Times-Picayune’s longtime HQ and initial Katrina refuge closing Jan. 17

TP Tower Beheaded

An open question related to NOLA Media Group’s departure from 3800 Howard Ave.: what will happen to the newspaper’s iconic clock tower?

The final edition of The Times-Picayune that will be published at the newspaper’s home of 48 years will roll off the presses Jan. 17, NOLA.com reported Thursday.

3800 Howard Ave. is where many newspaper employees weathered Hurricane Katrina and from which they fled in the back of newspaper delivery trucks as the area – along with 80% of New Orleans – flooded in the aftermath of the storm.

As previously announced, the newly minted Advance Media Southeast will move The Times-Picayune‘s production operations to the re-purposed former East Jefferson Bureau in suburban Metairie. Operations of what has been dubbed the “Advance Media Southeast Print Lab” began there this week, according to the report.

In addition to the Picayune, the four Alabama and Mississippi newspapers also owned by New York-based Advance Publications will be designed and produced there.

The company in October 2014 said printing of the Picayune would move to the presses of the Mobile Press-Register, one of Advance’s Alabama newspapers by the beginning of 2016, and would result in the loss of an additional 100 jobs. NOLA Media Group in September announced another round of layoffs, its third in three years, eliminating an additional 21% of the news outlet’s editorial operations.

While NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune has done some limited hiring, it has laid off at least 337 employees since its “digital first” foray in October 2012, not counting freelancers, stringers and newspaper delivery contractors. A least another 421 have lost their jobs at Advance’s three Alabama papers over the same period, with hundreds more losing jobs at Advance’s 30-odd newspapers from Portland, Oregon, to Mobile.

3800 Howard Avenue’s long history

Although NOLA Media Group announced the pending consolidation of its

TP Building Plaque

Plaque at 3800 Howard Ave. commemorating completion of the facility in 1967

facilities at the end of 2014, this week’s announcement was the first time a specific date has been provided for closure of 3800 Howard Ave. In addition to the main newsroom, the facility had housed the printing presses, packaging facilities and business offices since 1968. It is prominent along the Pontchartrain Expressway near downtown New Orleans largely because of the newspaper’s iconic clock tower.

Struggling newspaper companies across the country have sold their headquarters in recent years, usually because of the top dollar their often prime locations commanded. That’s not the case in New Orleans. While centrally located for traveling to many points in the metro area, 3800 Howard Ave. is part of a largely industrial corridor in a tough neighborhood. A lifelong resident noted Thursday that before construction of The Times-Picayune, the property was the Clio Street Dump and then the Silver City Dump from the late 1800s to the early 1930s.

NOLA Media Group announced earlier it would consider donating the site to a nonprofit, although nothing more regarding such a donation has been announced.

To coincide with the “cultural transformation” executives insisted their staff needed to undergo to ensure digital first’s success, NOLA.com’s main newsroom was relocated to the One Canal Place high-rise in the Central Business District in January 2013, where the company leases the top two floors.

Subscribers notified of 24% rate hike effective Jan. 1

Subscribers to the newspaper’s three-times-a-week home-delivered newspaper (editions are available at newsstands the remaining four days) also received mail notices this week informing them of a 24% rate increase beginning with their first post-Jan. 1 payment. The cost will jump from $16.95 to $20.95 a month.

One decades-long subscriber was so annoyed at the increase that he cancelled his subscription . He relayed the following conversation with a customer service representative in the newspaper’s Circulation Department:

Circulation: “I see you’ve been a subscriber for a long time. We’d hate to see you go. What if we continued your subscription at the old rate?”
Subscriber: “No.”
Circulation: “How about if we switch you to Sunday Only for $8.95 a month?”
Subscriber: “You know, your paper has gotten so bad I just don’t think I want to read it anymore.”
Circulation: “Gee, I’m sorry to hear that. What if we kept you at the old rate and threw in another month for free?”
Subscriber: “No, thanks.”
Circulation: “OK then, your subscription will stop at the end of the month.”
Subscriber: “That’s fine, thanks.”
Circulation: “OK. Thanks for reading The Times-Picayune.”

The exchange underscores the company’s desperation to hold on to its dwindling print subscribers, who are needed to preserve the higher rates print advertisers pay over their online counterparts. This is a difficult economic reality newspapers across the country have grappled with as they struggle to finance a print infrastructure in the digital era, as detailed in Hell and High Water.

The Times-Picayune‘s Sunday circulation has tumbled from 145,608 in the third quarter of 2012 to 111, 384 in the same quarter last year, the most recent figures available from industry group Alliance for Audited Media. Weekday circulation has also fallen substantially. In the same quarterly report, NOLA.com reported a combined print and online audience within its “Demographic Market Area” (DMA) of 646,318.

