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.

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:

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

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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

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.

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.