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.

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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 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.

CJR.org looks at The Cleveland Plain Dealer since “digital first”

The Columbia Journalism Review keeps the heat on Advance Publications, with another hard-hitting look at another Advance newspapers to undergo “digital first.” From the opening of the story:

“As a major reorganization of the Guild-represented Cleveland Plain Dealer takes shape, veteran reporters are adjusting to ‘backpack journalism,’ the division of staff into two companies, a looming move to a new office, and demands to post stories more quickly. At the same time, they are memorializing their old newsroom in striking images that are circulating on social media and in email chains. The accompanying photo was sent to CJR by a former Plain Dealer employee with the subject line, “This used to be a newsroom.”

The devastating photo, however, no longer accompanies the article. According to reader comments to the story, P-D Photo Editor Jon Fobes said it’s his shot and that he demanded that CJR remove it from the story, which the magazine did. You can, however, still see it on this page of the Newspaper Guild, Communications Workers of America website. That is until the photo is deleted once Fobes also complains to the union. After all, Advance probably hates unions even more than it hates CJR these days. And Fobes needs to hang on to his job.

Read the entire CJR report here.

Amid fears of “digital first” cuts, union protests five-year wage freeze at Advance Publications’ Jersey Journal

cigar-smoking-inflated-pig-jersey-journal

An inflated, cigar-smoking pig – clearly directed at Advance Publications’ billionaire Newhouse family – outside of the Advance-owned Jersey Journal in advance of a scheduled union protest this afternoon. Photo via http://www.politico.com/media/story/2014/01/protest-at-jersey-journals-new-offices-001501

Unionized employees of the 146-year-old Advance Publications-owned Jersey Journal across the Hudson River from Manhattan, demonstrated outside its just-opened new offices in Secaucus, N.J., this afternoon, protesting a five-year wage freeze.

“We’re not blind to the issues facing the publishing industry, the newspaper industry,” Bill O’Meara, president, New York Newspaper Guild, local 31003, said from his Manhattan office after the rally. “We understand the pressures they’re under, but these people aren’t being reasonable. Not any kind of raise in five years is just crazy. It’s time to do right by them.” Local 31003 represents the Jersey Journal newsroom and nearly 3,000 additional newspaper employees, including those at The New York Times.

Capital New York’s media reporter Joe Pompeo  reported that a PR firm representing the union released a statement saying that Advance/Jersey Journal “executives are refusing to bargain over reasonable wage increases” even as “the newsstand price of the paper has increased 100% and the paper’s headquarters was sold for $2.8 million.”

Reports on the companion website of Advance’s 10 New Jersey newspapers, NJ.com, announced the opening of the new office, but did not mention the planned protest. Neither report disclosed what the company paid for the new facility. The new offices replaced the newspaper’s historic headquarters in neighboring Jersey City that gave the “Journal Square” neighborhood its name.

The Newspaper Guild represents just eight of the Journal’s roughly 100 staffers, Capital  reported. About two-dozen of those employees work in the newsroom. The guild’s contract has been in dispute for a year, according to the alt-weekly. Capital quoted a unnamed reporter saying that starting newsroom salaries are less than $50,000 annually, not much in hyper-expensive metro New York.

Jim Romenesko, who beat Capital with the story of the protest by about an hour, reported on his blog that the guild has asked for a four-year contract with 3 percent annual raises, but the Journal’s publisher has rejected all proposals including wage increases.

Advance exec Richard Diamond, to whom Journal Publisher Kenneth Whitfield directed Pompeo’s call, did not respond for comment, although he was apparently in the newspaper’s new building at the time. Whitfield did not respond to Romenesko.

Capital has reported that employees of the company’s New Jersey newspapers, led by Advance’s flagship Newark Star-Ledger, are on edge, fearing the company plans to roll out “digital first” in the Garden State, as it has at 16 of its newspapers from Portland, Ore., to Mobile, Ala. Research I did for my book indicated that Advance has eliminated more than 1,600 jobs since launching digital first in Michigan in 2009.

Newspapers that have sustained deep staff reductions include eight dailies in Michigan, led by the Grand Rapids Herald- Review; The Times-Picayune of New Orleans; three newspapers in Alabama (The Huntsville Times, The Birmingham News and the Mobile Press Register); the Harrisburg, Pa., Patriot-News; The Post-Herald of Syracuse, N.Y.; the Cleveland Plain-Dealer; and The Oregonian of Portland.)

The protest comes less than two weeks after eight laid-off employees at The Times-Picayune filed suit against the newspaper and Advance, alleging their layoffs in October 2012 violated federal age discrimination laws and the company’s once-revered job security Pledge. Read more about The Pledge and the lawsuits by clicking here and here.

Is year-end assessment by NOLA Media Group prez a preemptive strike ahead of USA Today report?

ToOurReaders_RickyMathewsHEADLINE2013Dec22

1/6/2014, 2:50 PM CST: Information about the disappearing NOLA.com blog post about the click bait AntHillArt.com’s affect on NOLA.com’s traffic below in red and underline..

12/24/13 5:59 PM CST: Additional information via a sharp-eyed insider below in red and underline.

12/23/13, 12:37 CST: Clarification to the original post added below in red and underlined type.

As USA Today media reporter Roger J. Yu concluded a reporting trip to New Orleans for an upcoming article about the extraordinary newspaper war now raging there, NOLA Media Group President and Times-Picayune Publisher Ricky Mathews Sunday published a year-end recap to readers.

