There are things in your life, rightly or wrongly, you think are never going to change," says Rebecca Theim, a former Times-Picayune reporter now living in Las Vegas. "When I come back to New Orleans, I know there's always going to be a French Quarter, there's always going to be corrupt politicians and there's going to be a Times-Picayune."
So when The New York Times' David Carr reported last May that New Orleans' daily paper would scale back to three-days-a-week publication — which came as a shock to most of the staff — Theim created an online petition to "implore Advance and the Newhouses [the company and the family that own the paper] to maintain the publishing frequency and proud legacy of The Times-Picayune and its other newspapers."
That petition became the pebble that spawned an avalanche of protest — and a summer of rocky publicity for the Newhouse family; Advance Publications and their newly rebranded NOLA Media Group; and the paper's new publisher, Ricky Mathews, who had arrived from Alabama just two months before the news broke. It was Mathews, along with James O'Byrne, editor of Advance's local online operation NOLA.com, who would steer the paper to what was euphemistically being called the "digital transition." (Neither Mathews nor O'Byrne returned Gambit's emailed request for an interview for this story.)
Newspapers have been cutting back and shuttering elsewhere, leading to little more than community grumbling. But something different happened in New Orleans. The gutting of The Times-Picayune drew nationwide attention, inspired local rallies, saw the founding of at least three Facebook groups and drew the written condemnation of some of the city's most powerful citizens. Ed Asner, the actor who played newsman Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spinoff, sent a letter of support. Garrison Keillor, Garry Trudeau, James Carville, Cokie Roberts, Linda Ellerbee and a host of other notables lent their names to the protest. Last week, 60 Minutes was in New Orleans, with correspondent Morley Safer interviewing Mayor Mitch Landrieu, T-P editor Jim Amoss and others. The segment is tentatively scheduled to be to be broadcast Sept. 30 — the final day for many of the 200 workers who were fired in June.
But this isn't a story about the dimming of another star in the constellation of American newspapers. Nor is it a story about the people who worked there.
It's the story of a city that tried to save its daily paper — and a daily paper whose owners thought they were saving it themselves.
Shortly after the news broke that the paper would cut back, a small group of people — many of whom did not know one another — gathered at Octavia Books to see what they could do about preserving a seven-day print edition. Among them were bookstore owner Tom Lowenburg, writer and former Gambit editor Michael Tisserand, Louisiana Bucket Brigade founder Anne Rolfes, Sid Arroyo, information technology expert Brian Denzer, former Times-Picayune columnist Lolis Eric Elie and lawyer Kim Lieder Abramson. Tisserand calls them "the people who would become loudmouths over this thing."
"I grew up with the T-P. It's just part of your daily life," Abramson says. At the meeting, she says, "Everybody had a different take on what to do" — rallies, boycotts, attempts to discuss the situation with the Newhouse family and Mathews.
Arroyo launched a Facebook page, Boycott NOLA.com, urging people to stop buying the paper. Rolfes zeroed in on Mathews, who was announced as publisher in March, displacing longtime local publisher Ashton Phelps Jr. Rolfes created RickyGoHome.com, a website with a Wild West-style "WANTED" poster for the elusive new publisher, who had been spotted more in the city's restaurants and in the Windsor Court Hotel than he had in the newsroom.
Not at the Octavia Books meeting: Anne Milling, who had created one of the first online rallying sites for the paper. "Save the Picayune was her website," Abramson said. "So I called her."
In New Orleans social circles, the name Milling rides high; Anne Milling's husband, King Milling, is the former president of Whitney Bank and current chairman of the America's Wetland Foundation — as well as being Rex, King of Carnival in 1993. Two years later, Anne received The Times-Picayune's 1995 Loving Cup Award for her philanthropy — and she sits on the advisory board of the newspaper. In recent years, though, her name has been most often attached to Women of the Storm, a group organized to draw attention to the Gulf Coast's plight after Hurricane Katrina. If those who met at Octavia Books were the ground-level troops in the flight, Anne Milling was seen as the one who had access to the power behind the Newhouse throne.
"From birth till now, I've always had a Times-Picayune," Milling tells Gambit. "Even when my family moved to Monroe, we'd get the paper sent up on the Greyhound bus to Monroe. ... At this particular juncture of our history, it kills me to think we would lose that voice."
Milling began calling friends, creating the nucleus of what would become the Times-Picayune Citizens' Group, a coalition of more than 70 power players who would issue a public letter urging the Newhouses to reconsider. The group included the presidents of all of New Orleans' major colleges, as well as Archbishop Gregory Aymond and presidents and CEOs of the city's major companies and utilities.
A less confident businessman might have blinked, but Mathews was undaunted. "It is incredible so many people love the newspaper," he told WWL-TV, but "the owners are clear — The Times-Picayune is not for sale."
