Just in Time for Katrina@10, Times-Picayune to Cut More Staff

Banner story in The Times-Picayune on June 17, 2012, by newly named publisher Ricky Mathews, promising the-then 175-year-old newspaper and its newer website would remain a fixture in New Orleans.

As New Orleans prepares to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29, most media watchers assume The Times-Picayune will produce its own retrospective on the tremendous sacrifice many of its staff made in chronicling the storm and its aftermath. That work led to two Pulitzer Prizes, countless other national and international awards, and worldwide praise for heroism by many Times-Picayune journalists, even as about one-third lost their homes because of flooding caused by the region’s failing levees. (Katrina is a major character in Hell and High Water, and Chapter 4 is devoted to the response to the storm by The Times-Picayune’s staff and its role in the newspaper’s contemporary legacy. The book also details the company’s regular invocation of Katrina when defending or explaining its latest transformation, references that more than irked many employees and the community.)

Instead of somber contemplation about the greatest natural and engineering disaster in U.S. history and the newspaper’s role in chronicling it, it seems that employees remaining at the once-revered 178-year-old publication will be consumed with avoiding the ax as sweeping staff cuts once again strike the operation.

Alternative Gambit Weekly reported today (June 17) that Director of State and Metro Content Mark Lorando spent part of that day and Tuesday meeting with small groups of employees about the coming layoffs, describing them to at least one colleague as “deep.” “They’re being pretty upfront,” one newsroom staffer told Gambit Editor Kevin Allman, who along with The New York Times’ late media reporter David Carr, led coverage of the 2012 dismantling of the newspaper. Another T-P staffer joked grimly to Allman that it may be “2012 redux” — referring to when hundreds of Times-Picayune employees, freelancers and contractors lost their livelihoods in obedience to corporate owner Advance Publications’ new “digital first” strategy.

Many Times-Picayune reporters and photographers lauded for their work covering Katrina and its aftermath were laid off during the 2012 purge, and many more either left the market or business, or jumped ship to join The Advocate newspaper of Baton Rouge after it was acquired by New Orleans billionaire John Georges and expanded into New Orleans later that year. (Those defections are detailed in Chapter 5 of the book.) About 50 now listed on NOLA.com’s online staff list remain from 2005.

The latest restructuring will occur “in the latter half of 2015” – perhaps around the time of the Katrina anniversary – and be completed by early 2016, “sources with knowledge of the plan” told Allman.

Because of the company’s preoccupation with website traffic to NOLA.com, the 2012 layoffs spared functions generally responsible for generating the largest share, namely sports, features and entertainment/arts. However, it appears there will be no sacred cows in the coming layoffs, Gambit reported, although it’s unclear whether duplicate positions in New Orleans and Alabama, like copy editors, will be consolidated, perhaps at corporate owner Advance Publications’ newspapers in Mobile or Birmingham. (Much of the Picayune’s copyediting operation – once the quality control hub of newspapers – was eliminated in 2012. Careful readers regularly detail mistakes and errors that plague the website and printed edition, sometimes serious blunders that historically often would have been caught and corrected by copyeditors before publication.)

“Also unclear when it comes to the [impending layoffs]: how much weight will be placed on each writer’s ‘clicks’” — a count of how many reader views a reporters’ stories garner — “which are closely tracked within NOLA Media Group,” Gambit reported.

The alt-weekly’s report followed one on NOLA.com Monday (June 15) in which the company announced its operations in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama would be consolidated into Advance’s newly established Southeast Regional Media Group. In addition to The Times-Picayune, Advance owns the Huntsville Times, Birmingham News and Mobile Press-Register in Alabama, and the Mississippi Press, along with scores of other newspapers around the country that largely also have been subjected to “digital first.”

Although NOLA.com’s story didn’t specify where the new regional operations would be headquartered, Gambit reported that most T-P staffers expect it to be in Mobile. Last fall, the company announced that the newspaper will shutter its presses in favor of printing the newspaper on the Press-Register’s presses some 180 miles away, beginning later this year  or early in 2016. Those layoffs or jobs transfers are either still underway or recently concluded, according to social  media posts from friends of those employees. That move will cost The Times-Picayune another 100 jobs and prompt closure of the newspaper’s iconic building along the city’s Pontchartrain Expressway. Once all operations have been relocated, execs have said the building will probably be donated to a New Orleans nonprofit.