The timing of Mathews’ missive, vis–à–vis Yu’s visit, is suggestive of the preemptive strike

NOLA Media Group President and Times-Picayune Publisher Ricky Mathews

NOLA Media Group President and Times-Picayune Publisher Ricky Mathews

NMG Vice President of Content and Times-Picayune Editor Jim Amoss penned almost exactly one year ago. Amoss’ commentary came a day before a long-anticipated “60 Minutes” segment aired about the poorly executed transformation of the then-175-year-old, Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper into a “digital first” enterprise.)

Despite NMG’s fierce focus for the past year-and-a-half on NOLA.com, Mathews’ commentary was not available on the website, but only via the printed newspaper and the e-edition. (A PDF of it, downloaded from the e-edition, can be accessed by clicking this link: ToOurReaders_RickyMathews2013Dec22.) (CLARIFICATION, 12/23/13: Although it didn’t appear on NOLA.com, Mathews’ letter can be found at NOLA Media Group’s corporate site at http://www.nolamediagroup.com/about/, and on page A14 of the newspaper’s Dec. 22 print edition.)

Clocking in at 844 words (about half the length of a banner, front-page commentary directed at readers shortly after he assumed the top spot in the summer of 2012), Mathew opened his latest dispatch with a glowing account of what was at stake when digital first began, and what has been accomplished:

A little more than a year ago, we stepped boldly into the rapidly changing digital world. Our future as a viable news entity was at stake. We launched a new approach to delivering news and connecting our readers with our advertisers.

 

As we approach the end of the first year of operation in our new world, we are well on our way toward assuring our long-term ability to provide vital news and world-class advertising solutions to the communities we proudly serve.

Mathews full-page letter detailed major editorial projects undertaken by NMG in the past year, including wall-to-wall coverage of the 2013 Super Bowl (held at the Louisiana Superdome) and all of the fun and frivolity surrounding it; breaking news coverage of a horrific Mother’s Day shooting in New Orleans; and an investigative series with TV partner WVUE for which an online, reader-accessible database of campaign contributions was created.

He went on to say that home delivery of the newspaper “has grown for four (soon to be five) consecutive months, and we are reaching more than 500,000 readers in print each week.” (For the six months ending Sept. 30, the most recent report the newspaper filed with industry auditing group Alliance for Audited Media, The Times-Picayune reported an average print circulation of 130,881 on Sundays, 115,499 on Wednesdays, and 115,877 on Fridays, the three days of the week it now publishes. That totals to 362,257 for the average week during that period.)

Mathews reported that NOLA.com’s website audience grew to more than 4.5 million unique users a month, with more than 2 million accessing the site or its apps through smart phones and tablets. (NMG had 2.6 million unique users during the month of September – again the most recent numbers available – according to the latest AAM report the company filed. ADDITIONAL INFO: Nationally recognized web analytics company Quantcast, reported the NOLA had the following unique users Nov. 23-Dec. 22. Although Mathews did not specify a time frame for his figure, the latest Quantcast number of 5.9 million is significantly higher than Mathews’ stat:

TOTAL Web

5,853,704

Mobile

2,887,086

Online

2,966,618

Source: Quantcast

ADDITIONAL INFO #2, 12/24/13: A sharp-eyed reader alerted me that NOLA.com’s past unique visitor figures cited above via Quantcast were anomalously inflated by an aggregated video  courtesy of a site called AntHillArt.com. NOLA.com acknowledged the click-bait generated 1.3 million page views in 30 hours, “which at least Ricky Mathews was honest enough not to claim” in the stats he cited in his reader letter, my tipster noted. According to Quantcast, NOLA.com attracted 3.7 million unique visitors and 22 million page views during the month of November, the most-recent full calendar month for which statistics are available.

Additional INFO #3, 1/6/14: Sometime after my 12/24/13 update (above) went live, the link on the NOLA.com blog post acknowledging the AnHillArt.com click bait was disabled. (It apparently was on a publicly available section of the site, but intended primarily for internal audiences.) You can read a screen grab of the original post by clicking here.

Mathews also reported that NMG’s newly beefed-up offerings in Baton Rouge – including a substantially larger staff there, the ability for NOLA.com readers to specifically choose to view news from that community, and a weekly entertainment tab named BR – has resulted in a 40% larger audience in the state capital in the past year.

NMG’s online offerings have been the target of criticism and derision, but Mathews reports they’ve improved considerably:

We have made dramatic improvements to the digital experience for our readers across all platforms, with new photo galleries and improved video players; responsive design that allows easy reading whether on tablet, desktop or phone; and state-of-the-art commenting systems that allow for real-time conversations among our writers and readers.

Mathews also boasts of employing more than 1,000 employees and independent contractors through NOLA Media Group and Advance Central Services Louisiana, the two companies corporate owner Advance Publications formed when “digital first” was implemented. (NOLA Media Group is the online newsgathering arm, while ACS oversees everything related to the printing and distribution of the newspaper, along with HR. the print edition and its support services, including printing and delivery.) The newspaper’s total full-time employee (e.g., those receiving full-time wages and benefits) headcount dropped 30% after “digital first,” and a number of undisclosed independent contractor newspaper carriers also lost their routes. The newsroom has made some hires since the transformation, but the organization now employs more freelancers and stringers on a contractual basis since the changes, so it’s unclear exactly what portion of that 1,000 are full-time employees. Based on figures I compiled for my book and those disclosed by NOLA Media Group, full-time employees with benefits probably now total between 550 and 600.

ToOurReaders_RickyMathews2013Dec22_IMAGE

Imagery that accompanied Ricky Mathews’ Dec. 22, 2013 letter “To Our Readers”