Times-Picayune “Digital First” Enforcer Ricky Mathews to Retire from Advance Southeast Media Jan. 1?

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Ricky Mathews, the former Mississippi and Alabama newspaper executive promoted within Advance Publications to oversee the 2012 “digital first” transformation of The Times-Picayune that decimated its newsroom and fueled international outcry, is expected to retire Jan. 1, Mobile, Alabama’s alternative weekly Lagniappe has reported.

Fliers papered some New Orleans neighborhoods and businesses  in 2012 shortly after Ricky Mathews was hired to oversee the “digital first” transformation of The Times-Picayune.

In a long private post on his Facebook page, Mathews said he made the decision to retire at 59, one year earlier than originally planned because of a health scare last year. He was quoted in a 2011 column in the Mobile Press-Register, of which he was then publisher, that his commitment to physical fitness stemmed from the death of his father from a heart attack at the age of 44.

Mathews’ latest position is president of Advance Southeast Media, the corporate entity that oversees the five Advance newspapers and affiliated websites in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. He was promoted to that position less than a year ago.

“It was a wake-up call …” Mathews wrote about his health scare in the Facebook post, of which several former Advance employees confirmed the authenticity to Lagniappe. “I began planning life changes that would ensure I’d continue to enjoy the blessings of the good health I have now and quality time with friends and family in the next phase of my life. I’m wrapping up the loose ends of that transition now and expect to be retired as of Jan. 1.”

Mathews was named publisher of The Times-Picayune in 2012 following the unexpected retirement of longtime publisher Ashton Phelps, Jr., three months before digital first was implemented. Mathews was subjected to withering public criticism and protests after hundreds of reporters, editors, photographers and production and delivery personnel lost their jobs in 2012, and New Orleans became the largest U.S. city without a daily newspaper.

Mathews’ true role in implementing the changes is not really known. He was not spotted when the emotional and highly publicized mass layoffs unfolded at the newspaper’s headquarters and then-five bureaus on June 12, 2012. After some awkward public appearances, unflattering media interviews, and lengthy front page op-eds in which he attempted to explain and justify the harsh changes, he adopted a much lower public profile before accepting the 2016 regional promotion within Advance from which he will retire.

“It’s not like he came in here and decided to do this. This wasn’t his decision,” a longtime Times-Picayune newsroom employee who lost his job in the cutbacks observed at the time, in an interview for Hell and High Water. “What’s that line from [the movie] ‘Apocalypse Now’? ‘You’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill.’ That’s what Ricky Mathews is.”

Mathews tacitly acknowledged those difficult times in his Facebook post. “Looking back, I’m not sure how I came out of the last 15 years alive,” Lagniappe reported from his post. “It’s no secret that those years were among the most tumultuous in the last century of newspaper publishing in general, and in our region in particular. I took on increasing levels of executive oversight and strategic planning responsibilities at precisely the same time our industry began a battle to re-imagine media in a marketplace flooded with new competitors, new technology and new risks.”

Despite the contempt in which he was held in some New Orleans circles, Mathews’ journalism career was not without awards and high-profile community involvement. He was publisher of Biloxi, Mississippi’s Sun-Herald when it shared the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service with The Times-Picayune for coverage of the devastation and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. As Lagniappe noted, Mathews also served on a state board that planned post-Katrina reconstruction in Mississippi. After Advance hired him as publisher of the Press-Register and president of Alabama Media Group in 2009, he served on a similar board there following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. He counted governors of both Alabama and Mississippi as friends.

Lagniappe quoted Mathews as commenting in his Facebook post that he’ll now probably join some corporate boards where “my talents as a leader and change agent can be put to use.” He did not respond to an email from Lagniappe for comment before its story was published.

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Former Times-Picayune HQ has new owners

The former headquarters of The Times-Picayune and its previously iconic clock tower, have been sold to a group of local real estate investors for $3.5 million, The Advocate and NOLA.com  reported this week.tp-tower-closeup

The Advocate broke the story Sept. 6, followed by NOLA.com a day later.

Local real estate developer Joseph Jaeger Jr.’s 3800 Howard Investors LLC, completed the purchase Sept. 2, The Advocate‘s Richard Thompson reported. Besides Jaeger, the group includes Mardi Gras float builder Barry Kern, president of Mardi Gras World; developer Arnold Kirschman, whose family sold its nearly century-old, New Orleans-area furniture store chain to Florida-based Rooms to Go in 2006; and local businessman Michael White.

