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Community Publisher Profile: The Terminal, Birmingham, AL

I just forwarded a list of dates I’m available for sales calls during the next couple of weeks to my new ad sales person. The first step in the process is underway. I always thought this day would come. I just didn’t think it would take a little less than five years to finally get there.

About the Author

André Natta is a freelance writer and urbanist from The Bronx living in Birmingham, AL. He started and maintains The Terminal, an online community hub, writes a monthly column on technology and how it’s affecting the future of Birmingham, served as a founding organizer of WordCamp Birmingham and serves on several boards in his community.

I started The Terminal in 2007 as a way to fill a void in the local online scene. There wasn’t an easy way for people to find information about what was going on in Birmingham, AL online. We’d just seen the demise of the city’s afternoon daily print publication, the Birmingham Post-Herald. The Birmingham News, The Birmingham Times, Black & White and Birmingham Weekly still go to press, though their web presence at the time presented gaps in reporting on deeper local community issues.

There were other online portals in the city already in operation – Urbanham and Fleabomb but those sites focused mainly on the arts and culture scene in the city. When The Terminal launched, Fleabomb’s operator, Stanley Holditch, bought me a beer and said he’d always be willing to help out if possible. Russ McClinton of Urbanham made a similar pledge a week later. Stanley even plans to return to writing online – for The Terminal – beginning in September after having shut down Fleabomb in 2008.

The Terminal filled the gap left available by both of those sites and we did it by providing a collection of voices under one banner. That worked well, mostly, until The Great Recession finally reached Birmingham in late 2008. I’d always hoped to find a way to sell ads to generate income to pay people. I just couldn’t hold onto the people long enough to make that a reality.

What does the future hold for The Terminal? 

Hyperlocal site the Terminal, Birmingham, AL.

Hyperlocal site the Terminal, Birmingham, AL.

I’m not sure, but I think a significant part of what happens next for The Terminal lies in the hands of those folks who are loyal fans of the site. It’s easy for anyone to launch a site nowadays; it’s tougher to stay relevant and serve the community on the issues that are most important to them. Funding the work is another hill to climb.

The first generation of hyperlocal sites are facing new challenges, though some of them are a result of the type of community they’d long hoped to encourage. While I’m not sure of when or if a Patch site will be coming to metro Birmingham, I do know of three other projects that either plan to or have launched here before the end of the year. As these new community site projects were announced, I felt like it was a statement about the existing local community sites (e.g. The Terminal) not serving the community.

I’ve since learned that it makes sense to confirm that’s the sentiment of the community and not of a self-created bubble or worse – my own psyche. I realized by looking at this a different way the new sites slated for launch confirm demand is there, validation that there is a need in the community. The hope is with finite resources, and all of us searching for a business model to sustain essential content for our community, my fellow publishers will figure out how to work together (note I didn’t say write for each other) so that Birmingham benefits from a richer telling of their story.


Playing it forward

The audience can make your job so much easier if you encourage them to be a part of the community’s story. A major part of the reworking of The Terminal’s focus is based on “what to do” with our community offline. If there’s one thing I’ve learned more than anything else, it’s the importance of face-to-face interaction with those who’ve supported us over the years.

The Terminal's 4th anniversary celebration

The Birmingham community at #PieCampBhm, The Terminal's 4th anniversary celebration. Photo courtesy of The Terminal.

The Terminal enjoyed the most success when it was talking with its community and not at it. Many of the best scoops ever posted to the site came from people who’d come to trust what it stood for and what it wanted to do. Listening to the people who make up my audience allows me to do and face anything that, so far, has come my way.

We used to do monthly meetups (called the Terminally Happy Hour) and plan on starting them again this fall. We’ll work on providing more focus for these events, perhaps centering on issues such as transportation, education and urban revitalization. We plan on developing a series of reports about all of these issues in the coming months and believe that face-to-face conversations can only add to our coverage.

We’re also looking at doing more events like the one we held for our fourth anniversary in March.  Borrowing the idea from the folks at PieLab in Greensboro, AL, I asked community members to bring their favorite pie to the event. A local restaurant opened their doors for us with coffee provided by a local roaster. We had everything from pecan pie to Moon Pies to pizza. One of our local television stations sent a crew over to cover the festivities and folks are already excited for next year’s edition.


Building Blocks

John Archibald, Wade Kwon and André Natta at the Alabama PRSA meeting in 2008

Birmingham News' John Archibald, Magic City Post's Wade Kwon and The Terminal's André Natta speak at the Alabama PRSA meeting in 2008. Photo courtesy of The Terminal.

There’s also a need to provide resources as to how online tools like Twitter and Facebook can be used effectively for communication as well as marketing. I look at Chicago’s 435Digital as a great example of something to pattern such an initiative after, while also looking at things like buses as mobile experiments in collecting and sharing information in the community. I’d argue that we need to find ways to deliver to those we don’t think would read us, even if it means creating a half-page “best of what’s online” teaser to entice them to check out the site – whether at the house or the library.

It would be nice to be sipping on some champagne while enjoying some pie next year as The Terminal turns five. I often wonder what other sites like The Terminal are doing to shift from a community news start up to a sustainable community news business. If other publishers have stories to share, it would be great to hear them.

To the online publishers reading this that have been around for a few years, also a part of the first wave of hyperlocal sites, how are you sustaining your business, staying relevant and serving content up on the issues that are most important to your community?