The tragic thing about this mess is that the Times-Pic isn’t some AP-filled shell of its former self—even if its newsroom has been seriously scaled back over the last several years—and it isn’t even losing money. Its reader penetration is 75 percent, the highest of any big city in the country.
My wife happened to be in New Orleans the week the new strategy was announced and she brought me three days of newspapers. The paper still has a rich news report. On May 31, a Thursday edition that will no longer exist under Advance’s plan, I counted more than 50 staff or contributing bylines and columns and roughly 30 staff photographs.
The previous day’s edition fronted a stunning photograph by the paper’s Michael DeMocker, who captured a man comforting a five-year-old, Briana Allen, as she bled to death, shot at a birthday party. Photographer Ted Jackson photographed a dazed woman resting on her porch after sweeping up the blood.
In exchange for this, and a still-profitable daily newspaper operation, Advance and the Newhouses are doubling down on this:
All right, all right. Advance Publications did respond to reader outrage and switched the “yellow journalism” of Nola.com to a less garish shade several days back, but this is the company behind the The Oregonian’s website in super-wired Portland and MLive.com. Point is, the digital brains behind this website, which nobody I’ve seen thinks is any good, are what the Newhouses are betting the franchise on.
Because Advance is privately held, it’s difficult to get a good grasp on what’s happening here. But here’s what’s been reported: The Times-Picayune, as currently constructed, makes money, though we don’t know how much. At about $5.7 million last year, digital ads brought in just 8 percent of total ad revenue (which seems low), according to analyst estimates reported by Advertising Age. I’d estimate that the Times-Pic brings in at least $25 million to $30 million a year in circulation revenue.
While smart papers have been going to a digital subscription model, and smarter papers have moved toward a hybrid model that blends digital and print subscriptions and incentivizes readers to subscribe to the lucrative Sunday print edition, the Times-Picayune never even tried a meter model or leaky paywall. And it actually penalizes readers for subscribing to the Sunday paper. A Sunday-only subscription costs $2.77 a week. Buying it on the newsstands costs $2. Its Sunday circulation is just 16 percent more than its daily circulation. Most newspapers’ Sunday circulation is at least 50 percent bigger than their daily circ.
To be clear, my complaint is not with trimming down print to three days a week. While I understand there are some serious public access issues with that in a poverty-stricken city, the newspaper has to have money to survive.
The problem is that rather than using the new-found cash flow created by reducing operating costs to support its news operations, Advance is gutting its newsroom, getting its community out of the habit of a daily paper, and moving to what looks for all the world like a hamster-wheel model online. It’s liquidating the newspaper, as Jack Shafer recently wrote. Contrast the Newhouses’ actions to those of Warren Buffett, who has been snapping up papers and promising to maintain news staffs and daily publishing—to invest in them. Buffett’s businesses will be healthier longer than the Newhouses’.
What might Advance have done differently? Digital subscription revenue, for one, could have provided a real opportunity to transition print subscribers over to digital ones for the long haul.
The paper also could have killed, say the Tuesday print edition while maintaining the size of its newsroom and the cost of its subscriptions, and given free online access to subscribers to make the changes go down easier.
Or it could have killed four days of print, like it’s doing, but kept its newsroom at full strength and far better able to create the kind of journalism that the digital stuff needs to flourish.
Instead, New Orleans got the worst of all worlds.
The Newhouses say the paper isn’t for sale. Here’s hoping they change their minds before September.