Abramson's husband is Louisiana State Rep. Neil Abramson, and her idea came from his campaigning: yard signs. She had 500 signs printed up ("EXTRA! EXTRA! SAVE THE PICAYUNE! NEW ORLEANS DEMANDS DAILY NEWS"); the money came from Abramson and his fellow New Orleans-area representatives. Demand was strong. Eventually 1,500 were made, paid for by Milling and restaurateur Ralph Brennan, and Abramson drove around town, staking them in yards herself (and in shop windows around the Windsor Court, she says, where Mathews would see them when he left the hotel). "Some people got so excited, they ran out barefoot to talk to me," she remembers.
Tisserand had a different idea: a proletarian support rally for the paper, with music and costumes and lots of New Orleans flavor. He contacted John Blancher, owner of Rock 'n' Bowl (who has credited both The Times-Picayune and the Virgin Mary for his bowling alley's success), and a rally was set for the parking lot between Rock 'n' Bowl and Blancher's restaurant, Ye Olde College Inn. Allen Toussaint agreed to play. So did Kermit Ruffins and several other local musicians.
Ruffins summed up his feelings: "It would have a huge impact on thousands of musicians and club owners. A lot of elderly, and just people who love to read the paper," he said. "Nobody's going to know what the hell is going on."
About 300 people turned up in the Rock 'n' Bowl parking lot on a very hot afternoon, many in creative garb. T-P employees — who still hadn't been told if they had jobs — began showing up in trickles. "They were risking something real," Tisserand says. "Some had been advised not to go there. I heard some editors were suggesting it would not be good form. Unseen people at the Windsor Court are deciding your future."
By the rally's end (and after a few beers), many had strong words for Mathews as well as O'Byrne — but none would go on the record. Longtime editor Jim Amoss' acquiescence to the plan left his staff split; others thought the well-respected Amoss was making the best of a bad hand he'd been dealt, while others said he "drank the Kool-Aid" being offered up by Newhouse and Mathews.
But it was Mathews, a newcomer to the city and a convenient villain for the protestors' wrath, who earned the most sobriquets: "jackass" and "asshole" among them. Another person dismissed him "an errand boy for the Newhouses" — a reference to the famous exchange from the film Apocalypse Now: "Are you an assassin?" "I'm a soldier." "You're neither. You're an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill."
The rally was covered widely in print and on TV. It gave voice to pent-up public feelings and was one of the few bright spots for the shellshocked staff. But it changed little. That night, Mathews told WWL-TV the paper's plans hadn't changed.
Eight days later, the paper laid off 200 employees across the company, from reporters and pressmen to photographers, salespeople and support staff.
Rather than conceding defeat, New Orleans grew angrier.
Out of all this flurry, two nuclei had emerged that became virtual homes for the soon-to-be-fired employees and their supporters. The first was a Facebook group, Friends of The Times-Picayune Editorial Staff, started by Steve Ritea, a former employee now working in university public relations in California. (Ritea declined to speak to Gambit for this article.) But the group grew so quickly that some feared management might be monitoring the comments. The group now has more than 1,600 members, and is largely supportive, but has turned fractious at times; at the Rock 'n' Bowl rally, a punch was thrown at a member of the Facebook group whose comments had been construed as less than constructive. In recent weeks, the online space has turned to practical matters — severance packages, insurance information — as well as a place to grieve and vent.
The second group was begun by Thiem in Las Vegas, who was "feeling frustrated being 1,500 miles away," she says. A T-P political reporter in the 1980s and 1990s, she was "demoralized" when she left, she says, and has gone through two downsizings since: "I knew what could losing a job could be, particularly during the latter part of your career."
Inspired by a group founded after Hurricane Katrina to aid the newspaper's employees, she created DashThirtyDash, a charity that raised money for the paper's displaced employees and contractors. ("--30--" is the traditional copy editor's mark for the end of a newspaper story.)
To date, DashThirtyDash has raised more than $25,000 through donations and promotions from local businesses including Plum, Slim Goodies, Avenue Pub, Mia's Balcony, The Irish House, La Petite Grocery and Ralph's on the Park. Jeweler Mignon Faget designed memorial ribbon pins using pieces of the newspaper. Theim also organized a fundraiser with music, food and a silent auction, which will be held at Howlin' Wolf Sept. 29. An online auction drew donations from local merchants, as well as the chance to meet and greet newspeople and celebrities ranging from Anderson Cooper and Soledad O'Brien to David Gregory and Ellen DeGeneres.
Theim's outreach has taken on the scale of an unpaid full-time job, and she says she is in touch with her fellow employees daily.
"People are very scared," she says. "They've seen people they thought they could trust behave in ways they never imagined they could behave."
