Throughout the year, Kevin Allman reported on the changes at The Times-Picayune and its online arm, NOLA.com, as the two became a new company, NOLA Media Group, under the watch of new publisher Ricky Mathews.
Last week's departure of Lynn Cunningham, The Times-Picayune's online editor — a veteran of the paper since 1977 and the right hand of editor Jim Amoss — was the cap on the paper's most dramatic year in recent history as it launched into what was euphemistically known as "the digital transition."
That digital future is expected to take physical form next month as the rechristened NOLA Media Group moves into its new digs at the top of the One Canal Place office building — a nontraditional newsroom with "workstations" for reporters and editors who drop by. Under the new system, most of the staff are expected to be out in the field with new Apple laptops and smartphones, filing stories by Wi-Fi with minimal supervision (and copyediting). Gone will be the days of reporters' desks groaning under strata of papers and detritus; each will have a small shelf for a few books and personal effects, adding to the sleek look of the new digs. As for the messy-but-necessary research material contained in filing cabinets and reference tomes, reporters have been told to take what they need and store it at home. A dumpster is now installed in the newsroom for the rest.
While the paper's new home-delivery competitor, Baton Rouge's The Advocate, boasts numbers beyond publisher David Manship's most optimistic expectations (13,500 paid circulation, with another 8,000 papers on newsracks around the city), The Times-Picayune also is claiming victory. Earlier this month, while appearing on WWNO-FM's "Out to Lunch" program, business manager David Francis told host Peter Ricchiuti that circulation of the T-P had actually increased since the paper went to thrice-weekly publication in October, though he provided no numbers.
Meanwhile, the newsroom staff, which had written an open letter in June to Cunningham and Amoss, asking, "Will there be quotas for online entries?" (no formal answer was ever forthcoming), ended the year nervous about their role in drawing traffic, or "clicks," to NOLA.com. A "Staff Performance Measurement & Development Specialist" had been hired; his job description included monitoring reporters' and editors' "amount of content created each day" and "[setting] standards for measuring performance aimed at achieving content and business goals." ("I don't know how to get more clicks without doing more stories every day," one longtime reporter told Gambit.)
None dare call it quotas — but few in the newsroom doubt that quotas, or something like them, is coming in 2013. And Cunningham's departure, according to several sources, will not be the last high-profile bailing; in fact, it may just be the first in a new cycle.
— KEVIN ALLMAN
All year, Charles Maldonado has been tracking the politics and the lawsuits involving Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman and Orleans Parish Prison.
Conditions at Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) have been under the federal microscope since 2008, when the U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation into the jail. In 2009, DOJ issued its first findings letter to Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, citing serious problems, including a pattern of excessive use of force by jail guards, poor medical and mental health care and inadequate supervision leading to frequent inmate-on-inmate violence. By 2011, the issues still weren't resolved, and local nonprofit news website The Lens reported that Gusman and the feds had begun negotiations on a federal consent decree.
Those negotiations didn't appear to be going anywhere until last spring, when the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) started a legal campaign against the jail. In late March, SPLC sent a letter to Gusman on behalf of an unnamed transsexual client who claimed she was raped repeatedly by inmates over the course of several weeks before jail staff sought medical treatment for her.
In early April, SPLC filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Gusman and the sheriff's office on behalf of all OPP inmates. The original suit included 19 affidavits signed by inmates, who painted a brutal picture of life in the jail.
One plaintiff described being attacked by a group of men shortly after being transferred from one unit, Old Parish Prison, to another, the House of Detention (HOD). "Some of them held me while another one stabbed me over and over," the plaintiff wrote. "I was bleeding all over and yelled for a deputy. No one came until the next day."
Fewer than 10 days after the suit was filed, Gusman closed HOD, reducing the jail's capacity to 2,700 inmates, down from 3,500 at the beginning of the year and 7,500 in 2005. On April 23, DOJ issued a second findings letter concluding that conditions at the jail had deteriorated rather than improved since 2009. The letter also criticized Gusman for failing to "seriously negotiate" the terms of a consent decree.
It became clear the situation had changed when U.S. District Court Judge Lance Africk allowed DOJ to intervene as a plaintiff in the SPLC suit. In December, SPLC, Gusman and the federal government released a proposed consent decree for Africk's signature.
Meanwhile, Gusman and the city of New Orleans have been locked in a legal fight over funding the improvements. In October, Gusman claimed that implementing any such agreement would cost about $40 million in city funding. During 2013 city budget talks, Gusman's budget request of $37 million — which sought to eliminate the current per prisoner, per day or "per diem" budgeting model — was more than $14 million above the city's budget offer. Gusman did not receive the additional funding.
The sheriff has requested a court review of the $22.39 per diem rate, which was set as part of a 2003 settlement in another federal court case, Hamilton v. Morial (originally filed in 1969 as Hamilton v. Schiro). That case has been reopened, and hearings on the rate modification are scheduled for January 2013 before Judge Jay Zainey. Africk has scheduled two separate trials in the SPLC case: one on jail conditions, which will begin in February; and another on funding, which will begin in April.
— Charles Maldonado