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Death of a Daily

When the End Began for Times-Picayune Staffers

MIKE LUCKOVICH ILLUSTRATION

In what many New Orleanians fear will be a brutal change for their tradition-minded community, the 175-year-old Times-Picayune will end its life as a daily newspaper in October 2012 and go to press only on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays – the weekdays most valuable to its advertisers.

New York City-based Newhouse family-owned Advance Publications, which bought The Times-Picayune in 1962, says that going to less-than-daily publication and laying off 200 of the newspaper’s staffers effective Sept. 30 were necessary steps to keep the paper from succumbing to rising costs and to shift the paper’s newsgathering focus to its website, Nola.com.

Times-Picayune employees first learned that their world was about to change in a New York Times article posted at 10:33 p.m. on May 23.

Headlined “New Orleans Paper Said to Face Deep Cuts and May Cut Back Publication,” the story said the paper’s owner, “will apparently be working off a blueprint the company used in Ann Arbor, Mich., where it reduced the frequency of the Ann Arbor News, emphasized the website as a primary distributor of news and, in the process, instituted wholesale layoffs to cut costs.”

When he read the piece, City Desk reporter Danny Monteverde had a visceral reaction: “My stomach just about came up out of my throat,” he says. “I literally didn’t sleep that night.”

Before most employees arrived at their desks the next day, the newspaper’s officials had sent out an e-mail calling attention to the New York Times article, saying there would be meetings that day to discuss the matter, Monteverde said.

Full-time employees of the newspaper who were not offered jobs with NOLA Media Group, a new firm that will be running the newspaper and its website, will get biweekly severance checks for up to a year for the most experienced employees. For as long as they receive the money, they are governed by their signed agreement not to say anything “materially disparaging” about Advance Publications.

Times-Picayune religion editor Bruce Nolan, who wasn’t invited to stay with the newspaper, had been there for 41 years.

“If this organization was a person, they would be diagnosed as clinically depressed,” he said. “Every week you find out that someone is leaving … in addition to the 50 percent that had already been toe-tagged,” he says. “It’s become a death march to Sept. 30.”


A PALL OVER THE COMMUNITY
Meanwhile, the prospect that The Times-Picayune will land on people’s doorsteps only three days out of every seven has thrown a pall over the larger community.

“What am I going to do with my mother? She doesn’t even turn on the TV in the morning; she reads the paper,” said one man in the crowd that gathered June 4 outside Rock ’n’ Bowl on South Carrollton Avenue for a rally to demand the paper continue publishing daily.

No one knows whether a three-days-a-week Times-Picayune can succeed or if Advance can improve its website enough to satisfy critics who call it clunky and hard to navigate.

What is certain is that other organizations, including Baton Rouge’s daily, The Advocate, and a new partnership among WWNO public radio and two news websites, The Lens NOLA and NolaVie, are preparing to move in on what has traditionally been Times-Picayune’s turf.

A coalition of New Orleans’ civic, social, business, educational and religious leaders is still trying to convince Advance to reconsider a plan they say will leave New Orleans the only major city in the United States without a locally published daily paper and imperil its continued recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

To date, Advance has reconsidered in only one respect: It has agreed to publish a Saints tabloid on Mondays during football season.

But Steve Newhouse, president of Advance.net, the digital arm of his family’s publishing group, has repeatedly said the newspaper isn’t for sale. Two purchase offers from Saints owner Tom Benson were rejected. Even a letter from U.S. Sen. David Vitter, warning that Advance would “get smoked” it if doesn’t sell the paper, has left the company apparently unmoved.

As the day nears when The Times-Picayune starts appearing three days a week, worries abound that New Orleans residents without Internet access – more than a third of the city’s populace – will be unable to find out what has happened on the four days the paper doesn’t print.

“We’re very aware as we focus more on digital and reduce the number of days we’re publishing, we have an obligation to serve people who don’t have the same access to digital or the same understanding that other groups have,” Newhouse said in an interview published Aug. 3 on the website Poynter.org. He said Advance.net was close to announcing “significant initiatives” to ease that burden.
Times-Picayune Editor Jim Amoss says readers have no cause for concern and that they’ll be getting more news when the newspaper starts publishing three days a week.
“Nobody will miss out so long as they buy the three (printed) editions,” he says. The three editions will have everything readers are used to in the seven-day-a-week paper, he said. Amoss also promised substantive reporting in the three editions and on Nola.com.

“We have by far the largest reporting staff in the region and a strong commitment to watchdog journalism and will fulfill that commitment,” Amoss said. “What we are doing is to preserve the kind of journalism that Times-Picayune readers expect.”

Will the new venture’s reporters be too busy posting news updates to tackle more complex stories?

“I think good journalism is going to have to include both the ability to report 24/7 and to find ways to do enterprise and investigative journalism,” Amoss said. “Good stories demand resources and time, and we are going to afford both.”


How They Did It
Not everyone is buying what Amoss and Advance are selling.

“Most of the people in the news operation took off because they didn’t believe in it,” said a former Times-Picayune staffer who didn’t want to be identified by name.

In his view, there was no reason to reduce the print publication from seven to three days in an effort to produce a quality website.

“It’s all about how they do it,” the staff said. “It’s about preserving quality, not the (news) platform.”

What is happening to The Times-Picayune now, he said, is “a damned shame. It’s not just any business. A newspaper has a civic role. That is what seems to be getting lost.”

