Coming just days before the Summer Solstice, some saw light while others saw darkness from two stories that evolved out of “Newhouseworld.”
First came the announcement that Nola Media Group, the company under which the T-P falls in the Newhouses’ complex organizational chart, would merge with Alabama Media Group to form the newly created Southeast Regional Media Group. Heading the organization will be none other that Rickey Mathews, the company enforcer who was sent to New Orleans from Mobile, where he oversaw the Newhouse properties in Alabama and Mississippi. Here he became president of Nola Media Group, whose products are NOLA.com and The Times-Picayune. His mission included making drastic changes and cuts. The T-P was downsized and shifted from being a seven-days-a-week home-delivered paper to thrice weekly. At the same time its digital presence was enhanced. Given the anger and hurt within the community over the changes, plus the emergence of a genuine competitor in The New Orleans Advocate the experience could not have been a happy one.
Replacing Mathews as publisher of the T-P will be David Francis, a veteran of the T-P front office and the former associate publisher. Politically the move is a good one. Francis is from New Orleans. His father is Norman Francis, the esteemed recently retired Xavier University President. He is black, a rarity among publishers. In a city that is often weary of outsiders sent to make changes, Francis will seem more like one of the guys.
Left uncertain in the early announcements was where the new company, which is part of Steve Newhouse’s Advance Publications division, would be headquartered. Mathews, however, answered in reply to my e-mail: “I'll be splitting my time between New Orleans and Alabama and will continue to report into Advance Local, just as I do now. My main office will remain right here in New Orleans.”
As for the purpose of the new company, the direction is clearly digital with some deference to print: “We are working diligently to define our digital future, while still publishing excellent newspapers. We are substantially growing our digital audience and building an unparalleled digital ad solutions business while working to address the industry-wide challenge of declining print revenue.”
Whatever the new mission many be, it will clearly be done with fewer people. The other big T-P related story last week was reported by Gambit Weekly Editor Kevin Allman on the newspaper’s website. According to Gambit, T-P executives have been meeting with editorial employees and telling them that another round of cuts is under way by the end of the year.
As quoted by Allman, “‘They’re being pretty upfront about the fact there will be layoffs,’ said one newsroom staffer. Another joked grimly that it might be ‘2012 redux’ – referring to the firings of some 200 Times-Picayune employees in 2012, a move which riled the city for months and made national news, complete with a report on 60 Minutes.” Allman added, “Some of the reporters said that the upcoming cuts were described to them as being ‘deep.’”
When the T-P’s original cuts were made a Newhouse executive said there would be more of an emphases on sports and entertainment coverage. That too, according to Gambit, seem endangered: “Unlike the last major round of cuts, the sources said, sports, arts and feature reporters also are at risk in this round of cuts; in 2012, many of the firings came on the news side.”
This comes at a time when there are already cuts in the newspaper’s production staff as printing is being shifted to presses in Mobile.
Where all these changes are taking journalism is murky, but there are clearly some losses to the consumer. Most endangered is the beat reporter. That was once the strength of daily newspapers, which had large staffs of reporters assigned to specific areas. They could become specialists in the sectors that they covered. That was critical in sorting through the facts. Now there will be fewer journalists and many will be reporting with less background.
Several cities will be facing these situations, particularly in towns where the newspaper is owned by the Newhouses, who seem to be the most fervent in the switch to digital. In some cities the populace has rolled over and accepted devolution of daily news coverage; not so New Orleans, which is the only town where a major daily newspaper has emerged as a challenger. The Advocate has allowed New Orleans to keep its dignity as a city worthy of daily newspaper coverage and has added the heat of competition.
What is happening in New Orleans is making journalistic history. It will be a complex tale with lots of characters and organizational charts, a tale that, one day, ironically, will be best suited for the pages of a newspaper.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMET: Errol Laborde’s new book, Mardi Gras: Chronicles of New Orleans Carnival (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), has been released. It is now available at local bookstores and at book websites.
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