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

Banner story in The Times-Picayune four years ago today by newly named publisher Ricky Mathews, promising the-then 175-year-old newspaper and its newer website would remain a fixture in New Orleans.

As New Orleans prepares to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29, most media watchers assume The Times-Picayune will produce its own retrospective on the sacrifice many of its staff made in chronicling the storm and its aftermath, work that led to two Pulitzer Prizes, countless other national and international awards, and worldwide praise.

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

Alternative Gambit Weekly reported today that Director of State and Metro Content Mark Lorando this week met with small groups of employees about the coming layoffs, describing them to at least one colleague as “deep.”

“They’re being pretty upfront,” one newsroom staffer told Gambit Editor Kevin Allman, who along with The New York Times’ late media reporter David Carr, led coverage of the 2012 dismantling of the newspaper. Another T-P staffer joked grimly to Allman that it may be “2012 redux” — referring to when hundreds of Times-Picayune employees, freelancers and contractors lost their livelihoods in support of corporate owner Advance Publications’ new “digital first” strategy.

An estimated one-third of Times-Picayune employees lost their homes because of flooding caused by the region’s failing levees in the aftermath of Katrina. (Katrina is a major character in Hell and High Water, and Chapter 4 is devoted to the response to the storm by The Times-Picayune’s staff and its role in the newspaper’s contemporary legacy. The book also details the company’s regular invocation of Katrina when defending or explaining the need for digital first, references that more than irked many employees and the community.)

Many Times-Picayune reporters and photographers lauded for their coverage of Katrina and its aftermath were laid off during the 2012 purge, and many more either left the market or business, or jumped ship to join The Advocate newspaper of Baton Rouge after it was acquired by New Orleans billionaire John Georges and expanded into New Orleans later that year. (Those defections are detailed in Chapter 5 of the book.) About 50 now listed on NOLA.com’s online staff list remain from 2005.

The latest restructuring will occur “in the latter half of 2015” – perhaps around the time of the Katrina anniversary – and be completed by early 2016, “sources with knowledge of the plan” told Allman.

Because of the company’s preoccupation with website traffic to NOLA.com, the 2012 layoffs spared functions generally responsible for generating the largest share, namely sports, features and entertainment/arts. However, it appears there will be no sacred cows in the coming layoffs, Gambit reported, although it’s unclear whether duplicate positions in New Orleans and Alabama, like copy editors, will be consolidated, perhaps at corporate owner Advance Publications’ newspapers in Mobile or Birmingham. (Much of the Picayune’s copyediting operation – once the quality control hub of newspapers – was eliminated in 2012. Careful readers regularly detail mistakes and errors that plague the website and printed edition, sometimes serious blunders that historically often would have been caught and corrected by copyeditors before publication.)

“Also unclear when it comes to the [impending layoffs]: how much weight will be placed on each writer’s ‘clicks’” — a count of how many reader views a reporters’ stories garner — “which are closely tracked within NOLA Media Group,” Gambit reported.

The alt-weekly’s report followed one on NOLA.com Monday (June 15) in which the company announced its operations in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama would be consolidated into Advance’s newly established Southeast Regional Media Group. In addition to The Times-Picayune, Advance owns the Huntsville Times, Birmingham News and Mobile Press-Register in Alabama, and the Mississippi Press, along with scores of other newspapers around the country that largely also have been subjected to “digital first.”

Although NOLA.com’s story didn’t specify where the new regional operations would be headquartered, Gambit reported that most T-P staffers expect it to be in Mobile. Last fall, the company announced that the newspaper will shutter its presses in favor of printing the newspaper on the Press-Register’s presses some 145 miles away, beginning later this year or early in 2016. Those layoffs or jobs transfers are either still underway or recently concluded, according to social  media posts from friends of those employees. That move will cost The Times-Picayune another 100 jobs and prompt closure of the newspaper’s  building and iconic clock tower along the city’s Pontchartrain Expressway. Once all operations have been relocated, execs have said the building will probably be donated to a New Orleans nonprofit.

An operational move to Mobile also makes sense because Ricky Mathews, president

Fliers that popped up around town shortly after Mathews' was appointed publisher of The Times-Picayune in 2012.

Fliers that popped up around town shortly after Mathews’ was appointed publisher of The Times-Picayune in 2012.

and publisher of NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune recently promoted to head the new regional company, has a long history on the Gulf Coast, and operating expenses are probably lower there. Mathews has been widely vilified in New Orleans since arriving in 2012 to oversee the newspaper’s draconian transformation, and in the understatement of Gambit‘s latest report, has “failed to ingratiate himself among the rank and file.” (Chapters 6 and 9 in the book deal specifically with Mathews’ rocky tenure in New Orleans, and his earlier career in Mobile and Biloxi, Mississippi.)

