In May, as the New Orleans Times-Picayune put to bed an epic, eight-part investigation into Louisiana’s prison system, its editors began to disappear. First, Mark Lorando, the features editor, was nowhere to be found. Then the chairs of the online editor, Lynn Cunningham, and the sports editor, Doug Tatum, were empty. So was that of the city editor, Gordon Russell. Newsroom wags called it The Rapture.
Conspicuously left behind: Peter Kovacs and Dan Shea, managing editors for news, whose subordinates, sworn to secrecy, hadn’t told them what was up. As Kovacs, Shea, and a team of 20 put final touches on the series, “Louisiana Incarcerated,” the chosen editors—including Jim Amoss, the top editor—were two miles away in the Place St. Charles tower, implementing a plan that would make a story like that series far more difficult to pull off in the future.
The secret meetings in May led to a bloodletting in June. Advance Publications laid off nearly half the paper’s newsroom, halted daily publication of the Picayune, and implemented a business and news model that shifts the focus of the operation to its free news website, NOLA.com.
Ten months later, a battle still rages for the soul of the Times-Picayune, and over the meaning of what happened. Much of the media coverage of the changes in New Orleans, while critical of Advance and the paper’s leaders, has focused on the decision to cut publication to three days a week and, to a lesser extent, on the layoffs, which were devastating even by today’s standards. Those are, of course, important storylines.
Less examined: the radical change in how journalism is done at the 176-year-old Times-Picayune and what that means for the future of news coverage. And even less examined are the strange finances of the move, which help explain what to many appears inexplicable, from either a journalistic or a business point of view.
Advance argues that it is taking a difficult but bold step into a digital future, in New Orleans and across the country. But its actions make more sense with a close look at the numbers, which suggest something other than its claim of “securing a vital future for our local journalism.”
American newspapers have lost more than half their advertising dollars in the last five years, an existential threat to an industry that in 2007 depended on ads for three-fourths of its revenue. The Times-Picayune is no exception to the trend. Its advertising has plunged 42 percent since 2009, according to an analysis of figures its publisher gave The Wall Street Journal in September.
There is no sure answer for what to do about this. Still, by now, most major newspapers have begun moving to strategies that play to their strengths: charging core readers online while allowing casual visitors 10 or so free stories a month; increasing the price of the paper, sometimes by charging an upsell fee for bundling digital access with print; shoring up Sunday circulation; and attempting to convert ad departments into marketing-services operations that provide more holistic solutions to local promotion, like website creation, social-media help, app creation, and the like. These and similar strategies are based on the value of the content, and on a hopeful bet that newspapers can keep significant subscription revenue in the coming all-digital future.
Advance is following the industry into marketing services. But mainly it has stuck by what was conventional Web wisdom from before the recession—chasing clicks. In the new NOLA model, editors push reporters to increase “inventory,” more content with fewer journalists. And more of its remaining resources are in sports and entertainment. In this system, a distracted click on a story that says, in its entirety, “Hornets officially announce their nickname will be changing from Hornets to Pelicans,” is worth as much as one on, say, a prison exposé. More, actually, since the former comes with less time and effort.
If you worked for Advance Publications, you might have seen this coming. In 2009, Advance shut down the 174-year-old Ann Arbor News and replaced it with a website, a buzzword-driven news agenda, and a biweekly newspaper called AnnArbor.com. It fired roughly half of the newsroom, partially repopulating it with fresh-faced journalists with job titles like “Sports Reporter—Buzz.” Reporters churn out three or four posts per day.
By most accounts in Ann Arbor, its journalism deteriorated dramatically, but Advance declared AnnArbor.com a success, financially and journalistically. In 2012, it moved all its Michigan papers to a version of the model, centralizing functions like sports and statehouse coverage and slashing newsrooms and pressrooms. Times-Picayune staffers watched with unease, but figured New Orleans, with its devoted print readers, would be last among the Newhouse papers to get the Michigan model, if it got it at all.