An operational move to Mobile also makes sense because Ricky Mathews, the president

Fliers that popped up around town shortly after Mathews' was appointed publisher of The Times-Picayune in 2012.

Fliers that popped up around town shortly after Mathews’ was appointed publisher of The Times-Picayune in 2012.

and publisher of NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune promoted to head the new regional company, has a long history on the Gulf Coast, and operating expenses are probably lower there. Mathews has been widely vilified in New Orleans since arriving in 2012 to oversee the newspaper’s draconian transformation, and in the understatement of Gambit‘s latest report, has “failed to ingratiate himself among the rank and file.” (Chapters 6 and 9 in the book deal specifically with Mathews’ rocky tenure in New Orleans, and his earlier career in Mobile and Biloxi, Mississippi.)

However, “whatever detractors say about the print-to-digital swing in New Orleans, the company is happy with the job Ricky Mathews has done there,” said Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at journalism think tank and continuing education center Poynter Institute said Monday.

Two Major NOLA Grocers Abandon Times-Picayune for The Advocate

Newspaper circulars are the backbone of what’s left of the newspaper advertising AdvocateAppIconbusiness, so the news in Sunday’s Advocate is big: two of the largest grocery store chains in New Orleans, Rouses and Winn-Dixie, are shifting the bulk of their advertising to The New Orleans Advocate.

Over the next month, they will leave their advertising home of many decades, The Times-Picayune.

As Bruce Nolan, my former boss, “people’s reporter” and major character in the book noted when sharing this news on Facebook, this may sound like inside baseball to those who don’t know the newspaper business, but “this is a hard punch in the mouth” for NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune. “The rockslide triggered in 2012 rolls on,” (which the book documents), Nolan added.

However, New Orleans native and “TP Watcher” blogger Bill McHugh wonders if the switch has more to do with rock-bottom advertising rates offered by The Advocate than by the grocery chains’ interest in advertising in a daily, home-delivered newspaper. “You don’t need a daily paper to deliver a once-a-week grocery ad circular, which leads me to believe that the real reason for the switch has more to do with ad rates than circulation,” McHugh commented on Facebook. “Were Rouses and Winn-Dixie offered a sweetheart deal to get them to switch?

Poynter.org: Advance claims digital ad growth will outpace print declines in 2015

Advance_LocalIn his biannual letter to employees, Advance Local President Randy Siegel, the highest-ranking non-Newhouse family member in the Advance newspaper digital hierarchy, says the company is “poised to achieve a critical crossover point in 2015: digital advertising gains will exceed print newspaper ad losses,” Poynter Institute researcher and writer Rick Edmonds reports.

Randy Siegel

Advance Local President Randy Siegel

Underscoring that Advance’s New Orleans property isn’t the only one that loves to invoke marketing-speak when talking about its business, Siegel reports, “Our local sales and marketing teams have leveraged their entrepreneurial abilities and expansive digital knowledge to prove they can grow digital ad revenue faster than we’re losing print ad revenue. In 2015, our local leadership teams plan to generate higher total ad revenue in every one of our markets, reversing a longstanding trend of decline.”

Advance Local’s sites have averaged 55% traffic gains year-to-year, as measured by comScore, Siegel wrote, with Cleveland.com and SILive.com (Staten Island) more than doubling their audiences year-to-year in November.

Advance Local’s lofty prognostications aside, Edmonds reports that based on the aggregate results of publicly traded newspaper companies through the first three quarters of 2014 (many company’s fourth quarter’s results won’t be reported until next month), the yearlong results are expected “to show total revenue at most companies and the entire industry down again.”

“Other newspaper/digital companies may also be able to achieve revenue growth in 2015, though to my knowledge, Advance is first to make that promise.” Poynter Institute’s Rick Edmonds

Advance is a privately held company and consequently is not required to report the same level of detailed financial and operational data that publicly traded companies must disclose.

