Alabama’s Alternate Offerings: Adequate or Lacking?

By Shea Zirlott
Knight Fellow in Community Journalism, University of Alabama
[Download the content analysis]

Most Alabama newspapers so far are failing to use many new ways to reach readers with digital tools such as Facebook and Twitter and mobile apps.

This finding is from a new survey of the 123 member newspapers of the Alabama Press Association that was conducted in early February 2010 by the Knight Fellows in Community Journalism at the University of Alabama.

Not one of the newspapers surveyed was using all the tools on a list that included RSS, Twitter, Facebook, email alerts and mobile applications. In some instances, a tool may be present but not utilized to its full potential. This means, for instance, that a newspaper in Alabama has a Twitter account that is advertised on its website, but the newspaper has never tweeted or followed anyone. Out of the 123 member newspapers of the Alabama Press Association, 97 had functioning websites. Those 97 newspapers were further analyzed for their use of other digital tools.

The method of delivery and level of interaction in news delivery has changed throughout history as new technology came into being and wide usage.  Town criers were made obsolete by the printing press.  Printed newspapers found themselves in a busier media marketplace with radio, television, the internet, the cell phone, smart phone, Kindle and iPad.  Throughout, news continued to reach an audience.

The question is what medium will be used, and if newspapers now are ready to adopt new forms of delivery. Within the past 20 years, the opportunities available for gathering, presenting and sharing information have grown immensely. News has become faster, easy to select, easy to discuss and available in seconds, depending on the technology that the consumers and the news organizations are using. Simply having a website, or integrating a tool into the design, or creating an application for smart phones is not enough for newspapers to connect to their readers. Connectivity is now a two-way street, and newspapers have to accept content and feedback as well as delivering their product.  Alabama newspapers overall clearly could step up their digital and alternative presence, and tools to do that are often inexpensive and easy to adopt, those who use them say.   Alabama news executives who have led the way say they see results.

Bob Sims, content director with (online home of the state’s three largest newspapers), estimates more than 25,000 users have opted to receive alerts either on their phones or as a text or through their email accounts.

Tim Prince, editor at the Shelby County Reporter, has found an innovative online way to make a profit.  Subscribers to the paper’s “What’s For Lunch?” email list receive a daily email around ten or eleven a.m., which according to Prince is when everyone is thinking about lunch plans. In this email, restaurants advertise one-day specials. Prince said that it was a struggle to get people to subscribe, but the subscription list has grown each year. He also points out that the “What’s for lunch?” email is a great way to get restaurants to advertise because they can do it relatively cheaply compared to an ad in the printed newspaper. Prince said that the email campaign is highly successful, especially considering that it costs him pennies to send the emails every day.

What the Alabama Newspaper Survey Found

Daily newspapers are much more likely to have the new digital tools and promote them than are weekly newspapers, although there are quite a few weekly newspapers that stand out in their use of the tools. Daily newspapers had an average of 2.88 tools available on their websites, where weeklies had an average of 1.04 tools present. Dailies also updated their social media sites more often, and had more followers and fans on their social media sites. Just under a third of the papers in the sample had both Facebook and Twitter links on their sites.

(Some newspapers in the sample might have Facebook and Twitter accounts that were not promoted on the papers’ main websites. These were not included in this analysis. The reasoning is that the page is the “digital face” of the paper at this time and the main way people look to connect with the paper in a digital environment.)


The majority of Alabama newspapers are affiliated with websites –all of the dailies and 73.7 percent of the weeklies. Most newspapers update their online content on a daily basis, and many update many times throughout the day. The three largest newspapers in the state —The Birmingham News, the Huntsville Times and the Mobile Press-Register — use to update their readers of news happenings.


The most commonly used tool was RSS, which was found to be present on a large number of websites. RSS was found on 47 newspaper websites, or 48.5% of all websites studied. The 47 newspapers that had RSS included 18 dailies and 29 weeklies. Seventy-five percent of dailies offered RSS feeds, while only 39.7 percent of weeklies offered them. RSS was next to last among delivery formats in how prominently it was displayed on websites. When present, it received a 3.70 out of a possible 5. The higher the score the easier it was to find the RSS feed. It is arguable that because many Internet browsers indicate whether an RSS feed is present on a website, many newspapers do not see the need to waste site space to advertise a tool that is already being advertised.

Email Alert

Email alerts were found to be present on 29 of the websites studied, which is 29.9%. They came in third, behind websites and RSS feeds, in the number of appearances on newspapers’ menus. Email alerts, when found to be present on websites, were the second most prominently placed tool, preceded only by Facebook. The average prominence score for email alerts was 3.90 out of 5 possible. Email alerts are one of the oldest tools studied in this study, and their presence has diminished from the tool’s heyday. More than half the dailies (54.2 percent) had email alerts, while only 21.9% of weeklies had them.


