The Fight to Save The Times-Picayune
Excerpt from 'Hell and High Water: The Battle to Save the Daily Times-Picayune,’ published by Pelican Publishing Company
Chapter I: “This Isn’t the Death of a Newspaper. This Is a Drive-by Shooting.”
Veteran editor Jim Amoss was perhaps the only person in the Times-Picayune newsroom to suspect that the evening of May 23, 2012, would be particularly inauspicious in the history of the 175-year-old newspaper. About 10:30 p.m. local time, a story by New York Times popular media reporter David Carr – who unsuccessfully had sought comment from Amoss earlier that evening – went live on the newspaper’s “Media Decoder” blog. Carr’s report was explosive for employees and anyone who loved New Orleans, its celebrated newspaper, or who followed the long-struggling newspaper industry. It detailed how the newspaper’s New York-based owner, Advance Publications, would put the T-P at the center of a bold experiment in United States journalism: New Orleans would become the largest American city without a daily newspaper. The daily T-P would be replaced with a three-day-a-week publication and a beefed-up NOLA.com, the newspaper’s website that was routinely criticized by Internet experts and Joe Everyman alike as badly organized, aesthetically unappealing and difficult to navigate. The story reported that the newspaper faced deep staff cuts, and that longtime co-managing editors Peter Kovacs and Dan Shea – the two most powerful people in the newsroom after Amoss – would lose their jobs as a result of the changes. The only significant error in Carr’s report was that Amoss also would leave the newspaper after overseeing the transition.
Newsroom employees had grown increasingly apprehensive in the past two months, ever since the announcement that veteran publisher, Ashton Phelps Jr., would retire and be replaced by Ricky Mathews, publisher of the Advance-owned Mobile (Ala.) Press-Register and president of the company’s Alabama Media Group, which also oversaw Advance’s two other newspapers in that state.
Although Phelps had insisted the decision to retire was his alone, his departure would be the first time since 1918 that a Phelps would not be publisher of the newspaper.
Anxiety had mounted in recent weeks as senior editors began disappearing from the newsroom – first for hours, then for days – a phenomenon sardonically labeled the “Rapture” by those excluded from the ominously secretive gatherings. Amoss and Phelps were the only local newsroom executives who initially knew about the coming changes, but Amoss had steadily expanded the inner circle of editors entrusted with knowledge of the coming changes. The group eventually included features editor Mark Lorando, online editor Lynn Cunningham, sports editor Doug Tatum, NOLA.com editor James O’Byrne and online news desk editor Paula Devlin. City editor Gordon Russell was the last to join the meetings, which began in late April or early May during the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. All participants were required to sign confidentiality agreements and were sworn to secrecy, with Russell forbidden to talk even to Shea or Kovacs about what was going on. “I went to Peter and said, ‘One guy here has to tell me the truth,’” Shea recalled in March 2013, “and [Peter] responded, ‘I’m out. I’m not part of this. Even Gordon won’t tell me what’s going on.’”
As the harsh news detailed in Carr’s report spread through the region in the early hours of May 24, 2012, the newspaper’s employees were scared, confused – and angry. “Some gathered for an impromptu porch party, checking the Internet on a laptop, smoking cigars, killing a case of Coors Light,” wrote Kevin Allman, editor of the city’s alternative weekly, Gambit, who trailed Carr by only a few hours in confirming and posting a story on his publication’s website about the coming changes. “Others went to [local watering hole] Wit’s Inn in Mid-City for a wee-hours bacchanal. A few others tied one on with city editor Gordon Russell at his Uptown home.”
Over the course of the next several months, Allman became the often-confidential mouthpiece of the newspaper’s rank-and-file, a main source of information as the newspaper’s brass closed ranks and shared little with the staff or the inquiring news media. “I had to find this out by Twitter,” one reporter told Allman the night the news broke. “Do I go in to the office tomorrow? Do I even have a job to go in to tomorrow? I don’t know. No one has called me. No one has said anything.”
Outside the newspaper, rumors also had been buzzing. Uptown doyenne Anne Milling, wife of retired Whitney Bank president and 1993 King of Carnival, R. “King” Milling, fielded two calls from reporters the day before the New York Times’ story broke, asking whether she had heard anything about major changes coming to the newspaper, including it becoming a less-than-daily publication. A longtime member of Phelps’s Times-Picayune community advisory board and past winner of the newspaper’s annual philanthropic “Loving Cup” award, Milling was a natural source for reporters to contact regarding issues about the management or future of the newspaper. The possibility sounded so ludicrous, however, that she dismissed it out of hand. A freelancer called New Orleans Magazine associate publisher and editor-in-chief Errol Laborde with a similar rumor. “It sounded so sensational that I didn’t pay much attention to it,” Laborde recalled in a March 2013 interview.