When it became clear that the three-day publishing schedule was a firm decision (or firm-ish; the NOLA Media Group eventually gave in to a football-crazed city and announced it would publish an abbreviated Monday edition after New Orleans Saints games), the public pressure took on a new form — and a new slogan: PUBLISH OR SELL.
On July 6, The Times-Picayune Citizens' Group sent a blunt letter to more than a dozen members of the Newhouse family, urging them to sell the paper. "It is painful to report that right now it is nearly impossible to find a kind word in these parts about your family or your plan to take away our daily newspaper," the letter read. "If your family does not believe in the future of this great city and its capacity to support a daily newspaper, it is only fair to allow us to find someone who does. If you have ever valued the friendship you have shared with our city and your loyal readers, we ask that you sell The Times-Picayune." Donald Newhouse rejected it the same day.
Later that month, Tom Benson, whose holdings include the New Orleans Saints, the New Orleans Hornets and WVUE-TV, inquired about purchasing the paper — as did a second potential buyer.
But in all the reporting about the potential buyers, no one seemed to ask what the terms of the offers actually were — and the real value of the paper is known only to its owners. In 1962, S.I. Newhouse had paid $42 million for both The Times-Picayune and The States-Item, which Time magazine called "the biggest deal in U.S. journalistic history."
Some with knowledge of this year's offers suggest the new generation of Newhouses may have had reason not to take them seriously. One offer was suspected of being more of a publicity stunt, while the other may have been genuine — but as one person with knowledge of the deal asked, "How do you make an offer for a paper when no one knows what it's worth?"
"Bear in mind with the Newhouses: They really are accustomed to 25 to 30 percent pre-tax profit margins," says Thomas Maier, an investigative reporter for New York's Newsday and the author of Newhouse, a biography of the family. "And I think it may have been a little overstated just how much a paper like The Times-Picayune might be worth. It's very hard to determine how much they could have gotten for that newspaper."
Another question was rarely raised during the summer of protest, though, and that was whether Mathews and Steven Newhouse, chairman of Advance.net, might have been right all along, and that pruning the paper and moving content online was the best way to ensure its existence as a newsgathering operation.
At the Rock 'n' Bowl rally, retired T-P columnist Angus Lind, who worked for the paper for 39 years, quoted a line he'd heard: "This isn't the death of newspapers. This is a drive-by shooting."
American newspapers may or may not be dying — but most are on life support, if not palliative care. Between 2009 and 2011, U.S. newspapers shed nearly 22,000 jobs, according to Erica Smith, social media editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who has been chronicling the carnage on her website, NewspaperLayoffs.com, since 2007. Along with the layoffs have come steep ad losses and consequent declines in profit. According to the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, which produces an annual "State of the Media" report, "Ad revenues are now less than half what they were in 2006," but online advertising is on the rise. Still, "Print losses far exceed online gains. For 2011, the ratio was more than roughly 10 to 1."
The Times-Picayune traditionally had been considered one of the shining links in the Newhouse chain — a steady moneymaker that also produced good journalism. But Advance Publications is a privately held company; the exact profit and loss is known to just a few people.
"It was known to be a huge cash cow during the time I was there," Theim says. "People would joke about it literally printing money."
"It's my impression the paper is still marginally profitable, based on statements of the previous publisher," says The New York Times' David Carr, "but that will soon not be true."
After a summer of largely ignoring its critics, Advance Publications released some numbers to The Wall Street Journal Sept. 10. The article said, in numbers attributed to Mathews, "Print ad sales fell 23% in 2009, 10% in 2010, 7% in 2011 and 10% so far in 2012." Reporter Keach Hagey also quoted Mathews as saying digital revenue at the paper's online arm, NOLA.com, had risen 20 percent in the last year, well above industry standards. Despite the losses and the firings, however, the company wasn't cutting back everywhere; Hagey reported that NOLA.com will soon undertake a $1 million ad campaign, purchase new iPhones and computers for its staff and move in to the two top floors of One Canal Place, a tony address overlooking the Mississippi River.
"The owners wanted us to be in a space that could make a statement," Mathews told the WSJ. At an earlier meeting with O'Byrne and members of the New Orleans tech community, he had boasted the new office would have a "Google-Nike kind of vibe" — presumably referring to Nike's ultramodern Oregon executive suites, rather than the Third World factories where the shoes were actually produced.
Advance Publications first rolled out an abbreviated publication schedule at the Ann Arbor News in Michigan in 2009, and plans to do so at its Alabama papers on Oct. 1, just as it's doing in New Orleans. Last month the company announced two of its other properties — The Patriot-News of Harrisburg, Pa., and The Post-Standard of Syracuse — also would go to thrice-weekly publishing, following the digital template set elsewhere. Nowhere but New Orleans has the plan caused such a furor.
Carr thinks the "franticness" in New Orleans was "very predictable," adding, "I never got an answer from Mr. Newhouse. They own a lot of newspapers. Why pick a town where they knew it was going to make a ruckus? It seems a curious decision."
