Thursday, May 24, 2012

After the news: Today at The Times-Picayune

Posted By on Thu, May 24, 2012 at 5:05 PM

When the word came down that The Times-Picayune would no longer be a daily newspaper, it wasn’t from the paper’s owners, Advance Publications. Nor was it from senior management or newsroom officials. It came as a brief item on The New York Times’ “Media Decoder” blog, written by David Carr, and sent out over Twitter at 10:33 p.m., when the newsroom was largely empty:

“Newhouse Newspapers, which owns The Times-Picayune, will apparently be working off a blueprint the company used in Ann Arbor, Mich., where it reduced the frequency of the Ann Arbor News, emphasized the Web site as a primary distributor of news and in the process instituted wholesale layoffs to cut costs.”

Five paragraphs in, the story mentioned that longtime editor Jim Amoss and his two managing editors, Peter Kovacs and Dan Shea, were among those leaving. Publisher Ashton Phelps Jr. had already announced his retirement in March.

Carr’s report wasn’t exactly right about the “blueprint”: In Michigan, Newhouse did not reduce the frequency of the Ann Arbor News — it closed the paper, fired most of the staff, then created a news-flavored website called AnnArbor.com, which puts out a perfunctory print edition twice a week.

The New York Times report came after a tumultuous week in the T-P newsroom. Speculation about the paper’s future had been rampant after incoming publisher Ricky Mathews had come to New Orleans the week before, moved into the Windsor Court Hotel, and held meetings with some — but not all —Times-Picayune executives off the building's premises. All week, speculation had ranged from shuttering bureaus and eliminating some managerial positions (the best case scenario) to “Armageddon” — the closing of New Orleans’ paper of record, with mass firings, a few people invited to reapply for their jobs and news delivered solely through Advance Publications’ online arm, NOLA.com.

Reaction in the media world to Carr’s tweet was instantaneous — and incredulous. New York Times correspondent Campbell Robertson, who covers New Orleans and the South, was having a drink at Arnaud’s French 75 with national news editor Sam Sifton. “Holy shit!” Robertson exclaimed.

Gambit spoke to more than a dozen T-P employees — reporters, senior writers, columnists and editors — all of whom said they learned of their fates from The New York Times report.

"My supervisor didn't even fucking know," said one reporter. "My supervisor."

"I had to find this out by Twitter," said another. "Do I go in to the office tomorrow? Do I even have a job to go in to tomorrow? I don't know. No one has called me. No one has said anything."

On Twitter, crime reporter Brendan McCarthy wrote, “Just learned in the NY Times that my newspaper, my employer, my morning routine may cease to exist.”

And thus began a long night for staffers at The Times-Picayune. Some gathered for an impromptu porch party, checking the Internet on a laptop, smoking cigars, killing a case of Coors Light. Others went to Wit’s Inn in Mid-City for a wee-hours bacchanal. A few others tied one on with city editor Gordon Russell at his Uptown home. An official announcement from The Times-Picayune would not come for 10 more hours — and it answered few questions while raising a few new ones.

The lede, as they say, was this: Beginning this fall, The Times-Picayune will become a three-day-a-week newspaper, publishing Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays — making New Orleans one of America’s largest cities without a daily newspaper.

The Picayune was founded in 1837 and was one of several daily papers in New Orleans throughout the 19th century. It merged with The Times-Democrat in 1914, adopting the T-P name. By the 1960s, the city had only one other daily, The States-Item. The two were merged in 1980 by the Newhouse family, owners of Advance Publications, which by then had purchased both papers.

Despite the conglomerate ownership — Advance publishes dozens of newspapers around the United States, as well as the Conde Nast and Fairchild Fashion Group magazines — the T-P has had a local publisher as long as any employee has been alive. Phelps, its current publisher, is the fifth generation of his family to oversee the paper.

