Q&A: Paul Finebaum on the decline of reporting & today’s media environment

Alabama’s most influential media voice is Paul Finebaum. His radio show dominates the sports conversation in this state, and Finebaum is uniquely positioned to talk about today’s media. Finebaum worked in newspapers as a beat reporter, investigative reporter and columnist; last year he penned a column for Sports Illustrated on college football. This gives Finebaum an important perspective on journalism.

In this Q&A, Finebaum talks about the decline of the newspaper, the rise of talk radio, the decline of quality reporting and the factors shaping today’s media environment. This is part of our series of interviews with important voices in college football. You can read earlier posts from our Finebaum interview including Finebaum’s Daily Must Reads and Finebaum’s thoughts on race and football in Alabama.

Q: Has the closure of the Post-Herald lowered the quality of journalism in Birmingham?
Finebaum: “I’ll give you a cliché that you’ll get from any journalism school in the country—competition does help. I don’t think competition is the issue any longer in Birmingham. The Post-Herald’s influence was gone five or six years before the newspaper folded. I don’t think it affected the (Birmingham) News very much.

“I think the Birmingham News is more fighting itself than it is the industry. I think they have moved very slow and are later to the party like so many other mainstay media institutions. Now they are trying to smother people with what they can do digitally. Unfortunately, they are just another fish in that big blue sea.”

Q: How are newspapers different today compared to when you first arrived in Birmingham?
Finebaum: “If you go back 30 years, newspapers set the agenda. In every newsroom in the state, whether radio or television, they got the morning newspaper which was the Post-Herald and it influenced coverage, but that changed over the years.

“I spoke to a group a year ago of about 70 or 80 young, under 35…and I asked these 70 or 80 people, ‘How many of you read the Birmingham News every morning?’ and I think one person raised their hand. What has happened is not only do a miniscule amount of people read the morning paper, but very few people want to admit to reading it.

“I don’t know how to explain that, but every time I talk about it I get letters from publishers talking about how relevant the newspaper is. It is just easier to say the newspaper business has become tired and insignificant, and it has become that. I don’t know if you can blame the Birmingham News or the industry in general. I really think it is more indicative of the industry. I think the News did a phenomenal job during the tornado. I really do. I know the Tuscaloosa News won the Pulitzer, but I think the Birmingham News was exceptional.

Q: Do you notice a difference in the quality of reporting on the sports page versus the news and political sections?
Finebaum: “I don’t know. I don’t read the paper that closely and I’m not longer really in the industry. I do find the overall reporting in the sports world to be very poor. I still think newspapers do good things. There is good enterprise.

“I used to be an investigative reporter. To be an investigative reporter, you have to have time. You cannot be on a deadline. You don’t have time to blog. You don’t have time to tweet. You don’t have time to show up at meetings. It is like being a homicide detective; you just go and don’t come back until you get the story. I had an editor tell me that once. He literally looked at me and he was a gruff old guy and said in much harsher language, ‘Don’t come back until you get it.’

“I don’t know if you can do that anymore because number one, you are understaffed and secondly there is the pressure to put stuff out. I spend a lot of time reading Twitter, I read tweets from various people in the industry, and it looks like they have a quota to put out ten tweets an hour about nonsense. You can’t do that if you are out there reporting and now as you well know, people are getting the information and tweeting it immediately and saying I’ll have a story in an hour.

“I’m dating myself, but I didn’t even tell people at the newspaper what I was working on back then because it was too important and too sensitive let alone tweet it.”

Q: Do you think talk radio helped or hurt reporting?
Finebaum: “It clearly affected it. I don’t think it helped it very much. What happened in talk radio is that everyone became a reporter. This was the precursor to where we are today. In the late 80s and early 90s you could get people who became fairly well known who would call up and say they know something and say they have a friend of a friend. They went from calling in to a radio show to gravitating to blogs. Then you would get a guy on say Tider Insider that has a reputation that would say, ‘I understand Alabama or Auburn is going to be investigated.’”

“That affected reporting because reporters would read the same thing. Don’t let them tell you they didn’t. They do. It is to the point now that I think reporters get most of their information from blogs and twitter. They get their leads. I’m not sure they get their stories, but they are constantly following whatever people are telling them.

“There came a point when the newspaper business went into freefall, jobs started getting cut, the one thing a reporter couldn’t afford is to get in trouble with their bosses. When I was a reporter, early in my career, I had the full support of my bosses. There were lawsuits filed. We had a trial. You have to have the full and undivided support. I had coaches try to get me fired. I had coaches call trying to get me off beats.

“Now days, theoretically, if you are the Auburn beat reporter or Alabama beat reporter at any newspaper in the state, and you tick someone off and your editor or publisher gets a call, your job could be on the line. Where 25 or 30 years ago, the editor or publisher might support you, now they can’t afford to.

“I’m getting to the trickledown effect of all this and I think this is why reporting is so bad. When I was a newspaper reporter, my goal was to win the Pulitzer. Now your goal is to keep your job or get a better job. How are you going to get a better job if you either tick off the people who matter or you tick off the fan base that supports you? The next thing you know on various sites whether it is yours or someone else’s, they are saying, ‘This guy hates Alabama. He is out to get Alabama.’ That is going to affect your job. All this stuff circles back. You are not going to see very good reporting, you are not going to see anyone challenged and you are going to get what we have had in this state, which is pretty average reporting.”

Q: How can fans know whom to trust?
Finebaum: “It is difficult. It is a very difficult thing because if they don’t think you like their team, then you are going to get in trouble. I think fans are pretty savvy. I think fans pick up on it, and programs pick up on it. You have guys who cover both beats who are credible, and then you have guys who cover both beats who are complete jokes.

Q: Today we have the NFL Network, the Big Ten Network, and talk the SEC could launch its own network—the SEC already has its own digital network with a website that employees several professional journalists to write for it. How do you think this has changed journalism? Is it a good or bad thing to have journalists working for the entities they supposedly cover?

Finebaum: “It is a bad thing because what you are getting now is pretty much bought and paid for news media. It is a bad thing, but it is also the way it is. I’m in shock every time I see someone who I respect as a journalist end up writing for one of these entities. It is the times. You had a to guy at Sports Illustrated leave recently who went to work for MLB or something. There is more money to be made and that is where the action is.

“Here is the deal. Fans don’t care. I can’t say I’m an expert on MLB.com, NBA.com or NFL.com, because I know what it is, so I stay away from it. But what fans are looking for is information. What made Fox News so dominant? People felt comfortable watching it. What makes various radio programs comfortable?

Q: does this make ESPN, NY TIMES, CBS SPORTS more important?
Finebaum: “Yes. There is no more influential medium in sports in this country. It is the biggest brand name. It carries the biggest weight. It carries the most clout. If something is on ESPN, whether the dot com or any of the platforms, it is going to be seen and heard by so many different people. When was the last time you walked into a restaurant and ESPN wasn’t on one of the televisions at the bar?

“I know Yahoo has done well, but I dare say that ESPN.com is the most powerful medium right now.”

Tomorrow, we’ll post more of our interview with Finebaum with a focus on the state of Alabama and Auburn football and along with a few thoughts on a few other SEC powers.