Michigan sister news site MLive announces 29 more layoffs

MLive, the digital arm of Advance’s eight newspapers in Michigan where the company’s digital first experiment began in 2009, also announced additional layoffs this week. Another 29 will lose jobs, “primarily through reducing management roles and jobs related to newspaper production,” MLive Vice President of Content John Hiner was quoted as saying.

PrintLike at NOLA.com, MLive’s problem isn’t website traffic, but declining revenues from its diminished print editions, according to a report by Columbia Journalism Review‘s Anna Clark. In an email to staff, MLive President Dan Gaydou boasted that the site attracts more than 11 million monthly unique visitors, Clark reported. Digital revenue growth has been “steady and healthy,” Gaydou wrote.

Just not healthy enough: Gaydou blamed the latest layoffs on both declining print revenues and “complex analytics” that led MLive to move to “centralized hubs,” Clark reported. That tactic models what Advance Media Southeast is doing with its newly configured print lab and regional printing of The Times-Picayune in Mobile, 145 miles east of New Orleans. In addition, the company closed the printing presses of its Huntsville Times in Alabama a couple of years ago, and now prints that newspaper on the presses of its Birmingham News, 100 miles south.

Take the “New Orleans Saints,” “Times-Picayune” “local ownership” quiz

In the spring of 2012, the New York-based Newhouse family, owner of The Times-Picayune, announced their plans to make New Orleans the largest U.S. city without a daily newspaper. Prominent New Orleanians stepped forward, first pleading with the Newhouses to keep the newspaper a daily publication, and then imploring them to sell it to local owners who would. Tom Benson, owner of the NFL New Orleans Saints and NBA New Orleans Pelicans teams was one who offered to buy the newspaper.

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NOLA.com/Times-Picayune New Orleans Saints reporter Jeff Duncan

Fast-forward three-and-a-half years. In a nearly 1,400-word Page 1 column published Dec. 27, NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune New Orleans Saints reporter Jeff Duncan beseeched Benson to sell both the Saints and the Pelicans, ideally to local owners. “Your teams’ faithful fans deserve better,” Duncan wrote. “And the reality of the situation is this: The best way to ensure the long-term success of the franchises is to sell them.”

Benson wasted no time in responding. In a 667-word response released that evening, he flatly rejected the suggestion that he sell either team, and reiterated his intention to transfer ownership to his wife, Gayle, upon his death.

Benson then took aim at the hypocrisy of The Times-Picayune essentially demanding that a revered New Orleans institution sell in the interest of ensuring stable, local ownership:

“What strikes me the most is the pure irony of The Times Picayune

tom-benson

Tom and Gayle Benson

imploring me to sell for the benefit of the city. I recall in May 2012, reaching out to the Newhouse family imploring them to sell to me or other local ownership as they threatened to become and then became a part-time newspaper. Since then the newspaper has done nothing but lay off staff and move operations out of town.” – New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Pelicans’ owner Tom Benson

Whether the situation is ironic or hypocritical, it’s certainly amusing. For those who’ve followed the entire saga, read the statements below and guess if they’re from:

  • Duncan’s Dec. 27 column 
  • Letters written in 2012 by Benson and other New Orleans civic leaders imploring the Newhouses to print daily or sell
  • The Newhouses’/NOLA Media Group’s responses
  • Benson’s Dec. 27 response to Duncan’s column:
  1. “Selling is … best for the city … This is bigger than you. It is bigger than your family. It is bigger than all of us.”
  2. “I am not selling … That is not in my makeup.”
  3. “And there are plenty of deep-pocketed, civic-minded local business leaders interested in forming an ownership group.”
  4. “If your family does not believe in the future of this great city,  it is only fair to allow us to find someone who does.”
  5. It is our hope that the owners will respect the voices and desires of the community which has been so loyal …”
  6. It is my belief that New Orleans has the passion and spirit and resilience … Major league cities (and rest assured, we are one), have high-visibility entities such as NBA and NFL teams.
  7. “Selling … is not part of a solution, rather it is detrimental to those goals.”
  8. “It is the greatest gift you can give New Orleans. I sincerely hope you consider selling.”
  9. “The owners have made it very clear that [it’s] not for sale.”

Answers:

  1. Duncan’s Dec. 27 column
  2. Benson’s Dec. 27 response to Duncan’s column
  3. Duncan’s column
  4. July 2012 letter from community leaders to the Newhouse family asking that they sell The Times-Picayune
  5. Duncan’s column
  6. Benson’s May 2012 letter to Steven Newhouse asking that The Times-Picayune remain a daily newspaper
  7. Benson’s response to Duncan’s column
  8. Duncan’s column
  9. NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune statement in 2012

Third Round of Layoffs in 3 Years at NOLA Media Group

TP Tower CloseUpNOLA.com | The Times-Picayune today carried out its expected third round of layoffs since its “digital first” transformation in September 2012, letting go 37 full- and part-time editorial employees, or “21 percent of the overall content operation’s full-time employees,” NOLA Media Group President Ricky Mathews said in a statement.

