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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“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.

Times-Picayune’s longtime HQ and initial Katrina refuge closing Jan. 17; subscription rates to jump 24%, and more cuts at parent company’s Michigan operations

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

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.

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