Phelps was uniquely qualified to run a New Orleans newspaper, balancing the paper’s reputation for hard news with its old-money origins. Under Phelps, the T-P was known both for the quality of its journalism (the paper won two Pulitzer Prizes in 2006 for its coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods), but never neglected its Uptown audience. Thickets of debutantes crowded the paper during the social season, and while some parts of the paper shrank or were eliminated, society doyenne Nell Nolan’s space was sacrosanct. In the newsroom, Phelps was well-respected.

“Ashton was a straight shooter. He always had our backs,” one longtime reporter said.

Earlier in the week, when the newsroom was rife with rumors, another reporter approached the publisher who had always been square with his employees, and asked what was going on.

“You’ll have to ask Gordon [city editor Gordon Russell],” was the response.

In a March announcement of Phelps’ retirement, T-P reporter Bruce Nolan crafted a news story that read on its surface a straightforward business story. Between the lines, it raised some eyebrows. It noted Phelps’ 32-year service before introducing Mathews as a Mississippi native who knew the tragedy of Katrina, and worked in a reference to the new publisher’s sporting bona fides (“An avid outdoorsman, Mathews loves to hunt and has fished the offshore waters of Louisiana for most of his life”). But it was a brief reference at the story’s end that set off speculation within and without the newsroom:

“In a brief meeting with employees Tuesday morning, Mathews said he believes that paid journalism's future is secure, although it will be delivered across many devices, including newsprint. ‘The platform is irrelevant,’ he said.”

“The platform” referred primarily to NOLA.com, the online partner of The Times-Picayune.

In the 1990s, when newspapers began to go online, Advance created a new company, Advance Internet. That company would go on to be affiliated with many of the newspapers in the Advance Publications chain, using content from the daily paper and original material to create websites that were often mistaken for the newspapers’ “official” websites. The T-P partnered with what was dubbed NOLA.com, just as the Newark Star-Ledger fed material to NJ.com and The Oregonian to OregonLive.com, etc. NOLA.com has its office in downtown New Orleans, away from the iconic Times-Picayune building on Howard Avenue. It is helmed by “director of content” James O’Byrne, a former editor at The Times-Picayune who contributed some of the paper’s most riveting stories in the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods.

From the start, the two companies have not gotten along. T-P reporters have complained openly about what they see as a difficult-to-navigate, difficult-to-search website over which they have no control. Also a source of complaint: the site’s commenters, who can be caustic and often bicker. “You put up a story that you worked hard on,” explains one T-P staffer, “and within a minute some idiot has written something stupid at the bottom. You don’t even want to send the story [via email] to your friends and family.” (O’Byrne has also referred to the newspaper as the “Inkasaurus,” irking his former colleagues.) For their part, staffers at NOLA.com have felt marginalized and unwanted by the reporters they see as their colleagues, blamed for comments they can’t control and not given credit for their work on the site, which has been honored; in 2011, NOLA.com received the Press Club of New Orleans award for the city’s best website.

Less than two months after Nolan reported Mathews’ comment about news platforms being “irrelevant,” NOLA.com debuted a new opening page that was both unpopular with readers (judging from online comments) and left much of The Times-Picayune aghast. With a screaming-yellow banner at the top, blocky headlines and huge text, it resembled a Facebook Timeline more than a traditional newspaper site. But more important than NOLA.com’s look, Times-Picayune staffers feared, was where it came from.

The template for the new NOLA.com was first employed at MLive.com, an Advance Internet site serving a large portion of Michigan. It serves as Advance’s digital hub for seven or eight smaller papers in cities like Kalamazoo, Flint and Saginaw. It’s seven if you don’t count AnnArbor.com and its twice-weekly print version; eight if you do.

Forbes’ Micheline Maynard, an Ann Arbor-based journalist, wrote, “No offense to its staff, but AnnArbor.com, online at least, is a constantly updated blog, which gives equal play to impaled cyclists and rabid skunks as it does to politics and crime. The printed edition is newspaper-like, but with a different style and less gravitas than its predecessor.”