The presence of Twitter accounts was similar to the presence of Facebook accounts. Twitter, however, was present on slightly more newspapers’ websites. Twenty-eight of the 97 newspapers in the study had a Twitter account that was advertised on their site, which is 28.9 percent. Twitter presence was determined by some form of advertisement on the newspaper’s web site, which indicated a Twitter account for the newspaper. The average prominence of Twitter on these websites was 3.79 out of a possible 5.

The number of followers ranged from 0 to more than 3,000 for an individual paper.

Of dailies, 58.3 percent had a Twitter account, while only 19.2 percent of weeklies had a Twitter.


Facebook was present on just over a quarter of the sites. Twenty-six newspapers of 97 had Facebook page, which is 26.8 percent of those studied. Facebook presence was determined by some form of advertisement on the newspaper’s web site which indicated a Facebook page, or account for the newspaper. Facebook was the most prominently displayed tool when it was found on a newspaper’s website. Facebook received an average prominence score of 4.15 out of a possible 5.  Fifty percent of weeklies had a Facebook page, while only 19.2% of weeklies had Facebook.


There were no Alabama newspapers offering a mobile application at the time of the survey, but text alert subscriptions were more commonly found. Some newspapers, including The Anniston Star, are offering a “smart phone friendly” mobile edition of their websites that can be viewed on mobile devices with ease. Text alerts were offered by 15 newspapers in the study, or 15.5 percent. That included 12 dailies and three weeklies. Text/Mobile received the lowest average prominence score of all the tools, with 3.33 out of 5 possible. Fifty percent of dailies have text alerts available, while only 4.1percent of weeklies have text alerts available.

Table 1 – Percent of APA member papers with active websites featuring each tool; prominence given to each tool

Tool Number (%)of 97 papers with tool present Avg. prominence score when tool present
RSS 47 (48.5%) 3.70
E-mail 29 (29.9%) 3.90
Twitter 28 (28.9%) 3.79
Facebook 26 (26.8%) 4.15
Text/Mobile 15 (15.5%) 3.33

Table 2—Activity on Social Media Sites*

Social Media Tool Avg. number of followers/fans Avg. activity score
Twitter 537.43 1.61
Facebook 1102.04 2.27

*Note that the main feed driven from the website was used.  Activity score looked at how active newspapers were in updating their social media sites on a scale of 0-3, with three indicating the most updating.

The February 2010 Alabama newspaper survey is reminiscent of an earlier study (Schultz, 1999) that analyzed 100 newspapers nationally. The previous study sought to find out what tools were being used to engage readers. It found that there is a great potential in the internet, but that news organizations were not exploiting this opportunity effectively. The Schultz study found that newspapers were only offering “token” options to their readers. The study was completed a decade ago.  It is surprising that after that time, Alabama newspapers still are not using many available tools.

A key issue is making online offerings profitable. Justin Thurman, multimedia director at The Anniston Star, said that great strides have been made to make online news more profitable, but online advertising is cheap and hard to make a huge profit on. The Anniston Star, however, does offer a paid subscription to its “digital edition” (a browsable pdf form of the newspaper) which is available to their print subscribers as well.

National research on using digital tools

Alabama newspapers could potentially be using all of the tools described above and others. A large body of national research addresses the pros and cons of using the tools described above and a few others, and ways to use these tools effectively.

About Web sites

Chyi, Yang, and Zheng (2009) explored differences between users who use the newspaper from only the online platform and those who use the print newspaper in conjunction with the various online offerings. Those who used the newspapers in hybrid format used the online version to seek specific information and were satisfied overall with their paper’s website.

According to Pew Research Center’s State of the Media 2009, the number of newspapers with websites and alternate content, like email alerts, phone applications and interactive components to their websites, are increasing each year.

Chyi and Lewis (2009) studied 68 metro dailies and found that the print editions were still reaching more local readers than the online editions of the same newspaper. This could be in part because the online platform attracts readers outside of the daily print circulation area.

Lowery (2003) found that the majority of online editions were not from large metro dailies, but from small newspapers, which dominate the industry. But innovation on news sites for smaller newspapers lagged behind their larger counterparts, pointing to staffing shortages and less experienced online staffs at those papers. Lowery concludes that a prominent factor that pushes smaller newspapers to go online is competition in their market. The less competition, the more they are willing to chance an online endeavor. He found that the community itself has little effect on its newspaper going online.

