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Summary:

There has been a lot of criticism of Advance Publications for shutting down printing of newspapers like the New Orleans Times-Picayune, but Digital First Media CEO John Paton says the chain should be defended for trying whatever it takes to save its business from certain disaster.

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There has been a lot of criticism of Newhouse-owned Advance Publications since the media chain announced it was scaling back printing of some newspapers in Louisiana and Alabama, including the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, which will now only be printed three days per week, with a website picking up the slack. Some celebrity fans of the city have written an open letter asking the Newhouse family to either return to printing daily or sell the newspaper to someone who will, but the chain has refused. Are the critics right? In a blog post on the issue, Digital First Media CEO John Paton makes a strong case that the Times-Picayune has to find some way forward in a digital world, as all newspapers do: There is no going back.

Although the changes announced by Advance affect daily newspapers in Alabama and other states, shutting down the daily printing for the Times-Picayune has attracted the lion’s share of attention, in part because of eulogies written by New Orleans fans like David Carr, a media writer for the New York Times (who initially broke the news the paper would no longer be printing daily and would also be laying off staff). Critics say the bond between New Orleans and its printed newspaper is different than it is in other towns and cities, as a result of incidents like the disastrous flood of 2005.

Change is coming, whether newspapers like it or not

Carr and others have tried to make the case that having a daily newspaper in print — rather than just an online operation — makes a crucial difference in how journalism is practiced in New Orleans, and they point to the low penetration of Internet access in the region. But Paton, who recently took the helm of Digital First Media (the parent company of newspaper owner Media News Group) after turning around the bankrupt Journal-Register Co. chain, argues Newhouse had no choice but to make some drastic moves in New Orleans and elsewhere, as print advertising revenue continues to dwindle. As Paton puts it:

An old and distinguished business in New Orleans has seen more than half of its revenue disappear in five years and has decided to change how it conducts business — before it goes out of business . . . The business is not alone in its problems. Everyone they know in the same industry has the same problems. Everyone knows something has to change.

Much of the coverage has focused on the way Advance communicated (or miscommunicated) the news, the departure of some key staffers from the Times-Picayune and other newspapers, and also the fact that the chain’s websites — including NOLA.com, which is expected to pick up coverage from the no-longer-daily paper — are underwhelming in the extreme when it comes to being bastions of local journalism. Some reporters have also been offered online jobs with odd titles such as “buzz reporter,” which hasn’t exactly helped to dispel such concerns.

No one knows what the right solution is

In his defense of the changes, Paton acknowledges the chain communicated poorly, didn’t have its new digital assets in shape before it made the announcements, let some key writers go when it shouldn’t have, and made other mistakes that “chew[ed] up a lot of goodwill.” But despite those failings, Paton — whose own chain has made some dramatic changes at many of its newspapers in an attempt to deal with a decline in ad revenue — says he supports Newhouse and its desire to try something different:

I support them because their industry is my industry and it will not survive without dramatic, difficult and bloody change. And like them I am willing to do what it takes to make our businesses survive.

In a lot of ways, the criticism triggered by Newhouse’s moves is similar to the backlash some other newspapers have faced for using outsourcing services like Journatic, which was attacked recently after using fake bylines on some of the content it provided to papers like the Chicago Tribune. As I argued in both a post on the topic and a segment on WNPR earlier this week, newspapers of all kinds are trying to find whatever means they can to cut costs, since they are facing an almost unprecedented decline in advertising revenue. Some are trying paywalls, some outsourcing: No one is sure of the right answer.

Could Newhouse have done a better job of handling the printing changes at the Times-Picayune and other papers? Almost certainly. And it remains to be seen whether the chain will actually devote the kind of resources to NOLA.com and its other online properties that they require (although it should be noted the Times-Picayune published online only for several days during the floods of 2005 and later won a Pulitzer Prize for its work). But it is no different from any other newspaper owner, all of whom are trying to find a way of salvaging what they can from the wreckage of their former business model. Trying to return to the glory days of old just isn’t an option.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Zert Sonstige

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  1. “Much of the coverage has focused on the way Advance communicated (or miscommunicated) the news, the departure of some key staffers from the Times-Picayune and other newspapers, and also the fact that the chain’s websites — including NOLA.com, which is expected to pick up coverage from the no-longer-daily paper — are underwhelming in the extreme when it comes to being bastions of local journalism.”
    Mr. Ingram, your lack of knowledge that the word “underwhelming” is, in fact, not an actual word, serves to dismantle your argument and support those of far better journalists (like David Carr) who understand what true reporting and writing entails. Few in our city of New Orleans argue completely against eliminating some print editions, although the idea of a major international city without a daily publication is a bit disconcerting. Rather, the problem lies in scaling back print publication while cutting your staff by at least one third. How is this going to support responsible journalism in our city when the TP is our ONLY newspaper. We already have plenty of other online sites, run by our local news stations, that have not cut their staffs at all. Why in the world would I continue to subscribe to a newspaper that provides me with less news than I can get at another free web site. What has residents upset is that Advance Publications and their parent Newhouse is effectively killing our local newspaper of record. Have you even visited nola.com, Mr. Ingram? To say “it sucks” is like saying nuclear war is “kinda bad”. It’s a miserable site with even more miserable content that features short snippets about this murder or that celebrity. It runs no investigative reports, features no longform articles, and bears no resemblance to the newspaper it will soon replace for at least 4 days a week. I’m all for technology and understand completely the need to change with the times. However, in this case, there is no online equivalent to our newspaper. And, there will never be a replacement web site or app so long as the people who create the content are considered 33% expendable.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Hazim, and for your insight as a New Orleans resident. I’m sorry you didn’t like my use of the term “underwhelming.”