Carr’s New York Times story, which used the word “blueprint” in referring to the Michigan-New Orleans connection, created further anxiety in the local newsroom.

The now-defunct Ann Arbor News was founded in 1835 — just two years before the Picayune. According to the 2010 U.S. census, the metro Ann Arbor area has about 345,000 people, while New Orleans has 344,000.

MLive.com is a subsidiary of Advance’s “MLive Media Group,” a company that formed in the last year, after the shuttering of the Ann Arbor paper. The company describes itself on its website as “Michigan's largest local media advertising network, allowing our advertisers to reach local audiences in communities across the state.”

“A new company — the NOLA Media Group, which will include The Times-Picayune and its affiliated web site NOLA.com — was announced today by Ricky Mathews, who will become its president,” began The Times-Picayune’s story about itself this morning. It quoted Mathews as saying “Our best path to success lies in a digitally focused organization that combines the award-winning journalism of The Times-Picayune and the strength of NOLA.com."

The story also quoted Amoss with the sort of phrasing that would send any reporter into guffaws: “With a reduced printing schedule starting in the fall … plans call for the Wednesday, Friday and Sunday editions of The Times-Picayune to be in many ways more robust than each of the daily newspapers is currently.”

“New Digitally Focused Company Launches This Fall With Beefed Up Online Coverage” was the headline on NOLA.com, under the new yellow banner.

“More robust” and “beefed up” were not phrases used in an internal memo sent to T-P employees under Phelps’ name. “Many current employees of The Times-Picayune and NOLA.com will have the opportunity to grow with the new organizations,” it said, “but the need to reallocate resources to accelerate the digital growth of NOLA Media Group will necessitate a reduction in the size of the workforce.”

Mayor Mitch Landrieu released a general statement of support for the paper, noting he had been a T-P paper boy in his youth and saying “I look forward to talking with new management and others who have a stake in the future of The Times-Picayune to discuss how we can help the newspaper grow and not diminish.”

Chris Bowman, a spokesman for District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, said, “The district attorney certainly hates to see any New Orleans institution close its doors, or downsize, and certainly the same goes for The Times-Picayune, which has been around a very long time, longer than any of us. That’s only compounded by the loss of jobs. … The DA is certainly sympathetic to those individuals. However he’s optimistic with the new leadership coming in they’ll … continue to be a source of news for the entire community.”

“What I feel for the most are the employees that are going to be impacted by this,” said Jefferson Parish Councilman-At-Large Chris Roberts, “and not knowing what their future holds while figuring out how they provide for their families. … Just looking at pictures on my wall here in the office, and pictures from The Times-Picayune from the ’40s, from Mardi Gras — it’s another part of history. It goes back 175 years.”

Sen. Mary Landrieu tweeted her support for her hometown paper. Others, including City Council President Jackie Clarkson and U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, told Gambit they had no comment about changes at the city’s only daily newspaper.

At 3800 Howard Avenue this morning, meetings with managers and senior staff began shortly after 9 a.m. as Times-Picayune employees tried to get back to work. A few took to social media. “It’s like a morgue in The Times-Picayune newsroom today,” wrote investigative reporter David Hammer. “Twitter, have I told you today that I love you? Well, I do,” wrote editorial page editor Terri Troncale. Saints beat reporter Jeff Duncan sent out a photo of a newspaper on his doorstep with the caption “I lost a friend today.” The French Quarter bar Molly’s at the Market, a longtime hangout for the city’s press, announced that any current T-P employee with ID would drink free tonight after 10 p.m.

Even as the staff was getting back to work, two hours later and 350 miles away, in Birmingham, Ala., employees of the Birmingham News, another Advance Publication, were being summoned for their own meeting. As they met, AL.com, the paper’s online affiliate, posted the news that a new “Alabama Media Group” had been formed, and that the three papers under its umbrella would “dramatically expand its news-gathering efforts around the clock, seven days a week, while offering enhanced printed newspapers on a schedule of three days a week.”

And the show, and the paper, went on.

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