Online presence of newspapers began 25 years ago with Viewtron offered by Knight-Ridder newspapers (Harper, 1997). By 1996, Harper’s study of newspaper and magazine editors found 77% planned to have an online edition soon. A report from the Newspaper Association of America said: “Whether these new channels include interactive TV, online computer services, CD-ROM technology or other emerging technologies, newspapers must ensure their place as the primary information provider regardless of the pipeline.” (Consoli, 1994). Harper (1997) examined every newspaper online in 1996 (including the three largest papers in Alabama).  The newspapers, at this point, had not figured out how to profit from online endeavors

An Eckelbecker study (2002) continued to find that most newspapers were not making enough money from their online endeavors to justify keeping them. These two studies would explain why so many newspapers held back before creating websites, and why some still hold back before embracing new technologies. In 2010, many newspapers are still struggling to find an economic model that makes online newspapers lucrative..

Surveys conducted before 2000 indicated that 82 percent of Internet users checked newspaper Web pages, second only to email usage in reasons given for using the World Wide Web (Strupp, 1999). A more recent study indicated that news remains among the most popular Internet activities (Lin, Salwen, Garrison, & Driscoll, 2005).

Rosenberry (2005) and Tankard and Ban (1998) found that few newspapers are using the Internet’s full potential for interactivity, multimedia and hypertext links to improve coverage.

For instance, studies (Greer & Mensing, 2004; Lowrey, 2003), have found that smaller circulation newspapers typically have fewer features on their Web sites than the larger newspapers.  Citing previous studies, Greer and Mensing (2004) indicated that the smaller newspaper Web sites had less frequent updates, fewer multimedia elements, and fewer interactive items.

While many of these studies examined newspapers at a single point, Greer and Mensing conducted a longitudinal study of U.S. newspaper Web sites from 1997 to 2004. They found the newspaper sites were offering more of everything (content, multimedia items, interactivity, and revenue-generating materials). However, they also concluded that size did matter.

About Social Media

Greenhow (2009) suggests in an article that journalism should jump on the Facebook bandwagon because it is a way to reach the lucrative market of tweens, teens and young adults. The article says this medium is the main way in which these age groups are interacting with the world, and news organizations have the opportunity to get on their level and interact with them as well. The article also mentions a new term, “Faceworking” which is what happens when people intentionally put their social networking site to work, seeking or promoting information, sharing and creative inspiration.

Thompson (2009) came to a similar conclusion as Greenhow and suggests that newspapers should use social media, especially in cases where the news that is being reported relates directly to a group (like tweens, teens and young adults) who are ingrained within the world of social media already. Thompson describes how the Tallahassee Democrat used Youtube, Facebook and Twitter to actively seek out a young audience for a news story about a 23-year-old college graduate killed while working for police in a drug sting gone bad. The Tallahassee Democrat knew that to reach the demographic closest to the victim’s age, they would have to get creative. Most individuals in this age group very seldom come in contact with an actual newspaper. Thompson touts the successful experience of the Tallahassee Democrat as an example of how all newspapers could use social media to reach a niche audience successfully.

Mashable also has a “Social Media Guide for Journalists” which includes detailed explanations of social media tools and how journalists and news organizations can use them to dispense and share their content. Betancourt (2009) provides a journalist’s guide to Facebook. In her guide she stresses that Facebook is a way to connect to communities involved in stories, find sources and generate leads. She also says for media companies, Facebook is a way to build community and reach a larger audience. A good journalist who is well connected on Facebook can get story ideas from their friends. “Journalists should be using Facebook as a tool to unearth timely conversations around their topic or local community,” said J. D. Lasica, former editor of the Sacramento Bee.

Betancourt (2009) also provides a journalist’s guide to Twitter. In her guide she stresses that Twitter is a way to engage their audience, connect with sources and continue building their personal brands. This format also forces writers to get to the point quickly and focus their attention. She points out some media professionals who use Twitter to crowdsource and to promote stories. There is also a website that is branched off of Twitter called Muck Rack which is the compiled real time Twitter activity of journalists. She also gives an overview of “tweet deck” which allows users to track tweets on certain topics or follow groups. Betancourt’s suggestions: Get engaged, read replies, respond, start as a listener, post a profile picture, talk to your boss about their philosophy on Twitter, treat your tweets like a microblog, but don’t turn Twitter into a non-stop back and forth exchange.

Palser (2009) discusses in an article how news outlets should use Twitter to reach audiences that their print editions will never be able to reach. Palser says that what most news organizations who are using Twitter are doing, simply sending their headlines directly to Twitter, isn’t the best policy but an acceptable start.

As reported by Emmett (2009), Vivian Schiller, outgoing senior vice president and general manager of said that social media was a valuable tool for news organizations. “Though the long-term viability of any individual social networking site or technology is completely unproven,” she said, “readers will engage with each other and share stories. That is a given.”

Trejbal (2008), in his article, “Know what’s in your toolbox, then build,” wrote that “people seek updates at all hours. If they cannot find regular posts, comments, and a place to interact with each other and editorial writers on our sites, they will go elsewhere. You’re big, and powerful. Readers expect so much of you, that if you’re not keeping pace with innovation, they knock you as being out-of-date.”

