Denial of coverage


The Birmingham Business Journal banned any stories on my company

Birmingham Business Journal

I’m a lucky man. I do what I love, consulting work and big events. And I get great coverage in the media and on blogs, especially here in Birmingham.

I owe part of that to my familiarity with local media, having worked in it the majority of my career. And I owe part of it to doing newsworthy things (or at least, things I think editors and reporters will find worth sharing in their media outlets).

Airing grievances seems to me a petty exercise. I hate doing it. But what I hate more is the possibility that another small business owner will endure what I have over these last few months.

My grievance is that the Birmingham Business Journal is engaged in an unethical practice: denying editorial coverage solely to further its business interests.

Joel WelkerThe president and publisher, Joel Welker, left, has forbidden any coverage of my social media conference, Y’all Connect, because he believes it competes too closely with the Journal’s own events.

I’m pissed for three reasons:

1. I’m a fan of the weekly newspaper and the site. My friend and former Birmingham Post-Herald colleague Cindy Crawford has served capably as its editor for more than 7 years. I share their stories on social media and in my email newsletters with thousands of people all the time.

2. I’m a fan of the Journal’s events, monthly seminars that help attendees with business topics while smartly cross-promoting the publication and adding to the bottom line. I bought a ticket to one earlier this year and learned so much about transitioning a business to new ownership.

I’m such a fan that I helped the Journal set up one of its most successful workshops through our nonprofit organization, the Alabama Social Media Association, in 2011. The outlet’s regular series of social media seminars started by featuring three ALsocme leaders as unpaid presenters, and 3 years later, it continues to thrive, selling out on a regular basis with more workshops each year.

3. I believe strongly in practicing ethical journalism, having studied it, worked on it and taught it in various newsrooms and classrooms. To deny editorial coverage based on business concerns is truly despicable.

I worked as a features editor for 8 years at the Birmingham Post-Herald. We tried to cover everything for our daily newspaper, despite the limits of staffing and budgets. If we missed something, it’s either because we ran out of time or had no idea it existed.

I set priorities in our coverage. While I didn’t make perfect decisions, we worked very hard as a staff to cover (and uncover) a wide variety of feature stories throughout the community.

We didn’t punt coverage because we thought it might affect our business interests, for example, if an advertiser would drop ads after a negative story on its company. We covered organizations with an even hand, sometimes in spite of their hostility toward us, for example, the Alabama Symphony Orchestra would hold its annual season announcements exclusively for our competitor, but we still covered this institution vigorously.

Sadly, the Journal does not appear to adhere to such strict guidelines.

A Journal reporter did mention Y’all Connect in an online 43-word brief in January, so I had no reason to think it would lead to an outright ban on coverage.

I tried three times to connect with the Journal:

• In March, I contacted audience development director Ginger Aarons about a potential media sponsorship, the first time I ever offered such a package to any outlet for Y’all Connect in its 16-month history. Her response on April 14: “After discussing with Joel [Welker], we have decided to pass on the media sponsorship as it competes too closely with the social media courses we put on throughout the year.”

I guess I can’t fault them for keeping their business outreach unmuddled with an outside event in the same category.

• In late April, I contacted the Journal about placing ads in the print edition. After receiving a rate card, I started negotiations by asking for a 43 percent discount. (It’s a common practice to negotiate rates below the published rate card at most publications. I’ve seen it at the publications at which I’ve worked during the last 20 years.)

The Journal would not negotiate, despite its anemic 26 percent ad/edit ratio in the April 18 edition. It has since climbed to 30 percent in the June 6 edition.

(Ad/edit ratio is an industry yardstick measuring the amount of space devoted to advertising vs. editorial. I did not count house ads in these calculations.)

When I say the Journal would not negotiate, I mean Joel Welker would not budge a single penny off the rate card. I’ve never seen any publication refuse to discuss rates in my entire journalism career.

• Also in March, in trying to reach Ginger Aarons, I emailed her colleague Anne Senft. She offered, without prompting: “We would be happy to help push your event out I know. If you want to send the info to us. I can also put it on my networking email that goes out each week to about 6,500 people.”

What a great offer. I sent the info and waited.

Two months later, I hadn’t seen Y’all Connect mentioned in her weekly email. I emailed her twice with no response. By the time it was too late, I emailed her an angry barb, “Well, I guess I know what a promise from you is worth now.”

Her reply on May 26: “I am sorry. I was told I was not able to include it on my email because it was not a networking event and is a conflict with our social media events.”

I tried to partner with the Journal. I tried to buy an ad. I even fell for a promise from the Journal.

When asked for comment by email Friday, Journal president and publisher Joel Welker said, “Before I respond to your email, which of my two colleagues stated that the Birmingham Business Journal will not do any coverage of Y’all Connect blogging/social media conference because it competes with the BBJ’s own social media workshops?”

Update June 16: Joel Welker added this statement: “The BBJ has not banned editorial coverage of your company or your event, and we do not ban coverage of events that compete with ours. In addition to the January post you mention, we provided editorial coverage of your event for several consecutive weeks in our print edition calendar leading up to the event.

“The three instances you noted (a media sponsorship, discounted advertising and a networking email) did not pertain to news coverage. They involved our advertising/audience development departments, which are not responsible for or involved in editorial coverage decisions. Our editors make coverage decisions for the BBJ based solely on editorial merit and newsworthiness.”

I understand that my conference is but one of thousands of business events in Birmingham. It may be the only blogging and social media conference in Alabama and one of the largest in the Southeast, offering something far different than what the Journal has at its seminars, but no matter.

And I understand that Advance Publications, the Journal’s owner, may be pulling out all the stops to survive in a collapsing industry. (Its sister company removed one of my sites, Media of Birmingham, from its directory in 2013, only to add it back later. The reason for its removal was because the editors found it “too heavily anti-Advance.” The site has covered Advance and its Birmingham companies regularly.)

But someday, the Birmingham Business Journal may find even more creative ways to expand — beyond print, and Web, and events — to something in which your company specializes. What then when you’re denied any editorial coverage, not because you’re not newsworthy, but because you’re just too darn good at what you do?

I’m a lucky man, but I should hope you’re not as lucky as me, at least when it comes to this.


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