Case Study

Behind the scenes of Alabama Media Group's digital transformation

By Hayley Slusser

March 23, 2023

Ten digital covers for The Lede, Alabama Media Group's interactive, subscriber-only e-edition.

Print copies of four newspapers in Alabama and Mississippi — The Birmingham News, Huntsville Times, Mobile Press-Register, and The Mississippi Press — rolled off the presses for the last time in February.

As of Feb. 27, subscribers and news consumers in Alabama are now served seven days per week by The Lede, an interactive, subscriber-only e-edition. The Lede includes much of the coverage readers came to expect in the newspaper — local news, sports, and opinion; wire coverage of national and international affairs; and comics, puzzles, and more. 

The move was part of a years-long effort by publisher Alabama Media Group, which is part of the national chain Advance Publications, to reduce its reliance on print. AMG announced in November 2022 that it would cease printing all newspapers after Feb. 26. But the company’s transformation began more than a decade ago as it reduced print production from seven to three days weekly in 2012 and created, the free centralized online home for its news coverage. 

The product offering expanded beyond these news platforms in the years since. In addition to the editions of The Lede that it publishes in each of its markets, AMG is home to several brands serving a variety of purposes, including lifestyle brands This Is Alabama, People of Alabama, It’s a Southern Thing, along with Reckon, a national social change publication, and Alabama Education Lab, which produces in-depth education reporting that is shared across AMG’s platforms. 

Though digital transformation can seem daunting, Alabama Media Group President Tom Bates said news organizations already know they have to plan for a future without print in order to reach more people than ever before. 

“We have the benefit of knowing where things are going — in fact, already have gone. It’s already happening,” he said. “We have the benefit of knowing, ‘Hey, we need to figure out the business side of a digital operation.’”

Bates and his colleagues shared the steps they took to prepare their business for a digital future beyond print, beginning with a simple shift in language. 

1. Reframe the organization as a media company, not a newspaper

There’s a reason why the parent company of, its regional publications, and its other brands is called Alabama Media Group — it’s because the organization is positioning itself as a digital company, not a mere “newspaper website.”

“We’re able to do more for readers online — videos, podcasts, it’s more urgent,” Bates said. “We’re deeply committed to the local communities and doing high-quality journalism, but I think we’re somewhat platform agnostic and excited about the storytelling you can do digitally.” 

This positioning creates an understanding among staff and audience members that there are multiple ways to distribute news and information beyond a traditional newspaper, and that no single product will serve every need. 

Advertisers also have an increased awareness that audiences can be reached through a variety of media. Alabama Media Group said its digital ad business has grown by 67% since 2017 and almost 40% since 2019, with a client base that extends well beyond the state.

2. Develop a portfolio of brands and products for multiple revenue sources

Establishing multiple streams of revenue created the foundation for print elimination and will continue to help the organization’s public-interest journalism. For Alabama Media Group, diversifying revenue began as an experiment with sports products. In 2015, it had the idea to package sports videos like shows, which earned them sponsorships. One of the first packages was a conversation between basketball hall of famer and Alabama native Charles Barkley with Nick Saban, the head coach of the University of Alabama football team. 

“We made a big deal about it, and we were able to get some sponsorships,” Bates said. 

After seeing how successful a new sports product was, the team at AMG also began repackaging lifestyle content. In 2016, it established This Is Alabama, which shares positive daily videos, photos and articles about the people, places, and things that make the state great. 

A year later, AMG launched It’s a Southern Thing, which was designed to expand the company’s reach beyond Alabama and offers stories and humor about life in the South.

This Is Alabama, It’s a Southern Thing, and People of Alabama are all part of Red Clay Media, which spun off from the news operation in 2017 and has a dedicated 20-person team. These brands generate revenue for the company through advertising, sponsorships, merchandise, and, since they have developed an extensive video archive over the years, even content licensing. 

Elizabeth Hoekenga Whitmire, vice president of audience, said news organizations can often find new opportunities for growth by listening to their audiences. 

“You can start small and move quickly,” she said. “Going back to It’s a Southern Thing, for example — we did not wake up one morning and go, ‘We should do Southern comedy videos.’ We got there by experimenting with the audience we already had, and we moved quickly when we saw there was an opportunity.” 

3. Reorganize staff structure and generate internal support

Alabama Media Group moved away from a traditional newsroom structure, which was often centered around print sections. Staffing is organized around the company’s digital priorities and audiences. Each product has its own dedicated team of reporters and editors, and some audience staff members span all of the brands. 