About Mobile

Blachford (2010) found that according to reports from Apple, iPhone and iPod Touch owners have downloaded more than 3 billion applications since the app store launched July 2008. Growing use of apps is not unique to Apple, though. Apps are growing for all mobile devices. According to Blachford, “apps are an important evolutionary step in information delivery. They allow a publisher to reach readers in a whole new space, not just on the couch or the computer. Apps go where the phone goes: to the grocery store, on vacation, to the ballgame.”
Blachford pointed out that some publications are repackaging their information for a mobile delivery, while others are creating completely new material strictly for use on a mobile device.

The first handheld cellular telephone call was made in Manhattan in April 1983; within 35 years, about 2.8 billion (out of 6.6 billion) people worldwide have become mobile phone subscribers. No technology has ever experienced such a rapid adoption rate as has the mobile phone (Castells, Qiu, & Fernandez-Ardevol, 2006).

Many Alabama newspapers, like many national newspapers, have chosen to wait and see where the future leads and wait to ensure that new technologies don’t fizzle out after they put resources into developing content for them. Bob Sims from said that eventually plans to have an application for the iPhone and the iPad. He also said that he doesn’t know when that time will come because it is so expensive to develop a good application. Justin Thurman, online director at The Anniston Star, had similar sentiments about innovations. Thurman said that, especially in today’s economy, it is a huge leap for any newspaper to spend resources for something that it can’t guarantee will work or it can’t guarantee will be usable for an acceptable length of time.


This article relies on original research undertaken by the Knight Fellows in Community Journalism in spring 2010: a content analysis of offerings of Alabama newspapers. Other sources for this article include:

Betancourt, L. (2009). “The Journalist’s Guide to Facebook.” Mashable

Betancourt, L. (2009). “The Journalist’s Guide to Twitter.” Mashable

Betancourt, L. (2009). “The Journalist’s Guide to YouTube.” Mashable

Blachford, Lori. Revving up for Mobile Delivery of Information. AEJMC.

Chyi, H., & Lewis, S. (2009). Use of Online Newspaper Sites Lags Behind Print Editions. Newspaper Research Journal, 30(4), 38-53.

Chyi, H. I., Yang, M. J., Lewis, S. C., & Zheng, N. (2009). Local newspaper readership in the 21st century: Exploring differences between ‘hybrid’ and online-only users. Conference Papers — International Communication Association, , 1-28.

Chyi, H. I. (2005). Willingness to pay for online news; An empirical study on the viability of the subscription model. Journal of Media Economics, 18(2), 131.

Chyi, H. I. & Lasorsa, D. An explorative study on the market relation between online and print newspapers; Journal of Media Economics; 2002 Vol. 15, 16p.

Eckelbecker, L. (2002, May 12). Fee or free?; Newspapers struggle with pay-nothing culture of the Internet. Telegram & Gazette, p. E1.

Emmett, Arielle. (2009). Networking News. American Journalism Review, December 2008/January 2009, 40-43.

Greenhow, C. & Reifman, J (2009). Engaging Youth in Social Media: Is Facebook the New Media Frontier?. Nieman Reports, 63(3), 53-55. Retrieved from Communication & Mass Media Complete database.

Gubman, J., & Greer, J. (1997, August). An analysis of online sites produced by U.S. newspapers: Are the critics right? Paper presented at the 80th annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Chicago.

Harper, C. (1997). Online Newspapers: Going somewhere or going nowhere? Newspaper Research Journal, 17(3/4), 2-14.

International Telecommunication Union. (2007). Internet indicators: subscribers, users, andbroadband subscribers.

Lowery, W. (2003). What influences small newspapers to decide to publish online news? Newspaper Research Journal, summer, 80(2), 83-90.

O’Brien, C. Knight Digital Media Center, “Mobilizing for Mobile: Are news organizations lagging?”

Palser, B. (2009). Hitting the Tweet Spot. American Journalism Review, 31(2), 54.

Pew Research Center (2004). Online news audience larger, more diverse: News audiences increasingly politicized. Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

Pew Research Center (2006). Online papers modestly boost newspaper readership: Maturing Internet news audience broader than deep. Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

Rosenberry, J. (2005). Few Papers Use Online Techniques to Improve Public Communication. Newspaper Research Journal 26(4). 61-73.

Tankard, J. & Ban, H. (1998). “Online Newspapers: Living up to Their Potential?” (paper presented at AEJMC conference Baltimore, Md, August 1998.).

Thompson. Julia L., (2009) “Using social media to reach young readers” Nieman Reports Spring 2009 27-29.

Trejbal, Christian. (2008). Know What’s In Your Toolbox, Then Build. The Masthead, Summer 2008, 10-11.

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