Both outlets reported that 3800 Howard Investors has no immediate plans for the building, noting that it saw development potential in the improving neighborhoods and for the nearly 9-acre plot. Jaeger’s primary company, The MCC Group, has bought two other high-profile vacant properties in the past year, but they remain empty and dormant: the 45-story Plaza Tower, also on Howard Avenue, on the edge of downtown, and the shuttered Market Street Power plant on the riverfront. The latter is part of a proposal with the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center to develop a hotel, restaurants, entertainment venues and apartments on 20 acres upriver of the convention center, The Advocate reported.

No word on what 3800 Howard Investors may do with the custom Art Deco panel by Mexican-born artist Enrique Alferez that adorns the building’s front lobby.

NOLA.com reported in late June that the building had been sold, but not to whom. Within days, a crew of workers armed with a crane removed the Times-Picayune lettering that adorned the Clock Tower easily visible from the adjoining Pontchartrain Expressway, and which had become part of the region’s cityscape.

Phin Percy Films of New Orleans posted the following video of the tower stripped of its lettering:

“Times-Picayune” Removed from Iconic Clock Tower

Workers perched atop a massive crane remove the name “Times-Picayune” from the Clock Tower that was for nearly 50 years a widely recognized landmark and architectural symbol of the newspaper.

Times-Picayune alumni across New Orleans today witnessed the removal of “Times-Picayune” from the Clock Tower that made the newspaper a part of the cityscape for almost half a century. The Clock Tower is also the image on the dust jacket of Hell and High Water.

As startling as the photos were, the reality of this didn’t hit until I saw this video by Phin Percy Films of New Orleans on YouTube. I discovered it after publishing this post, but added it in September 2016:

The massive presses that printed hundreds of thousands of copies of the newspaper between 1968 and January 17 of this year were ripped from the building, at 3800 Howard Ave., last month, in preparation for the arrival of a still-undisclosed new owner.

A massive crane looms above the former headquarters of The Times-Picayune to remove the lettering from the iconic Clock Tower.

Some had speculated that the new owners may leave the iconic Clock Tower intact in a nostalgic homage to the 179-year-old newspaper and the role it has played in the region’s history. However, today’s removal of the lettering proved that speculation wrong.

Former longtime employees reminisced on Facebook this afternoon that the Tower also previously carried the name of the States-Item, the Picayune’s now-defunct sister paper, and that the signage rotated, alternately displaying both papers’ names to motorists traveling along the adjacent Pontchartrain Expressway.

The removal of the final vestiges of  “Times-Picayune” came a day after parent company, NOLA Media Group, named a new president. Tim Williamson, founder and CEO of the New Orleans nonprofit Idea Village, will replace outgoing President Ricky Mathews, who is being bumped upstairs by NMG’s owner, Advance Publications. As detailed in the book, Mathews had failed to win over the community since arriving in 2012 to oversee the radical “digital first” transformation of the newspaper.

Those changes led to the termination of more than 200 employees, including almost half of the newsroom, and fueled a national outcry over the dismantling of the newspaper that had so bravely chronicled Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath. Most of the remaining employees and new, generally younger employees subsequently moved in late 2012 and early 2013 to the top two floors of One Canal Place, a downtown skyscraper, where they continue to work.

A skeleton crew of employees continued to work at 3800 Howard Ave. on the print edition of the newspaper until Jan. 17, when the facility was shuttered. Another 100 employees lost their jobs as a result of the closure, and the newspaper is now printed 145 miles away in Mobile, Ala., on the presses of sister paper, the Press-Register. A small outpost of editors and designers now put the print paper together out of The Times-Picayune‘s former East Jefferson Parish bureau in Metairie.

Day after Times-Picayune Clock Tower is featured on national TV show, presses are ripped from newspaper’s former HQ

What a difference a day makes.

The Times-Picayune Clock Tower, which still looms above the newspaper’s now-deserted former headquarters, was a star on last night’s episode of “NCIS: New Orleans.”

Today, parts of the newspaper’s presses were pulled from the building in pieces. The newspaper’s parent company began printing the Picayune on the presses of its sister paper, the Mobile Press-Register, 145 miles away, in January.

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

mobile-press-register-masthead-1200x280Advance 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 AL.com The Birmingham News MastHead.jpgconsolidating 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.