Thursday, May 24, 2012

Times-Picayune employees in shock as extent of Newhouse cuts begins to emerge

Posted By on Thu, May 24, 2012 at 2:40 AM

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Tonight, in private homes, on porches and at least one bar, employees of The Times-Picayune gathered to collectively absorb the shock of a New York Times report that the paper is about to undergo a massive restructuring that will leave New Orleans without a daily published newspaper — just as longtime local publisher Ashton Phelps prepares to leave and be replaced by Ricky Mathews, publisher of the Mobile Press-Register and president of Advance Alabama/Mississippi. (Advance Publications, the parent company of The Times-Picayune and its online affiliate NOLA.com, is owned by the Newhouse family of publishers.)

David Carr's report comes after a tumultuous week in the T-P newsroom, which began after incoming publisher Ricky Mathews came to New Orleans last week and held meetings with some — but not all — Times-Picayune executives off the building's premises.

Multiple sources have told Gambit that editor Jim Amoss and city editor Gordon Russell were in the meetings, as were sports editor Doug Tatum and features editor Mark Lorando. Managing editors Peter Kovacs and Dan Shea, the No. 2 lieutenants to Amoss, were excluded.

As for what the newsroom itself will become, the outlook is still unclear, though everyone expects significant layoffs to occur soon. As Carr wrote, "the newspaper will likely cease to exist as a daily newspaper, and will publish two or three times a week."

A Gambit source whose timeline of the reductions dovetails closely with Carr's report said in an email earlier this week that it was expected "the staff will immediately be whacked by at least a third (from 150 to 100 or fewer reporters). Top brass will be fired and reporters who remain aboard will take sharp salary cuts and be expected to start blogging through the day [for affiliated website NOLA.com]."

Carr's report says that the restructuring will mean longtime editors Kovacs and Shea will be leaving the paper, which Gambit also confirmed earlier this week with multiple sources. Carr says Amoss will be leaving as well, which Gambit was not able to confirm independently.

Reached by phone Wednesday before The New York Times story broke, Russell refused all comment about the paper, the future of the paper or his role there.

The level of disrespect for T-P employees by upper management was the main topic of conversation tonight. All employees with whom Gambit spoke — even longtime senior writers and editors — 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."

In 2009, during its last major round of buyouts, the paper saw the departure of some of its most highly regarded reporters, including columnists Chris Rose and Lolis Eric Elie (Elie is now a staff writer on HBO’s Treme, and Rose delivers video essays on WVUE Fox 8). Others who have left the paper in recent years by taking buyouts or early retirements include familiar New Orleans journalists including David Cuthbert, Angus Lind, Susan Finch, Walt Philbin, James Gill (who continues to write a column for the op-ed page), Susan Larson, Millie Ball, Lynne Jensen, Brian Allee-Walsh, Valerie Faciane and Chris Bynum.

The T-P lost 28 employees in 2009 and its editorial staff shrank to fewer than 170 from 265 prior to Hurricane Katrina, according to a 2010 report in the Columbia Journalism Review.

For decades, the Newhouse chain of papers, which includes The Times-Picayune, was famous in newspaper circles for its “pledge,” as it was known to employees. The pledge stated, “No full-time, non-represented, regular employee will ever be laid off because of economic conditions or because of the introduction of new technology.” The pledge was rescinded in February 2010.

The fear in the T-P newsroom this week has been that the paper would follow "the Michigan model." In Michigan, Newhouse cut the print frequency of several state papers, wrapping them into "MLive.com" — the website that serves as the papers' online partners, much as NOLA.com is the online partner of The Times-Picayune.

It was MLive.com that first rolled out the internally despised "yellow journalism" design that was recently rolled out with great fanfare by NOLA.com. Slammed by readers, the "yellow journalism" template has also been unpopular with the reporters whose work appears there.

Most alarming, according to newsroom sources, is the fact that Newhouse's revamp of MLive.com also brought the destruction of the print version of the Ann Arbor [Mich.] News, a 174-year-old paper that served a metro area of about 350,000 people. Four months after the announcement of the paper's shuttering, Newhouse rolled out AnnArbor.com, leaving the city with only a web version of its familiar newspaper.

Like the Ann Arbor News, The Times-Picayune is an arm of Advance Publications, owned by the Newhouse family, which owns a chain of newspapers and magazines across the country. As a private corporation, the Newhouse/Advance financial holdings are a closely guarded secret, but The Times-Picayune has always been considered one of the jewels in the Newhouse chain, both for its profitability and the quality of its journalism, which has won numerous Pulitzer Prizes.

Last week, the paper published a remarkable eight-part series on the state of Louisiana prisons, which was helmed by reporter Cindy Chang and graphic artist Ryan Smith, among others. (Good luck finding it on the revamped NOLA.com — we tried. EDITED: But not hard enough; a reader sends us this link to the series, which is well worth your time.)

On Tuesday, as Gambit was making inquiries about the meetings in the newsroom, a longtime reporter said of the prison series, "This may be our last hoorah."

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