Richard Meeker is the publisher of the Portland, Ore. alt-weekly Willamette Week and author of Newspaperman: S.I. Newhouse and the Business of News, a look at the patriarch of the reclusive family, who originally built the publishing empire. More than a decade ago, Meeker says, he was at a Medill School of Journalism conference of newspaper executives, where he was given insight into how the Newhouses implemented change.
"They would try something out in a given city," Meeker says, "and if that was a success, they would try it out in a very different city, a completely different market. If that model still holds, [it means] they tried out this three-day-a-week plus digital approach in Ann Arbor (Mich.), then on the Gulf Coast. If it works elsewhere, they'll roll it out around their organization."
In Michigan, Advance cut the Ann Arbor News to three days a week and beefed up the paper's Web presence, MLive.com, using a template similar to the one introduced earlier this year at NOLA.com. It worked well enough in Michigan, at least based on public response — or, more accurately, the lack thereof.
Wade Kwon, a Birmingham-based journalist who has been tracking the Advance moves in Alabama, said protest in that city "has been almost nonexistent. It could be seen as the mirror opposite of New Orleans. ... There have been no rallies, no petitions."
In June, when Birmingham News columnist John Archibald published a piece wondering "Why are people protesting the new printing schedule at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, but not at the Birmingham news and other affected cities?," he got a total of three comments.
One statement made by Steven Newhouse to The New York Times' Campbell Robertson seemed to infuriate locals like no other: "We have no intention of selling, no matter how much noise there is out there." That "noise" eventually reached Baton Rouge and David Manship, publisher of The Advocate, that city's daily paper. The Advocate will begin distributing a New Orleans edition Sept. 24, which will be handed out for free in local coffee shops and thrown in people's driveways. Paid subscriptions will begin Oct. 1 for $14.95 per month, undercutting The Times-Picayune's plan of $16.95 for three issues a week.
"We still believe in the printed newspaper every day," Manship says. "We don't doubt the importance of digital — we have a website and an app; we even have an e-edition, so we feel like we are there. We just felt like the people of New Orleans were very strong toward their reading of the Picayune seven days a week. So we thought we'd step in and fill the void."
To that end, The Advocate has hired several former T-P staffers (reporters and editors Sara Pagones, Kari Dequine Harden, Danny Monteverde and photographer John McCusker) and was hiring a New Orleans sales staff last week. Manship says the Crescent City bureau will be located at Baronne and Union streets in the CBD — "on the street level," a playful poke at the NOLA Media Group's lofty offices. But while the paper will cover New Orleans news and is hiring a sportswriter, comprehensive arts coverage is not in Manship's plans, at least not right now. And Pagones and Advocate executive editor Carl Redman confirmed last week that the New Orleans edition will not carry restaurant reviews.
"There is some risk involved," Manship says. "As you know, the way newspapers make money is through advertising, not subscriptions. But we just got a lot of inquiries from New Orleans about the fact they wanted a daily newspaper — and we just decided, heck, let's give it a shot. We believe the advertisers will follow."
Manship pronounced himself pleased with the subscription response from New Orleans (more than 1,000 new subscribers in the first few days), which he says crashed the paper's phone system even before a publicity blitz began advertising the paper's availability. "We were writing people's names down on slips of paper," Manship says.
On Oct. 1, the seven-day-a-week Times-Picayune will go the way of McKenzie's and Maison Blanche, Seafood City and Krauss — another line for Benny Grunch's musical litany of things that "Ain't Dere No More." But it's more than that. As New Orleans' traditional department stores and bakeries passed on, to live only as logos on T-shirts and mousepads, others took their place; people shopped and ate elsewhere.
The thunk of a Tuesday or Thursday Times-Picayune hitting the porch (however faint that sound may have grown in recent years) is going away forever, and many have expressed their fears that NOLA.com and a three-days-a-week paper, no matter how robust, is no substitute for The Times-Picayune's 175 years of daily public service. Imperfect as "da paper" may have been at times, as wrong as it has been on important issues over the decades, it still served as a watchdog, and in recent years was a newspaper far better than many larger papers — in short, far better than it had to be.
"I wish New Orleans had drawn a line in the sand," Tisserand says. "I somehow wish we could have had a massive consumer and advertiser boycott and a walkout in the newsroom. But the groundwork just wasn't there for that kind of fight to take place."
"We worked every angle we could," Abramson says. "They have their plan in place — but I do think they've underestimated the passion in New Orleans."
"I've never been in the camp we need to have a seven-day newspaper, end of discussion," Theim says. "I have an iPad, I have a smartphone, I'm on the computer all the time, I get it — things have got to change in the American daily newspaper model.
"However, it didn't have to be done like this — and it certainly did not have to involve the level of human anguish this involved."