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

Banner story in The Times-Picayune four years ago today 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 sacrifice many of its staff made in chronicling the storm and its aftermath, work that led to two Pulitzer Prizes, countless other national and international awards, and worldwide praise.

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

Alternative Gambit Weekly reported today that Director of State and Metro Content Mark Lorando this week met 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 support of corporate owner Advance Publications’ new “digital first” strategy.

An estimated one-third of Times-Picayune employees lost their homes because of flooding caused by the region’s failing levees in the aftermath of Katrina. (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 the need for digital first, references that more than irked many employees and the community.)

Many Times-Picayune reporters and photographers lauded for their coverage of 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 145 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  building and iconic clock tower 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, 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 recently 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.

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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 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?

Times-Picayune to abandon Howard Avenue HQ, eliminate 100 more jobs

As predicted in Hell and High Water (page 190), NOLA Media Group today announced that The Times-Picayune will abandon its longtime Howard Avenue headquarters – including the iconic clock tower, a photo of which is featured on the dust jacket of the book – and begin printing the newspaper at the Mobile, Alabama, operations of its sister newspaper 145 miles away.

The last of the employees who create the print edition of The Times-Picayune will move from 3800 Howard Ave., the newspaper's home for 44 years, in late 2015 or early 2016.

The last of the employees who create the print edition of The Times-Picayune will move from 3800 Howard Ave., the newspaper’s home for 44 years, in late 2015 or early 2016.

The move, expected in late 2015 or early 2016, will lead to the elimination of another 100 employees, NOLA.com reported.

The paper will be printed at the facility that now prints sister newspaper The Press-Register, which, like The Times-Picayune, became a three-day-a-week newspaper in October 2012, and shed hundreds of jobs.

It will be the latest newspaper owned by Advance Publications, which began rolling out its “digital first” strategy at its smaller Michigan newspapers in 2009, to jettison its legacy, company-owned headquarters in favor of newer, glitzier leased office space, as noted in sister blog dashTHIRTYdash.org in January 2013.

The company will consider donating the facility to a non-profit, according to the NOLA.com report.

Layoffs associated with the move will be the largest since the newspaper’s massive reduction in 2012, Louisiana competitor The Advocate reported, with job terminations primarily affecting those who print, assemble and package the print newspaper. The roughly 30 employees who have continued to work at 3800 Howard Ave. copy-editing and laying out the paper will move to The Times-Picayune’s former office in Metairie, which was essentially shuttered after the company shifted to “digital first” in the fall of 2012.

“They wanted a ‘burn the boats’ strategy, where you come to the new world and you don’t want to have the temptation to sail back.” – Loyola University instructor Michael Giusti to The Advocate

NOLA.com quoted NMG President Ricky Mathews as saying the decision to stop printing in New Orleans would not alter the paper’s commitment to the region. “We expect these changes will have no impact on our readers and advertisers,” Mathews said in the NOLA.com report. “On the contrary, they will help us even better serve our audience in print and online and pursue new technologies.”

The Times-Picayune and its sister publication, The States-Item, moved from downtown New Orleans to Howard Avenue in 1968, six years after the company’s 1962 acquisition by Advance Publications, the New York- based company owned by the billionaire Newhouse family. The building housed the the main newsroom, printing presses, packaging facilities and business offices for 44 years, until 2012, when “digital first” led to the termination of more than 200 employees, including almost half of the newsroom. Most of the remaining employees subsequently moved to the top two floors of One Canal Place, a downtown skyscraper, where they continue to work.

The Advocate reported that leaving Howard Avenue also likely has a significant psychological goal for NMG and Advance, according to Loyola University instructor Michael Giusti. “They wanted a ‘burn the boats’ strategy, where you come to the new world and you don’t want to have the temptation to sail back,” he told The Advocate.

NMG Scraps TPStreet tabloid less than 13 months after launching it

Less than 13 months after launching TPStreet, NOLA Media Group scrapped the three-day-a-week newsstand-only tabloid, instead restoring home-delivered publication of the broadsheet Times-Picayune on two of the four days a week it was eliminated in 2012.

Originally set to replace The Times-Picayune on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, TPStreet was scrapped effective Sept. 6 as the company partially backtracked and restored home-delivered, daily publication of the broadsheet on Saturdays and Mondays – but only through the end of the New Orleans Saints’ season, which not coincidentally also coincides with high-shopping – aka high-advertising – season. That brings to five days a week – all but Tuesdays and Thursdays – that the newspaper is home-delivered to subscribers, at least while the Saints are playing. “We’re delighted to give our readers this expanded offering of printed newspapers and online content and to help our advertisers reach their best customers,” according to an Aug. 1 announcement published to NOLA.com.There will also be home-delivered papers on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.