Only a handful of editorial employees who worked for  the news organization before the 2012 mass layoff are still employed. Among those terminated were veterans James Varney, Dinah Rogers, Keith Spera, and Paul Purpura, who had been with the newspaper 26, 24, 19 and 16 years, respectively. John Pope, whose career began in 1972 at the now-defunct Picayune sister paper the States-Item , was also let go from full-time employment, but is expected to continue to contribute as a freelancer.

It wasn’t just veterans who got their walking papers. Andy Grimm, who had been recruited from the Chicago Tribune to cover federal courts, reporter Ben Myers and graphics reporter/editor Dan Swenson also were laid off.

Read full coverage by Gambit, WWL-TV and The Advocate.

Advance Publications Cuts Newsroom Staff at All 3 Alabama Newspapers

Advance Publications gave journalists at the Huntsville Times, Birmingham News and Mobile Press-Register their walking papers today (Aug. 18). The layoffs are expected to be precursors to terminations at The Times-Picayune later this year or in early 2016.

Although the company did not disclose how many were terminated in Alabama, Birmingham’s alternative weekly, Weld, pegged it at 21.

At least eight editorial employees at the Press-Register were let go, including six reporters and two photographers, Lagniappe, Mobile’s alt-weekly, reported.

Employees there had been expecting cuts since it was announced in June that Advance was consolidating its Alabama operations, its Mississippi Press and The Times-Picayune into the Southeast Regional Media Group, Lagniappe Co-Publisher/Managing Editor Rob Holbert reported.

The latest layoffs mean at least 20 members of the Press-Register‘s editorial staff have either quit or been fired since January, according to Lagniappe.

Huntsville TimesThe company said it has laid off five to nine full-time journalists each in Birmingham, Mobile and Huntsville, the Birmingham Business Journal reported. These layoffs followed 10 terminations in January statewide.

These cuts are expected to precede ones at NOLA Media Group and The Times-

Front page of the Birmingham News in May 2012 when the layoffs began.

Picayune. The Huffington Post‘s media reporter Michael Calderone reported yesterday (Aug. 17) that anxiety is mounting among Picayune staffers, who also face the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina Aug. 29. The assumption has been that the company will wait until after that commemoration to announce layoffs there, given the central and high-profile role the newspaper’s staff played in heroically chronicling the storm and its aftermath.

News media website Poynter.org published the entire memo issued earlier today by AL.com Vice President Content Michelle Holmes announcing the cutbacks.

Advance Publications Mid-Year Performance a Mixed Bag

July marked a rash of self-assessment by the newspaper industry, including by the local newspaper division of Times-Picayune owner Advance Publications.

Randy Siegel, president of Advance Local, twice annually pens an assessment of the Advance_Localcompany’s progress toward becoming a “digital first” company. His update is ostensibly for employees, but is publicly available on the Advance Local website, and often scrutinized by analysts. His July 16 report is unsurprisingly upbeat, but Poynter Institute’s Rick Edmonds deciphered Siegel’s report and finds that despite Advance’s head start in the digital-first foray, the company is “in the same boat as its peers — needing to serve two different audiences with very different platform preferences for some years to come while inventing a future of their organizations.”

As Edmonds notes, Siegel acknowledges that Advance Local has fallen short of its goals:

“We still have a long way to go … Our business-to-business sales initiatives, while growing well in terms of year-over-year percentage growth, are a fraction of what they should be. While our mobile and video ad revenue gains have also been stellar in terms of year-over-year percentage growth, they should be increasing at a much faster rate given our level of investment.”

poynter_logoEdmonds also notes that “Siegel backed off his claim of six months ago that digital ad gains this year will surpass print losses,” conceding that newspaper declines have been “steeper than we budgeted for.”

Edmonds highlighted some areas where The Times-Picayune and other Advance newspapers are likely saving money when compared to other newspapers, and others where they are losing out on revenue opportunities. Of note:

  • Advance is likely saving money on production and delivery expenses because most Advance newspapers (including the Picayune) are producing and distributing fewer newspapers (three a week during non-football season in New Orleans).
  • Payroll expenses are also likely lower after wholesale reductions in most Advance newsrooms, including the Picayune‘s. The company counters that it subsequently hired a lot of digital-savvy staff, but those employees are, by-and-large, younger and likely less-expensive than the veterans who were terminated during the 2012 mass reductions, and are receiving more-modest fringe benefits. Rumors abound that more staff cuts will come in New Orleans later this year or in early 2016.
  • While three-quarters of newspapers now charge non-subscribers for digital access, Advance has stuck with an advertising-supported, free-access website model. That means Advance isn’t reaping online subscription revenue, or additional revenue from higher print subscription and single-copy prices that most newspapers have been able to charge.
  • On the flip side, Advance is likely avoiding the worst of industry-wide print advertising losses because most ad schedules and nearly all of the more lucrative pre-print insert advertising are still appearing on the days its newspapers publish print editions.

