia for print. And I love the newspaper. It's not the paper that I love. It's the notion of going out and covering news that people need to know.

ELLIOTT: What's happening in Alabama is where local papers have been headed for a while, says Penny Muse Abernathy with the local news initiative at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

PENNY MUSE ABERNATHY: It is part of a whole progression as we've seen the diminishment of daily newspapers over the past two decades.

ELLIOTT: Abernathy is the author of annual reports on the state of local news around the nation. The 2022 report found that at least 1 in 5 of the 100 largest newspapers in the country is now publishing two or fewer times a week in a print edition. As papers disappear, Abernathy says the question is whether digital publications can play the same role in civic life that newspapers traditionally have.

ABERNATHY: And I think that's really what you're dealing with - is what is the relevance of these papers in a digital age?

ELLIOTT: People have been reading The Birmingham News since the late 1800s. Mayor Randall Woodfin says it will be an adjustment no longer having it.

RANDALL WOODFIN: It'll be a shock to the system.

ELLIOTT: At age 41, Woodfin is a digital-first news consumer. But he knows not everyone is wired that way.

WOODFIN: We embrace the innovation. I would just hope we still found a way to communicate with every generation. I think over this last decade, I've received my news more digitally anyway, so I was able to brace. I would be - for those who haven't braced and still depend on those three days, I'm concerned. I should call my stepmom right here in front of you to see what she says. Let's do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIAL TONE RINGING)

ELLIOTT: He dials up Yvonne Fluker Woodfin, who steadfastly clips and collects newspaper articles about her stepson.

YVONNE FLUKER WOODFIN: Hello.

WOODFIN: Hello, young lady.

FLUKER WOODFIN: Hey, darling. How are you?

WOODFIN: Things are good. What about yourself?

FLUKER WOODFIN: Oh, doing pretty good. Thank you.

WOODFIN: I wanted to talk to you about the newspaper. Are you aware that they're going away from all print? How do you feel about that?

FLUKER WOODFIN: Well, I think it will make a lot of people not be aware of what's going on.

ELLIOTT: Access is a concern. In the pandemic, public schools here found that about 1 in 5 families had limited or no internet access. Still, you don't see newspapers like you used to - scattered around tables at the coffee shop or local lunch counter.

(SOUNDBITE OF SILVERWARE CLATTERING)

ELLIOTT: To hear how longtime Birmingham News subscribers are reacting, I stopped by the lunch buffet at the American Legion in Homewood, a close-in suburb.

AL LAPIERRE: We call this our government in exile table back here.

ELLIOTT: Al LaPierre is a former head of the Alabama Democratic Party. He's sitting at a long table of politicos who get together every Wednesday. LaPierre says he's really not surprised that the newspaper's days are numbered.

LAPIERRE: But I noticed a few years ago even - you bought the Birmingham News on a Saturday or a Sunday. Everything you saw on their media site the next - the day before was there. So why get it?

ELLIOTT: But across the table, retired political scientist Natalie Davis defends the paper. She still subscribes and worries about what will be lost when it's gone.

NATALIE DAVIS: The newspaper was probably the only thing left where - if everybody reads the story in the same way and gets the same facts, then you have a baseline. And that will go away. And it's gone. It's gone probably now. But, I mean, that's what newspapers do.

ELLIOTT: Retired veterinarian Chandler McGee stops by the table. He's 84 and says the Birmingham News has been a lifeline.

CHANDLER MCGEE: One of the joys of my life is reading the newspaper.

ELLIOTT: He lives in a retirement community where he says few residents get news online.

MCGEE: I think, I mean, especially for senior citizens, that we're going to be cut off from what's happening in our city and our state.

ELLIOTT: Alabama Media Group executives say that's not their intent and believe everyone in the three metro areas they serve should have a way to access their free content online, whether on a computer or smartphone. Al.com columnist Roy Johnson came to Birmingham in 2015. He'd been a long-time sportswriter at Sports Illustrated and The New York Times and various national magazines, some of which are no longer in publication.

ROY JOHNSON: I really have lived a life that represents the evolution of the media industry.

ELLIOTT: He says the distribution method might have changed, but the mission remains.

JOHNSON: You know, one of these days, we're going to have to explain to our grandkids why we put words on a piece of paper, balled it up, rolled it up, put it in a car truck, drove it around and threw it on people's driveway. That's how they got their news. I said for them, it'll be like the Pony Express to us.

ELLIOTT: Johnson's advice to longtime print readers - this is the digital age, so come along. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Birmingham.

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