Publisher says readers will be served by 24-hour online news
By Mary Kenney
The Working Press
Eileen Julien’s father walked miles, sweating, around the Big Easy every day, a crumpled, smeared Times-Picayune stuffed in a deep pocket of his mailman’s uniform.
“He read it cover to cover virtually every day,” Julien said. “And they published his letters. People would call him on the phone and congratulate him.”
Julien was one of thousands dismayed when news broke this spring that Advance Publications, which owns the Times-Picayune, would reduce publication to three days per week.
The Times-Picayune and newspapers in Birmingham, Mobile and Huntsville, Ala. – also owned by Advance Publications – were told in June the papers would stop printing daily this fall, and 600 jobs were cut.
New Orleans has a population of 360,740, according to a 2011 report by the U.S. Census Bureau.
It is now the nation’s largest city without a daily newspaper.
“We have a choice. We can suffer a death by a thousand cuts, or we can completely refocus our company,” said Ricky Mathews, who will become the president of NOLA Media Group, which includes the Times-Picayune and NOLA.com. He insisted the company is not cutting the newspaper for profit, but cutting back on publication days to reinvest in the outlet’s website.
On Thursday, the group announced that it would open a new bureau in downtown Baton Rouge, La., with a special emphasis on coverage of the New Orleans Saints football team.
Mathews said the dramatic changes were a response to downward advertising trends, which the Times-Picayune shared with newspapers across the country. He said executives believe the trend will continue.
While print revenue for the Times-Picayune has dropped by 10 percent since last year, unique visits to NOLA.com increased by 30 percent in August.
The decision to reduce daily printing created a stir in New Orleans and in newsrooms across the country.
Petitions popped up at Change.org and other Web hosts, demanding the Times-Picayune be saved. The Change.org petition has 9,436 signatures to date.
A July 6 letter to the Newhouse family, owner of Advance Publications, begged them to sell the newspaper to someone who would retain it as a daily.
Fourteen members of the Times-Picayune Citizens’ Group, which includes representatives from nearly 70 organizations, signed the letter, including Scott Cowen, president of Tulane University, Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, musician Wynton Marsalis and Norman Francis, president of Xavier University.
“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,” it read. “Our community leaders believe that your decision is undermining the important work we continue to face in rebuilding New Orleans.”
New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson offered to buy the newspaper in July. Anger grew when the company declined to sell.
Steven Newhouse, chairman of Advance Publications, told The New York Times, “We have no intention of selling, no matter how much noise there is
Maki Somosot began an internship at the Times-Picayune in June. The day after she arrived, the company laid off 200 at the Times-Picayune, including about half of the newsroom’s staff.
“It was one day,” Somosot said. “One brutal day. My editor told me not to come in that day because she was scared it would scare me away from journalism.”
NOLA.com is now hiring back staff. Somosot said an email was sent about a week after the layoffs, encouraging people to reapply for the positions from which they’d been laid off.
Mathews said there were once 181 employees in the newsroom. Now there will be 154. There have been some cuts, but there are many new kinds of positions.
He said the company has added multimedia journalists and is still hiring. By cutting back on production, the company was able to save money that can be used to hire.
The Times-Picayune shared the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for public service following its coverage of Hurricane Katrina. In addition to breaking news, the Times-Picayune editorial board criticized the government’s response to the disaster and insisted the president fire Michael D. Brown, chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He resigned eight days later.
Despite these recent accolades, Sonya F. Duhé, the director and a professor at the Loyola University New Orleans School of Mass Communications, said she expects other media sources to fill the void left by the diminished Times-Picayune.
Duhé said outlets such as The Advocate of Baton Rouge, La., and TheLensNola.org, a nonprofit investigative news source, are attracting audiences from the Times-Picayune as they grow in New Orleans.
“I think we’ll see other niches come and take that place, whether people go to the Times-Picayune website or other websites or news sources,” Duhé said, who added that New Orleans is a city that needs good journalism.
At its heart, Julien said, the decline of the Times-Picayune is the loss of a cornerstone that has supported New Orleans since its inception in 1837.
“It’s not clear to me how cutting the newspaper will make it more vibrant or sustainable,” Julien said, a bite in her tone. “It’s like taking a body and cutting off the arms and legs and saying, ‘It doesn’t need to eat as much now.’ But do you kill it in the process?”
Mathews disagreed. He said he thinks the changes adopted by NOLA Media Group will be a model for other news organizations.
“New Orleans is an entrepreneurial city,” Mathews said. “Why shouldn’t New Orleans be the place where we redefine how journalism is practiced
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