Siegel told Edmonds that Advance’s digital audience continues to grow — a 34% year-to-year increase in unique visitors for the first half of 2015. Quantcast currently ranks all 12 Advance sites combined as the 68th most-trafficked “network” on the web. NOLA.com is 449th, and sixth among Advance’s newspaper sites.

Edmonds adds that declining digital ad rates and continued domination by Google and Facebook probably mean digital ad revenues aren’t what Advance hoped for. “If Advance miscalculated, I’m guessing it was in the hope that loyal seven-day print readers could be brought along to the website as a substitute on non-print days,” he concludes, before citing what he calls “surprising research” by the Newspaper Association of America last year that a majority of print subscribers never access their newspaper’s digital sites.

From the Ashes: Former Times-Picayune ME/News Dan Shea Promoted to Publisher of The Advocate

Former longtime Times-Picayune Managing Editor/News Dan Shea read about his imminent dismissal in the pages of The New York Times. His would be among the most high-profile ousters of wholesale Times-Picayune‘s “digital first” death march in the summer of 2012.

L to R: Peter Kovacs, editor of The Advocate, Dan Shea, general manager and chief operating officer, and Publisher and Owner John Georges. Georges announced today that he’s turning over the publishing reins to Shea effective Sept. 1, 2015.

What a difference three years makes.

It was announced today that Shea will be the new publisher of Louisiana’s largest daily newspaper, which is no longer The Times-Picayune.

Shea was among the first hires of New Orleans businessman John Georges, after Georges acquired the Baton Rouge-based Advocate less than a year after The Times-Picayune debacle. Shea and his fellow former co-managing T-P editor, Peter Kovacs, assumed two of the top posts at Georges’ new incarnation of the newspaper: Kovacs was named editor and Shea general manager and chief operating officer, while Georges served as publisher.

“We aren’t reluctant to pursue a digital future, but in doing that we are not going to change the core values of what a newspaper means to a community, nor abandon the print subscribers and advertisers who built the paper into the largest in Louisiana.” – Dan Shea, incoming publisher of  The Advocate

Dan Shea

Georges will turn over the publishing reins to Shea effective Sept. 1, according to a report in today’s Advocate. “We’ve had great success for the first two years, and now I think it is important to have a publisher who has more experience in journalism and the newspaper industry,” Georges said in the news report. “Our print circulation is growing, as are our ad revenues. I think Dan gets a lot of the credit for that.”

In not-so-veiled barbs aimed at his former employer and its shift away from a daily print newspaper, today’s report quoted Shea as saying Georges’ acquisition and expansion of The Advocate “show the value of a committed local owner in keeping alive quality local journalism. We aren’t reluctant to pursue a digital future, but in doing that we are not going to change the core values of what a newspaper means to a community, nor abandon the print subscribers and advertisers who built the paper into the largest in Louisiana.”

Since the paper’s re-launch under Georges’ ownership, The Advocate expanded and re-branded its Acadiana and New Orleans editions after hiring several dozen former Times-Picayune reporters, editors and photographers, including both those who were laid off during the 2012 purge and others who defected in the aftermath. The saga is detailed in Hell and High Water.

More recently, The Advocate expanded its community newspapers from two to nine in Baton Rouge by both creating new publications and acquiring a chain of weekly newspapers. Borrowing from The Times-Picayune‘s community news section strategy that helped that newspaper stave off competition in the region’s suburbs beginning in the 1980s, The Advocate also launched twice-weekly, free community New Orleans editions it says are now distributed to 250,000 homes. The Advocate also operates three websites, and has created apps and e-editions of its New Orleans, Acadiana and Baton Rogue editions.

The company is building a $13.2 million new headquarters along Interstate 10 in Baton Rouge, and renovating a historic building along St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans, which will serve as headquarters of The New Orleans Advocate.

According to reports both newspapers filed as of March 31, 2015, with industry group the alliance for Audited Media, The Times-Picayune‘s Sunday print circulation fell 18.5% during the first quarter of 2015 compared to the same quarter in 2014, from 127,902 to 104,213, while The Advocate’s grew slightly, from 105,464 to 107,965. The Times-Picayune filed a second quarter 2015 report showing print circulation at 104, 213, but as of today, AAM’s website has no corresponding report posted for The Advocate.

When “digital non-replica” editions are included – which encompasses e-editions and apps – The Times-Picayune‘s Sunday circulation was 121,126 during the first quarter of 2015, while The Advocate reported 133,599. Newspaper website metrics are represented in a wide variety of ways and tallied by a number of independent organizations, and are not always included in AAM reports.

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.