Edmonds notes that while Siegel’s letter highlights digital advertising, it doesn’t mention circulation revenue, which while a falling line item at almost all newspapers, is still a significant contributor for many. Add to that the fact that Advance’s newspaper websites are free, meaning they don’t reap digital subscription revenues the way a number of prominent newspapers now do.

And by publishing and/or home-delivering print newspapers fewer days in most of its markets, Advance has foregone print or bundled subscription price increases that “most of the rest of the industry” has enjoyed, Edmonds noted, adding that the industry overall saw successive 5% circulation revenue gains in 2012 and 2013, the most-recent available figures.

He does note that Advance has been right on two predictions: Newspaper “digital ad revenues could grow from a small base, and that print declines were irreversible. And in theory, it now has leaner operations well-positioned for growth into the future.”

Despite the thousands of jobs across the country that Advance has eliminated as part of “Digital First,” Siegel hinted that operations aren’t yet lean enough. “… this journey will take a little longer and be a little harder than we originally anticipated, which is why we continue to need to recalibrate our expenses,” he wrote.

The Empire Strikes Back: NOLA Media Group Responds to Advocate’s Marketing Ploy

The day after the New Orleans edition of The Advocate made a play for Times-Picayune subscribers confused and/or fed-up about the fourth change in home-delivery schedules/edition of the newspaper in 15 months, NOLA Media Group responds with a full-page house ad on page A-4 of today’s newspaper. (H/T to Bill McHugh, creator of the DumpThePicayune blog, for the scan of the ad):

Page A-4 of the Jan. 4, 2015 edition of The Times-Picayune

Page A-4 of the Jan. 4, 2015 edition of The Times-Picayune

Hell and High Water Runner-Up in 2014 National Federation of Press Women Awards

NFPW Award Winner 2014Hell and High Water has been named as 2014’s second-best non-fiction adult title by the National Federation of Press Women.

In the award write-up, judges called out the book’s mastery in recounting an historical event in a compelling way:

“Rebecca Theim tells a difficult story of the death of a beloved newspaper. True to her journalistic roots, she is thorough and balanced, though impassioned. She names names, points out mistakes and kudos, all while telling the story well, making her mastery of the narrative craft evident. The story is fast-moving and so well done, it is a lesson in how to record historical events in a way that captures the imagination and attention of any and all readers. Even if you have nothing to do with New Orleans or the newspaper business, this is well-told story of an important piece of history that you need to read.”

The National Federation of Press Women is an organization of professionals in careers across communications, including print and electronic journalism, public relations, advertising, and digital media. It conducts a national communications contest that attracts entries in 64 categories.

The complete list of winner is available here.

The Advocate Tries to Capitalize on Latest End of Saturday and Monday Times-Picayune

Times-Picayune subscribers who went to their driveways this morning unsure of whether an edition of the newspaper would be waiting for them (if you don’t know why, read THIS POST) were instead greeted with a copy of the New Orleans edition of The Advocate, with a special A-section wrap:

Wrap on the Jan. 3 edition of the New Orleans Advocate

Wrap on the Jan. 3 edition of the New Orleans Advocate

Headlined, “Where’s Your Times-Picayune?”, the wrap reminds readers that the Picayune is no longer a seven-day-a-week print newspaper, and invites them to enjoy this complimentary copy of The Advocate, “your locally owned, locally written daily newspaper by and for New Orleans.”

“The New Orleans Advocate believes New Orleans deserves a seven-day paper,” it concludes.

New Orleans Saints season is over, so is Picayune a 3-day-a-week, home-delivered newspaper again?

When NOLA Media Group in August announced it was reviving the Saturday and Monday printed, home-delivered editions of The Times-Picayune, it acknowledged that the move was driven by and would be in conjunction with the New Orleans Saints’ NFL football season. That left only Tuesdays and Thursdays without a home-delivered Times-Picayune.

Now that the 2014 Saints season is over, will The T-P again become a three-day-a-week (Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays), home-delivered newspaper?

And this T-P/Saints ruminating prompted me to wonder whatever happened to the Black & Gold post-Saints game weekly tabloid NOLA Media Group announced in July 2012? Both a Google search and one of NOLA.com turned up only the original report announcing the publication’s Oct. 1 launch. Was it replaced by TP Street?