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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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.

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.

NOLA’s NPR affiliate talks to me on “The Reading Life” and “My Spilt Milk” excerpts the book

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Susan Larson, host of WWNO’s “The Reading Life”

Susan Larson, host of WWNO’s “The Reading Life” and former longtime Times-Picayune books editor (she and I worked together at the paper, but she left in one of the first rounds of buyouts, several years before last year’s saga unfolded), invited me for a chat on the show. You can listen to our conversation at this link (my portion begins at 13:27.) And also check out her revised and updated version of A Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans, released just last month.myspiltmilk

In addition, New Orleans culture and music website My Spilt Milk today published an excerpt from the book, followed by an interview with me. You may read the excerpt here, and the interview here.

NOLA alt-weekly Gambit reviews Hell and High Water

Kevin Allman, editor of New Orleans’ respected alternative weekly Gambit, drove coverage of The Times-Picayune saga, trailing New York TimesGambitLOGO media reporter David Carr by only a few hours in confirming the grim coming changes, in May 2012.

He recently offered his assessment of my book. My favorite quote from his review? “If newspapers are black and white and dead all over, in New Orleans they’re the walking dead, and Theim’s tale of how print still lives will be of interest to New Orleanians and the newspaper industry at large.”

You may read his review by clicking here.

New Orleans Magazine’s Errol Laborde weighs in again on the book

ErrolLaborde_Headshot

New Orleans Magazine Associate Publisher and Editor Errol Laborde

New Orleans Magazine Associate Publisher and Editor Errol Laborde has been generous with his time (while I was writing the book), valuable real estate (in the pages of the magazine) and with his praise (first, a few weeks ago, on “Informed Sources,” the public television show he produces on New Orleans’ WYES-TV, and now on the magazine’s blog).

Sometimes a person is just having a routine day at the office, going through the usual motions, perhaps thinking of what to get for supper, and then BAM! something happens that suddenly bounces a life in a new direction.

That happened last year to Rebecca Theim a former reporter for The Times-Picayune (1988- ’94) who has most recently been living and working in Las Vegas. When she heard about The T-P being reduced to thrice weekly and about the accompanying layoffs, she was outraged. Being separated by distance she could have easily been justified for doing nothing, instead she got into action. She founded a group that raised money to divide among the terminated employees. She also uncorked her reporting skills and began following the story as a journalist.

One day when media historians study what the Newhouses did to journalism, Theim (pronounced “theme”) will be an important source, perhaps the most important. Now we are seeing the results of her work … The publication is an excellent, at times riveting, bit of reporting put together in an amazingly short time.

– Errol Laborde’s Oct. 7 column on MyNewOrleans.com, the blog of New Orleans Magazine

You may read the rest of Errol’s column by clicking here.

First review of the book, in Louisiana’s The Advocate

The Advocate, the former Baton Rouge newspaper acquired by New Orleans billionaire AdvocateAppIconJohn Georges, who has continued its fledgling expansion into New Orleans in a big way, is a supporting character in my book, and by anyone’s admission, far from an objective observer in the New Orleans media landscape. That’s no doubt why the daily newspaper went to Andrew Burstein, LSU’s Charles B. Manship Professor of History, and commissioned him to review my book.

Burstein, a noted Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson scholar, tells me in an email that, “My main attachment to Louisiana politics and culture is of the era when Thomas Jefferson was weighing the strategic significance of the Mississippi River. I could read your book with objectivity because I had no idea who any of the players were, many of whom now work at the Advocate.”

“Rebecca Theim, who worked for the paper from 1988 to 1994 and now lives in Las Vegas, narrates the story of the paper’s demise with clear compassion and in journalistic detail — while wielding a pen as mighty as any sword … This is a book with attitude.”

LSU historian Andrew Burstein’s review of
Hell and High Water

You may read the remainder of the review by clicking here.