Not content with dominating the Times-Picayune’s front page on Thursday with a press release from its editor, the paper ran an awfully similar piece by the new publisher on page one Sunday headlined “The Times-Picayune and NOLA.com are here to stay.”
As if the Times-Pic needed to remind New Orleanians that its absentee owners have brought in an outsider to gut their hometown paper, Publisher Ricky Mathews leads with it. And where he directly addresses the protests over going to a three-newspaper-a-week schedule, he doesn’t bother to mention the much more serious complaints about the paper firing half its newsroom (with nebulous and not exactly confidence-inspiring promises to add about half of the headcount back, presumably with titles like “buzz reporter”) and trying to shift readers to a website that everybody thinks is awful.
Apparently nobody wanted to edit the publisher, who got 1,800 words when about 800 would have been plenty, and who writes stuff like this:
Online revenue at NOLA.com continues to grow as advertisers in growing numbers see the benefits of Louisiana’s No. 1 news and information web site.
Worse, Mathews doesn’t talk about any numbers (beyond Nola.com traffic but, notably, not Nola.com revenue), which makes his piece even less credible. You’ll just have to trust him that he and Advance know what they’re doing. It’s their business and that’s their right. But if they want to salvage what’s left of their connection to the community, which is the source of the asset’s value, they’d provide more numbers and less consultant-speak. “What this plan represents is an entrepreneurial investment in our future” doesn’t mean much of anything.
Advance Publications is privately held by the Newhouse family, which is why those numbers are harder to come by. But Poynter’s Rick Edmonds has tried to game out how much money Advance might save by cutting print to three days a week and slashing the paper’s newsroom. It’s a very, very rough estimate, based on assumptions that the paper’s revenue and cost mix is similar to the industry average, but it’s the best we’ve got. And it’s not pretty.
Edmonds estimates that the Times-Pic’s print reduction will actually lose the paper money, at least initially: slicing revenue by 22 percent and costs by just 17.5 percent.
So why are they doing it? Because gutting the news budget by an estimate half, would save up to 7.5 percent of overall costs, making the idea slightly profitable. And when I say “slightly” I’m talking about two or three million dollars a year, based on Edmonds’s fairly generous assumptions.
It is easy to see why Advance, so far, is nearly alone among news organizations in taking this plunge.
Again, the primary problem here is not the reduction in print, but the decimation of the Times-Picayune’s newsroom. In other words, disinvesting in journalism behind a digital smokescreen, as I wrote last week. Since Mathews wouldn’t mention the latter, we’ll turn to The Gambit, the New Orleans alt-weekly, for details on the layoffs:
Richard Thompson, a business writer, brought a bottle of Crown Royal to his meeting with his supervisor. He ended up splitting it with business editor Kim Quillen. Both were fired.
So was longtime religion reporter Bruce Nolan, who had confronted Amoss — with whom he had graduated from Jesuit High School more than 45 years ago — in a speech that was taped and leaked out of the newsroom after a contentious meeting with employees. So was St. Tammany bureau chief Ron Thibodeaux, a three-decade veteran who just the week before published a book, Hell Or High Water, which gave a Cajun perspective on Hurricanes Rita and Ike. So was St. Tammany reporter Christine Harvey.
So were education reporter Barri Bronston, reporters Katy Reckdahl and Paul Purpura, sportswriter Lori Lyons, editor Dennis Persica, Baton Rouge reporter Ed Anderson, columnist Sheila Stroup, horse racing writer Bob Fortus, political cartoonist Steve Kelley, photo editor Doug Parker and photographers John McCusker, Matthew Hinton, Scott Threlkeld, Ellis Lucia and Eliot Kamenitz — along with dozens of others.
Maybe Mathews just doesn’t like to get his hands dirty. As The Gambit wrote in that same piece:
The paper’s new publisher, Ricky Mathews, who also is overseeing similar if not more drastic cuts at Newhouse papers he has been running in Alabama, was absent from the newsroom throughout the termination process.
Actually, Mathews did mention layoffs in his piece:
If we had done nothing, layoffs would be inevitable, year after year. Our ability to respond as we are responding today would have been severely impacted.
As Audit Publisher Dean Starkman pointed out the other day, “So, instead we’ll do them now.”
What a fiasco.Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: future of news, New Orleans, print, public relations, Times-Picayune