Staffers with diverse skill sets are on each team that work across the products, which allows for collaboration. A story that runs on one platform can easily be repackaged to serve a different audience, Bates said. A recent example is the Banking on Crime investigative series on and in The Lede, which covered policing for profit. The investigators then worked with Red Clay Media and Reckon to produce a documentary and contributed additional reporting.

AMG was able to thoughtfully make the decision to eliminate print because it already had the workflows in place to support its new strategy.

As part of the move away from print, AMG laid off 110 people, 74 employees in print production and 36 staffers in print sales, operations, and circulation, The Wall Street Journal reported last fall. The company says it plans to invest in more journalists and grow its editorial team.   

It did take time for staff members to adjust. But Kelly Ann Scott, vice president of content, said most Alabama Media Group employees were accepting of the transformation because the organization’s mission of “changing laws, lives, and minds” never changed. 

“I think it’s about relevance. I don’t know of any reporters who don’t want their work to be read, seen, or part of the conversation. Helping people understand the relevance of their work across every platform has really been important,” Scott said.

4. Create a unique product that meets the needs of existing print readers

Rather than simply direct its 30,000 print subscribers to, which is free to read, AMG created The Lede, subscriber-only, market-specific e-editions delivered via email newsletter to replace the print versions of The Birmingham News, The Huntsville Times, and The Mobile Press-Register.

The e-editions are published on a digital platform developed by Twipe, a Belgian firm that manages replica and digital editions for newspaper publishers.  

About a year ago, The Lede began as a complement to the print newspaper, as it was released on the off days of the printing schedule. Now, it will run daily and contain coverage that was once in the newspaper plus additional coverage. 

The elimination of print is still in its early days, and the AMG team said it will have a better idea of how many subscribers successfully transitioned to The Lede later in the year. The success of the transition beyond print is dependent on the company’s ability to retain its subscribers on the digital-only platforms.

Using metrics from, the team identified topics of interest to each city that will be explored further in The Lede: real estate and development for Huntsville, news on Mobile’s local industries like shipping, fishing, shipbuilding, and oil, and unifying issues like transportation and employment for Birmingham.

Scott said many people appreciate the curated nature of The Lede, which is similar to a physical newspaper, and the hyperlocal content it offers compared to a site like The product isn’t designed to funnel people into a website, either — Bates said much of the content is in the e-edition for subscribers, just how it was once right in the printed pages. 

“There’s a gap sometimes in our industry, where we think a newspaper is where local news happens and digital doesn’t create the same sense of community — but it in fact does,” Scott said. “You can have these relationships, and you can have that same relevance and impact. It’s work, and you’ve got to think about it in a different way.”

5. Communicate with your audience regularly

Even before the concept of The Lede was created, AMG relied on audience feedback to develop a new product. It might be easy to dismiss the more negative reviews of new products as simply people being opposed to change, but Scott said taking the time to understand their specific concerns proved to be valuable. 

“That group that loves you enough to give you constructive feedback is one of the best groups to really interact with,” she said. 

As the deadline for print elimination approached, the team began removing some of the content from the paper and redirecting readers to The Lede. It used bills, direct mail, email, and webinars to contact subscribers directly to explain the transition, and provided special training related to print elimination to staff at Advance Local’s centralized call center to answer questions related to the transition and collect feedback. 

Bates said emphasizing the benefits of having digital, round-the-clock news access with an increased focus on hyperlocal, in-depth reporting was key to encouraging readers to maintain their subscriptions. For individuals who still want to cancel their subscriptions, the team is introducing them to other free products like or podcasts to ensure they still have access to news. 

The team is optimistic about its ability to continue fulfilling its mission and providing people across Alabama with news and information that can improve their lives. 

“It’s pretty exciting how many people we reach, how many people see our content, and how much impact we can have. I understand that our industry has challenges, but building something like we are — it’s really cool,” Scott said. “This is about building what we want to be, and I think that’s a mindset shift that’s really important for organizations.”

Alabama Media Group spoke to participants in the Beyond Print program in 2022, a program operated by the American Press Institute. Beyond Print is funded by an anchor donation from the Andrew and Julie Klingenstein Family Fund with additional funding from The Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund, a joint initiative of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and The Lenfest Institute for Journalism.

The Lenfest Institute, a Beyond Print key design and program partner, has been publishing lessons and best practices from the Beyond Print cohort to help share resources with other news organizations working to create digital-first revenue streams. You can find all the updates here. If you would like to receive upcoming insights and updates, please complete this form.

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