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.”

Edmonds 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.

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