When Milling saw the New York Times’ story the next morning, she immediately called her more digitally savvy friend, New Orleans public relations consultant Diana Pinckley, who walked her through the process of buying her first internet domain. “At 8 o’clock that morning, I sent an email to the newspaper’s leadership: ‘I just bought the URL, “Save the Picayune.” We’re going to go down fighting. Lots of love, Anne,’” she recalled in March 2013. Within hours, and with the help of Pinckley, “Save the Picayune” also had a Facebook page and Twitter feed, each of which attracted hundreds of followers in the first few days.
“Someone needed to tell them that the people who poured themselves out during Katrina – for themselves, for the city, for the organization, and had created an industry legend – deserved to be treated better than this.”
In response to the New York Times story, NOLA.com posted a story about 8:30 a.m. While laying out the newspaper’s new structure in broad-brush strokes, the article and a morning staff memo from Phelps acknowledged that newspaper managers were very much still crafting plans and seemed to admit they had been caught flat-footed by the Times’ reporting. The NOLA.com report confirmed that the Times-Picayune in the not-too-distant future would be published in newsprint form only three times a week: Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, the three days in highest demand by the publication’s advertisers, and that new focus would be placed on the website and the company’s mobile efforts. The story, which carried no byline, closed by conceding that, “the transition will be difficult.”
At the time, Times-Picayune pressman Cass DeLatte was only a couple of weeks away from receiving his 25-year anniversary watch at the annual luncheon hosted by Phelps to commemorate the milestone in employees’ careers. DeLatte’s father, a 38-year pressroom veteran who died while still working at the newspaper, had gotten his son the job right out of high school. DeLatte’s wife, Lisa, was selecting new cabinets for a much-anticipated remodeling of the kitchen in her family’s modest Metairie home the morning NOLA.com posted its story. A clerk at the cabinet store asked her what she and her husband planned to do about the coming layoffs at the newspaper. “I called Cass, hoping to God that it was just a bad rumor. But it wasn’t.”
As employees streamed into work in the downtown newsroom and the newspaper’s bureaus the morning after Carr’s story broke, the mood was characterized as funereal. Molly’s at the Market, a longtime French Quarter bar popular with the city’s news media, put out the word that Times-Picayune employees would drink for free after 10 p.m. Amoss hastily scheduled what would be three understandably tense staff meetings throughout the day. “The most extraordinary moment was when Jim said, with a sense of disgust, that there were a lot of things wrong with the New York Times story,” Shea recalled about the morning staff meeting held downtown. “The only thing that was wrong was that he was leaving.”
That staff meeting also was marked by a devastating soliloquy by Bruce Nolan, a 41-year veteran who had written the front-page story in late March about Phelps’s coming retirement. Nolan’s remarks were particularly notable – and momentous – because of his long-standing friendship with Amoss (the two graduated from New Orleans’ Jesuit High School together), his role as periodic Phelps speechwriter and his reputation as an even-tempered, deeply religious, family man not prone to openly criticizing the company. But that changed in this meeting. “I think everyone here thinks this doesn’t feel like the old Times-Picayune,” said Nolan, his voice slightly quivering and almost cracking near the end of his remarks, a recording of which was surreptitiously released to the New York Times and posted on its website (listen to the recording here). “Over the last week, there was a sense of anxiety and dread, a sense of disrespect, a sense that people were being kept in the dark about terribly important things, and that shouldn’t have happened,” he said. Harking back to the tumultuous 1980 merger of the T-P and its then-sister paper, the States-Item, and the way then-new publisher Phelps Jr. shared that news with employees, Nolan remembered, “People had the feeling that they had been told what could be told, and that things would work themselves out, either for good or for ill, but that there had been a sense of respect and a sense that people’s dignity had been honored.” He went on:
“And I didn’t see that this week. … To read in the New York Times this morning that a 40-year career, in my case, is ending this way … that wasn’t right … So, we’ll go all go forward, and we’ll watch each other’s backs and we’ll do what we need to do, and we’ll just bring this to as graceful an end as we can, but it’s gonna be tough. And I wish we had done it differently.”
At the end of the hearty applause that followed Nolan’s statement, a stunned Amoss responded simply: “I fully recognize that this is not what you call a graceful end, or a graceful transition. It’s a rough, traumatic one. And I wish it weren’t so.”
