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.

“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.

Third Round of Layoffs in 3 Years at NOLA Media Group

TP Tower CloseUpNOLA.com | The Times-Picayune today carried out its expected third round of layoffs since its “digital first” transformation in September 2012, letting go 37 full- and part-time editorial employees, or “21 percent of the overall content operation’s full-time employees,” NOLA Media Group President Ricky Mathews said in a statement.

Only a handful of editorial employees who worked for  the news organization before the 2012 mass layoff are still employed. Among those terminated were veterans James Varney, Dinah Rogers, Keith Spera, and Paul Purpura, who had been with the newspaper 26, 24, 19 and 16 years, respectively. John Pope, whose career began in 1972 at the now-defunct Picayune sister paper the States-Item , was also let go from full-time employment, but is expected to continue to contribute as a freelancer.

It wasn’t just veterans who got their walking papers. Andy Grimm, who had been recruited from the Chicago Tribune to cover federal courts, reporter Ben Myers and graphics reporter/editor Dan Swenson also were laid off.

Read full coverage by Gambit, WWL-TV and The Advocate.

Advance Publications Cuts Newsroom Staff at All 3 Alabama Newspapers

mobile-press-register-masthead-1200x280Advance Publications gave journalists at the Huntsville Times, Birmingham News and Mobile Press-Register their walking papers today (Aug. 18). The layoffs are expected to be precursors to terminations at The Times-Picayune later this year or in early 2016.

Although the company did not disclose how many were terminated in Alabama, Birmingham’s alternative weekly, Weld, pegged it at 21.

At least eight editorial employees at the Press-Register were let go, including six reporters and two photographers, Lagniappe, Mobile’s alt-weekly, reported.

Employees there had been expecting cuts since it was announced in June that Advance was AL.com The Birmingham News MastHead.jpgconsolidating its Alabama operations, its Mississippi Press and The Times-Picayune into the Southeast Regional Media Group, Lagniappe Co-Publisher/Managing Editor Rob Holbert reported.

The latest layoffs mean at least 20 members of the Press-Register‘s editorial staff have either quit or been fired since January, according to Lagniappe.

Huntsville TimesThe company said it has laid off five to nine full-time journalists each in Birmingham, Mobile and Huntsville, the Birmingham Business Journal reported. These layoffs followed 10 terminations in January statewide.

These cuts are expected to precede ones at NOLA Media Group and The Times-

Front page of the Birmingham News in May 2012 when the layoffs began.

Picayune. The Huffington Post‘s media reporter Michael Calderone reported yesterday (Aug. 17) that anxiety is mounting among Picayune staffers, who also face the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina Aug. 29. The assumption has been that the company will wait until after that commemoration to announce layoffs there, given the central and high-profile role the newspaper’s staff played in heroically chronicling the storm and its aftermath.

News media website Poynter.org published the entire memo issued earlier today by AL.com Vice President Content Michelle Holmes announcing the cutbacks.

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.

Times-Picayune to abandon Howard Avenue HQ, eliminate 100 more jobs

As predicted in Hell and High Water (page 190), NOLA Media Group today announced that The Times-Picayune will abandon its longtime Howard Avenue headquarters – including the iconic clock tower, a photo of which is featured on the dust jacket of the book – and begin printing the newspaper at the Mobile, Alabama, operations of its sister newspaper 145 miles away.

The last of the employees who create the print edition of The Times-Picayune will move from 3800 Howard Ave., the newspaper's home for 44 years, in late 2015 or early 2016.

The last of the employees who create the print edition of The Times-Picayune will move from 3800 Howard Ave., the newspaper’s home for 44 years, in late 2015 or early 2016.

The move, expected in late 2015 or early 2016, will lead to the elimination of another 100 employees, NOLA.com reported.

The paper will be printed at the facility that now prints sister newspaper The Press-Register, which, like The Times-Picayune, became a three-day-a-week newspaper in October 2012, and shed hundreds of jobs.

It will be the latest newspaper owned by Advance Publications, which began rolling out its “digital first” strategy at its smaller Michigan newspapers in 2009, to jettison its legacy, company-owned headquarters in favor of newer, glitzier leased office space, as noted in sister blog dashTHIRTYdash.org in January 2013.