However, “whatever detractors say about the print-to-digital swing in New Orleans, the company is happy with the job Ricky Mathews has done there,” said Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at journalism think tank and continuing education center Poynter Institute said Monday.

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Hell and High Water Runner-Up in 2014 National Federation of Press Women Awards

NFPW Award Winner 2014Hell and High Water has been named as 2014’s second-best non-fiction adult title by the National Federation of Press Women.

In the award write-up, judges called out the book’s mastery in recounting an historical event in a compelling way:

“Rebecca Theim tells a difficult story of the death of a beloved newspaper. True to her journalistic roots, she is thorough and balanced, though impassioned. She names names, points out mistakes and kudos, all while telling the story well, making her mastery of the narrative craft evident. The story is fast-moving and so well done, it is a lesson in how to record historical events in a way that captures the imagination and attention of any and all readers. Even if you have nothing to do with New Orleans or the newspaper business, this is well-told story of an important piece of history that you need to read.”

The National Federation of Press Women is an organization of professionals in careers across communications, including print and electronic journalism, public relations, advertising, and digital media. It conducts a national communications contest that attracts entries in 64 categories.

The complete list of winner is available 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.

Seven former T-P employees laid off in “digital first” sue newspaper, parent company

age_discrimination_cartoonSeven former T-P employees who were among the more than 200 who lost their jobs in 2012 because of the radical “digital first” restructuring Advance Publications undertook at the newspaper and more than a dozen others it owns across the country, filed suit this week against the companies. The suits allege age discrimination and illegal employment practices. They were filed in Orleans Parish District Court.NOLADefender_Logo

You may read my story about the suit, published by NOLA Defender, at this link.

A year after “digital first” in NOLA and Alabama, deciphering Advance’s circulation figures

NOTE: Corrections below in underline and strike-through, making the distinction between digital non-replicas (smart phone and tablet apps) and digital replicas (PDFs).

The semi-annual figures compiled by industry group Alliance for Audited Media (previously the Audit Bureau of Circulations) were released today, for the six months ending Sept. 30, 2013, representing average circulation numbers. This represents the first full year of comparative numbers since “digital first” was implemented Oct. 1, 2012 at The Times-Picayune and Advance Publications’ Alabama newspapers – and the first full year of numbers since The Advocate launched its New Orleans edition.

As newspaper analyst Alan Mutter reported on his blog earlier this evening, the way newspapers now report their numbers (changes the AAM has sanctioned) make it nearly impossible to make historical, across-the-board comparisons. But some can be accurately made, and the way the numbers are now reported are insightful in their own way.

For example, the Picayune‘s Sunday print circulation has fallen another 10% year over year (from 145,608 in September 2012 to 130,881 in September 2013), but the newspaper is claiming a total average circulation that’s up about 12% – to 163,530 They accomplish this by counting smart phone and tablet apps PDF versions of the newspaper (referred to as “digital replicas” or “digital non-replicas” in industry parlance), which are available for free via the newspaper’s website (although that free availability is not widely promoted). The AAM report, however, doesn’t note that last year’s figure (listed on the Sept. 30, 2013 report for comparison purposes) is print-only, without any digital editions included.

Meanwhile, The Advocate reports flat to slightly increasing print circulation figures year-over-year (depending on the day of the week), but more substantive increases when “digital non-replica” circulation is included.

NOLA’s PBS affiliate’s “Informed Sources” takes up my book

"Informed Sources" co-hosts Larry Lorenz (left) and Errol Laborde (right) and I discuss my book.

“Informed Sources” co-hosts Larry Lorenz (left) and Errol Laborde (right) and I discuss my book.

I recorded an appearance on Friday, Oct. 18, immediately before the book’s launch party, on “Informed Sources,” the media and public affairs show produced by New Orleans PBS affiliate WYES-TV.1CanalPlaceShirt The episode aired later that evening.

I sported my custom shirt on the show (image at right) and discussed its origins, a topic also touched on in the book.

You may view the episode by clicking this link. My portion begins at 10:20.

Lagniappe, Mobile’s alt-weekly, excerpts the book

The Press-Register of Mobile, Alabama, was one of three Advance Publications newspapers in that state that were subjected to “digital first” on the same day as The Times-Picayune. (The other two were The Huntsville Times and The Birmingham News.) More than 400 Advance employees and contractors Lagniappe-Mobile_Logoin Alabama lost their jobs as a result.

Lagniappe, Mobile’s alternative weekly, and co-managing editor Rob Holbert play a fairly significant role in the book, and the publication excerpted it, with Holbert arranging a presentation and signing for me in Mobile.

You may read the Lagniappe excerpt by clicking here.