In the span of that four-minute-and-18-second rebuke, Nolan was transformed in the eyes of his colleagues from an editor and reporter deeply loyal to the newspaper and its managers to the “People’s Reporter,” a hero of the rank-and-file. “I wish [the recording] hadn’t gotten out, but I’m happy to stand behind it,” he recalled almost 10 months later. “I was dimly aware that I had a certain standing, both with Jim, and by virtue of my time there. Someone needed to tell them that the people who poured themselves out during Katrina – for themselves, for the city, for the organization, and had created an industry legend – deserved to be treated better than this.”
Nolan said Amoss later approached him and told him, “‘I want you to know that I get it.’ His message to me was ‘message received,’ and that there would be no blowback,” Nolan remembered. Nearly three weeks later, Nolan was informed that he was one of the more than 200 Times-Picayune employees who would lose their jobs as a result of the changes.
As devoid of specific information as Amoss’ meetings were, at least he held them. Employees on the first floor, where the newspaper’s business-side employees worked, were told nothing except to read Phelps’ memo. Pressroom and packaging employees, the latter who assembled and prepared the newspaper for home delivery and transport to newsstands and boxes, were treated similarly. “By the time I got to work, everyone was talking about it, but managers and supervisors – silence,” recalled one veteran production employee who requested anonymity over the employee’s concerns about continuing severance payments.
After Amoss’ initial staff meetings and the corresponding vague announcement that changes were on the way, it became clear that the newspaper’s management was either unwilling or simply unprepared to provide meaningful information about what would happen, and when. Mike Marshall, editor of the Press-Register, which also was forced by the New York Times’ story to announce that it, too, was making the “digital-first” leap, told industry news site Poynter.org the next day that “the rollout of these changes wasn’t supposed to have occurred for a couple of [more] months.” That remark was astonishing in and of itself, in that it revealed that executives expected a secret of this magnitude to keep for months in organizations staffed by people who specialized in uncovering information and persuading reluctant individuals to share sensitive information. Even NOLA Media Group stalwart O’Byrne, who was then editor of NOLA.com, later admitted at an industry conference that the newspaper’s management was “arrogant to think we could keep a secret in a newsroom.”
This level of secret-keeping extended to the uppermost echelons of the newspaper’s management and ultimately would destroy professional relationships that had endured, essentially, for entire careers.
For close to three decades, Kovacs had overseen the logistics and practicalities of running the newsroom, assuming a no-nonsense, often brusque manner that got the job done and allowed Amoss the luxury of remaining somewhat detached from the oftentimes messy and imperfect work of producing a daily newspaper. Kovacs waited all day for some word from Amoss, his boss and the man with whom he had spoken nearly every weekday for more than 29 years. When no conversation had occurred by day’s end, and Kovacs was left with no sign as to whether the New York Times’ report of his impending termination was true, he stuck his head in Amoss’ office as he prepared to leave work about 6:30 p.m., several employees close to Kovacs recounted. “You know what I don’t get?” Kovacs asked Amoss. “How little your reputation means to you.” Although Kovacs declined to talk about the episode, it must have been particularly painful for him because he had spent his entire professional life at Advance newspapers, starting his career at the Birmingham News before accepting a job with the Times-Picayune in 1983.
Only a few hours after the news broke, former Times-Picayune reporter Steve Ritea, now a senior communications official with the University of California at Los Angeles, created the “Friends of the Times-Picayune Editorial Staff” Facebook group, a private, by-invitation-only page specifically for employees, alumni and newspaper supporters. Although the irony was lost on no one that social media would become an important weapon in the attempts to save a print outlet from a digitally driven death, the “Friends Page” nonetheless became the central communications channel for rallying support, and efficiently and quickly relaying news and information to newspaper employees, alumni and supporters. My involvement in the saga began on the Friends Page, whose membership quickly swelled to more than 1,600, including former employees throughout the country, journalists covering the developments, New Orleans community and civic activists, and scores of people who simply loved the newspaper. The group was and continues as a digital watering hole sans the cocktails, an online gathering spot analogous to the real-life Molly’s at the Market. By not providing meaningful information in the weeks after the initial announcement, the T-P’s and Advance’s executives created an information vacuum that fueled growth of the Friends Page and made it a central information conduit for most rank-and-file employees and their supporters. As a result, Advance and the newspaper’s brass unwittingly legitimized and fueled one of the most effective tools its detractors would deploy in the coming months.
Rebecca Thiem is a former reporter for the Times-Picayune. She founded dashTHIRTYdash, a nonprofit that raised funds for employees who lost their jobs when the newspaper’s frequency was reduced. She now lives in Las Vegas.
End notes are not included here because of space considerations. They are listed in detail in Theim’s book which is being released by Pelican Publishing Company this fall.