The company will consider donating the facility to a non-profit, according to the NOLA.com report.

Layoffs associated with the move will be the largest since the newspaper’s massive reduction in 2012, Louisiana competitor The Advocate reported, with job terminations primarily affecting those who print, assemble and package the print newspaper. The roughly 30 employees who have continued to work at 3800 Howard Ave. copy-editing and laying out the paper will move to The Times-Picayune’s former office in Metairie, which was essentially shuttered after the company shifted to “digital first” in the fall of 2012.

“They wanted a ‘burn the boats’ strategy, where you come to the new world and you don’t want to have the temptation to sail back.” – Loyola University instructor Michael Giusti to The Advocate

NOLA.com quoted NMG President Ricky Mathews as saying the decision to stop printing in New Orleans would not alter the paper’s commitment to the region. “We expect these changes will have no impact on our readers and advertisers,” Mathews said in the NOLA.com report. “On the contrary, they will help us even better serve our audience in print and online and pursue new technologies.”

The Times-Picayune and its sister publication, The States-Item, moved from downtown New Orleans to Howard Avenue in 1968, six years after the company’s 1962 acquisition by Advance Publications, the New York- based company owned by the billionaire Newhouse family. The building housed the the main newsroom, printing presses, packaging facilities and business offices for 44 years, until 2012, when “digital first” led to the termination of more than 200 employees, including almost half of the newsroom. Most of the remaining employees subsequently moved to the top two floors of One Canal Place, a downtown skyscraper, where they continue to work.

The Advocate reported that leaving Howard Avenue also likely has a significant psychological goal for NMG and Advance, according to Loyola University instructor Michael Giusti. “They wanted a ‘burn the boats’ strategy, where you come to the new world and you don’t want to have the temptation to sail back,” he told The Advocate.

Reporter fired by Mobile alt bi-weekly and quickly hired by AL.com ain’t dere no mo’

Former Lagniappe and Alabama Media Group reporter Katie Nichols

(UPDATED 3/13/14 with underlined information below.)

In chronicling what may be the Gulf South’s version of Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass, Rob Holbert, co-publisher and managing editor of Mobile’s alternative weekly Lagniappe, details in this March 5 commentary why the publication fired reporter Katie Nichols, including apparently fabricated diplomas from the University of South Alabama and the University of Alabama, and fabricated sources in some of her Lagniappe reports. Lagniappe‘s investigation also uncovered that Nichols had lied to at least two other publications where she had worked about her academic credentials and had been caught in an instance of flagrant plagiarism at one of those outlets.

Two weeks after getting the boot at Lagniappe Jan. 31, Nichols’ work began Lagniappe-Mobile_Logoappearing on the Mobile section of AL.com, the online home of Advance Publications’ three Alabama newspapers, where she was listed as a general assignment reporter. (Like their Advance sister paper in New Orleans, The Times-Picayune, Advance’s three formerly Alabama dailies went thrice-weekly Oct. 1, 2012, after decimating their staffs.)

However, Nichols’ profile on AL.com now lists her as a “former” reporter, and the last of her 29 reports on the site was posted at 8:03 PM March 4, the day before Lagniappe posted Holbert’s report about her serious transgressions during at least some of her two-year tenure with that publication. (UPDATE, 3/13/14, 8:56 AM CDT: Alabama communications consultant Wade Kwon noted that in a March 7 post on his popular media blog, Jim Romenesko reported that AL.com Content Vice President commented that, “Katie Nichols was employed by Alabama Media Group for three weeks. She is no longer with the company.”)

Lagniappe Co-Publisher and Managing Editor Rob Holbert

Lagniappe Co-Publisher and Managing Editor Rob Holbert

Holbert is somewhat of a folk hero in Hell and High Water, which detailed his consistent and colorful criticisms of the Press-Register, AL.com, and Ricky Mathews, the former P-R publisher and AL.com president. (Mathews is now publisher of The Times-Picayune and president of NOLA Media Group).

It would be logical to wonder how someone guilty of such egregious journalistic sins could land a job at a community’s oldest news organization two weeks after being fired by a fierce competitor. However, the antipathy between the two news outlets makes it understandable why they probably didn’t share references before, or information after, employing Nichols.