Vice President of Content Jim Amoss told the Nieman Lab that “reader demand” – and primarily reader demand of Saints and LSU football coverage – drove the decision to revive Saturday’s and Monday’s newspapers:

“My take on it was that it was based on reader demand and that advertisers would welcome it, especially on Saturday … I think the impetus was readers telling us in no uncertain terms that they would really like to especially read about Saints and LSU coverage and have it home delivered to their doorsteps on days after games.” – NOLA Media Group VP of Content Jim Amoss

Amoss has consistently denied that NOLA Media Group’s almost constant adjustments to its publishing schedule has been in response to the challenge from The Advocate, which re-launched a daily New Orleans edition in conjunction with the Picayune’s Oct. 1, 2012, original cutbacks. Most recently, Amoss told Nieman Lab that NOLA Media Group “is primarily focused on ‘digital competition’ — from local TV station websites and other local and national online outlets.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Mike Luckovich has done a series of cartoons for New Orleans magazine lampooning the changes at his former employer.

New Orleans magazine Editor and Chief Errol Laborde, a consistent critic of NOLA Media Group’s cutbacks, noted “the economic force of football, not only driving audiences to the news media but as a backdrop for holiday advertising. Many towns, New Orleans high among them, fill hotels during the slow weeks of Christmas by hosting bowl games. We suppose there’s something comforting about nations where games rather than wars are more pivotal to our everyday lives.”

Laborde went on to note, “Two years ago, we wished that The Times-Picayune would return as a daily. Now, with The Advocate in place, The T-P’s move to less frequency might be the better alternative. It could be that a town with a daily and a less-frequent alternative might be the way to go. Each could serve the city from its own perspective.

“Two years ago, it seemed like the city was going backwards with its newspaper coverage. Now it just may be leading the way.”

Reporter fired by Mobile alt bi-weekly and quickly hired by AL.com ain’t dere no mo’

Former Lagniappe and Alabama Media Group reporter Katie Nichols

(UPDATED 3/13/14 with underlined information below.)

In chronicling what may be the Gulf South’s version of Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass, Rob Holbert, co-publisher and managing editor of Mobile’s alternative weekly Lagniappe, details in this March 5 commentary why the publication fired reporter Katie Nichols, including apparently fabricated diplomas from the University of South Alabama and the University of Alabama, and fabricated sources in some of her Lagniappe reports. Lagniappe‘s investigation also uncovered that Nichols had lied to at least two other publications where she had worked about her academic credentials and had been caught in an instance of flagrant plagiarism at one of those outlets.

Two weeks after getting the boot at Lagniappe Jan. 31, Nichols’ work began Lagniappe-Mobile_Logoappearing on the Mobile section of AL.com, the online home of Advance Publications’ three Alabama newspapers, where she was listed as a general assignment reporter. (Like their Advance sister paper in New Orleans, The Times-Picayune, Advance’s three formerly Alabama dailies went thrice-weekly Oct. 1, 2012, after decimating their staffs.)

However, Nichols’ profile on AL.com now lists her as a “former” reporter, and the last of her 29 reports on the site was posted at 8:03 PM March 4, the day before Lagniappe posted Holbert’s report about her serious transgressions during at least some of her two-year tenure with that publication. (UPDATE, 3/13/14, 8:56 AM CDT: Alabama communications consultant Wade Kwon noted that in a March 7 post on his popular media blog, Jim Romenesko reported that AL.com Content Vice President commented that, “Katie Nichols was employed by Alabama Media Group for three weeks. She is no longer with the company.”)

Lagniappe Co-Publisher and Managing Editor Rob Holbert

Lagniappe Co-Publisher and Managing Editor Rob Holbert

Holbert is somewhat of a folk hero in Hell and High Water, which detailed his consistent and colorful criticisms of the Press-Register, AL.com, and Ricky Mathews, the former P-R publisher and AL.com president. (Mathews is now publisher of The Times-Picayune and president of NOLA Media Group).

It would be logical to wonder how someone guilty of such egregious journalistic sins could land a job at a community’s oldest news organization two weeks after being fired by a fierce competitor. However, the antipathy between the two news outlets makes it understandable why they probably didn’t share references before, or information after, employing Nichols.