Sheila Grissett, a longtime Times-Picayune reporter who left the paper last year, doubts the new regime will be able to turn out a quality product, but for friends who remain with the company, she hopes it will be possible.

Grissett says that right now she’s too angry to care about its quality because of how shabbily Advance has treated The Times-Picayune family. “This has just been a merry-go-round of mistakes, just one after another, until no one can be happy. The people who are staying have survivors’ guilt. The people who were cut loose, except for a handful able to land great jobs right away, are terrified for their future.”

She continues, “Newspapering is a calling, whether you’re the librarian, graphic artist or a reporter or photographer. And people have been knocked out of their calling.” She says, “(Publisher) Ashton Phelps’ newspaper would have never treated us this way, but this isn’t Ashton Phelps’ newspaper any longer.”

Grissett says she’s eternally grateful to Phelps, Amoss and other editors who kept her employed and insured so she could tend to her dying husband and work a bit from home. And, because of that extreme kindness, she felt guilty last year when she said Nola.com-driven changes began so adversely impacting the way she did her job that she left the newspaper in her 26th year there.

“I’m old-school, and when you tell me that I must post a partially reported piece of news – even if it’s wrong and can later be corrected – because some people somewhere want to see something new, anything new, each and every time they click, that was my line in the sand. I believe that the only acceptable mistakes in news stories are the honest ones. Only a dedication to accuracy can make journalism honorable.”

Grissett says she felt the website was intentionally being used to drain the newspaper’s lifeblood. Instead, she suggested the two could have collaborated to create something to serve Internet users, while still remaining in daily service to the greater good and readers who prefer turning pages for their news than being forced to click, click, click around for it.

“Because I was lucky enough to have a choice, I chose not to stay and participate in the killing of our daily newspaper,” she says. “Obviously, they managed it without me. The pro-Nola.com crowd will tell you that daily news defenders are all old, will die soon and finally be out of the way. Not so: Most of the newsroom’s best and brightest kick-butt reporters in their 20s and 30s responded to the news by resigning and going elsewhere.

“Just to be clear,” she continues, “daily newspaper devotees are neither all old nor are we opposed to change. We just oppose ruthless, unnecessary, ill-conceived change that damages good journalism, our community and our broader republic. Instead of choosing to make some more proud Times-Picayune history, their destruction of our newspaper and cleaving of our Times-Picayune family has just made most of us ashamed.”


“If this organization was a person, they would be diagnosed as clinically depressed. Every week you find out that someone is leaving … in addition to the 50 percent that had already been toe-tagged.

It’s become a death march to Sept. 30.”

Bruce Nolan
Times-Picayune religion editor




One Woman’s Campaign
When former Times-Picayune City Hall reporter Becky Theim heard that 200 of the daily’s staffers would lose their jobs Sept. 30 as the paper becomes a three-day-a-week publication, she knew she had to do something to help.

“I’ve been at the receiving end of three downsizings, and I know how emotionally and financially devastating it is to lose a job, particularly if you’re very devoted to your work,” says the Las Vegas public relations and marketing professional, who calls her Times-Picayune job probably the most rewarding she’s ever had.

For weeks now, Theim, 50, has been working online day and night to orchestrate a campaign to raise money for the newspaper’s laid off employees and to get people around the country to signs petitions in favor of keeping New Orleans’ 175-year-old newspaper publishing daily.

Theim started “DashThirtyDash,” named for an old copywriter term meaning “end of story,” to receive donations that will be distributed by the nonprofit Contemporary Arts Center. “We did that so the donations would be tax-exempt,” says Theim, explaining that DashThirtyDash doesn’t have nonprofit status.

“Everything we raise is going to the people who are losing their jobs,” she says. “The only fees we’re paying out so far for anything is we’re paying the Contemporary Arts Center two percent for overseeing everything for us.”


Theim started and is maintaining DashThirtyDash pages on Facebook and Twitter, and she fields phone calls and e-mails from people seeking information about the assistance fund.

Moreover, she has been coordinating the involvement of most of the restaurants and other businesses that are giving to the DashThirtyDash effort.

When it comes to fundraising, Theim is a big thinker: She originated the idea of holding a reunion of Times-Picayune alumni at Rock ’n’ Bowl on Sept. 28, and a public fundraiser at Howlin’ Wolf on Sept. 29, to mark the newspaper’s end as a daily publication. During that bash, creations by artists and artisans who have worked at The Times-Picayune will be auctioned to benefit the last 200 of the daily newspaper’s employees to be laid off.

 “We are trying to reach out to newspaper delivery people and freelancers, too, to invite them to attend,” Theim says. More information about the event can be found at DashThirtyDash.org.

 Frank Donze, who covered City Hall for the newspaper until his recent departure from the staff, calls what Theim is doing “above and beyond the call of duty” for someone who doesn’t live in New Orleans and hasn’t worked here in 20 years.

 Donze says he has been getting calls and e-mails from people who have never seen or spoken with Theim but, “can’t wait to meet her and give her a hug.” He said they want to know “who is this superwoman that’s doing all this work for no pay?”

“She has been just marvelous,” Donze says. “It’s not only that she’s organizing this stuff and moving the ball. She is moving it from thousands of miles away. It’s amazing that she can be this puppeteer from her desk in Las Vegas.”
 

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