  2. dashthirtydash Thursday, July 12, 2012

    Why are the few defenders of the Advance/Newhouse approach failing to address the reality that you will “compromise the quality of journalism” and you cannot “provide the best and most comprehensive news report” as Times-Picayune Editor Jim Amoss promises (http://www.nola.com/business/index.ssf/2012/07/new_orleans_notables_urge_time.html), by slashing half of your newsroom staff? (Advance/Newhouse also implemented similarly draconian cuts in the newsrooms of its Ann Arbor and three Alabama newspapers.) Yes, you can save production, print and distribution costs by going to a “sometimes daily” model – but you can’t decimate your newsroom and remain a serious provider of serious journalism.

    1. I worked for a different media company which had, at one point, considered a model of outsourcing journalism to the community, based on the popularity of personal blogs, social media, and Digg. Yes, they honestly believed that they could wring quality journalism, for free, from the community.

  3. Matthew, you might as well have cut and paste John Paton’s blog post here. I would call this more an aggregated commentary than one containing any original ideas.

    What exactly are you defending here? That the moves by Advance are justifiable because, well, who knows what to do? That “no one is sure of the right answer.”

    A layoff is not a digital initiative. Neither is rearranging the chairs in the newsroom nor changing the name of a company.

    When Advance, or Digital First Media, start creating innovative, must-read digital products that attract readers and change the way advertisers look at these companies, then I will finally find something to defend in their their “digital initiatives.”

    1. Thanks, D.B. — I have written a lot on these issues over the past year or so, and this was my chance to agree with what Paton said, so if you want to call it “aggregated commentary” that’s fine with me. And I agree we need to see more details and more movement from Advance — but at the same time, we need to defend their desire to change and possibly innovate. Thanks for the comment.

  4. Sorry for misspelling your name … again.

  5. “No one knows what the right solution is”

    But we are pretty sure its not killing your existing paper, laying off a third of your staff and telling people to go to a generic, click-bait-y portal that looks like it was designed in 1999.

    We all know newspapers must move to digital. The challenge is not accepting that fact. It’s in figuring out HOW you get from point A to point B. If the New York Time’s killed half their paper editions and layed off a third of its staff without already having a kick-ass digital strategy in place they would be rightly called reckless and impulsive. So when the new owners of the Times Picayune have done exactly that why are you bending over backwards to defend them? We already have enough newspapers-need-to-find-a-new-business-model blog posts on the web. Let’s start talking about how they build this model smartly instead of repeating what everyone already knows.

    1. Thanks for the comment — and you are right that we need to move beyond the question of embracing digital. But the post, and Paton’s response, was in part to those who have been protesting that Advance should just go back to printing the Times-Picayune every day and pretend everything is the way it was. That’s not the solution either — and perhaps it is redundant to keep saying so, but some people don’t seem to have gotten the message yet.

      1. And Mathew, while some are adamant about their “Print Daily or Sell,” just as many people – of not more – are more upset about the slashed staff AND the horrible website. It may be redundant to keep saying so, but some people haven’t gotten this message: you can’t keep producing the same quality journalism with half the newsroom staff. The newspaper’s management and many analysts such as yourself seem to be ignoring that reality and instead focusing on the print vs. digital question.

        1. I take your point, and I don’t want to see newsrooms slashed any more than anyone else. But surely if a newspaper isn’t being printed as often — or at all — then some redundancies are to be expected? If a newspaper needs to keep all its employees even if it goes digital then no one will do it.

  6. Hi Mathew – At times I think you conflate concern over people’s access to news and information with a critique of Newhouse/Advance’s actions. I care about the layoffs and cuts in print days so far as it decreases the amount (and possibly quality?) of news available to people in the area. As I wrote at the Columbia Journalism Review (http://www.cjr.org/behind_the_news/new_orleans_and_the_future_of.php), New Orleans is a microcosm for a range of media policy issues that are, again and again, eroding the amount of local journalism/information and people’s access to it. The same holds true for my critique of Journatic.

    I think you know that I am all for innovation, experimentation and making tough decisions about the future of news, but I am aware that those decisions are not always made with the best interest of communities in mind. And if we look through the lens of community we have to see the choices of one media company in the context of what else exists locally.

    I hear Paton’s argument about doing what it takes to save the business, but to me that just drives home the fact that the marketplace will not supply the full extent of news and information we need. Should a media company worry about that — maybe not, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us shouldn’t be concerned and looking for other solutions.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Josh — and I agree that we need a broader discussion about what happens to the public interest aspect of journalism as newspaper businesses like Advance cut back.

  7. This comment isn’t a defense of Advance. They mishandled the changes, and there’s no doubt that laying off 1/3 of your staff is going to seriously hurt the quality of the product.

    BUT …

    1. Why are people raising holy hell about this when pretty much the same thing has been happening all around the country for quite a few years now? Newspapers everywhere have laid off significant chunks of their staff, cut printing days, and even closed. So this isn’t exactly coming out of nowhere. Ok, so there’s that “special relationship” in New Orleans, but it’s obviously not special enough to keep the paper from losing half its revenue in five years.

    2. Question for those calling for the paper to be sold to a local group: What indications are there that even if there are new owners that they won’t be facing the exact same financial problems as the old owners, and, eventually, be forced to take similar actions, even if it may be delayed temporarily? To me, the problems that face newspapers all across the country are so immense that who owns a particular paper is a trifling detail.

    I’ve gone through watching the newspaper I worked for — and my hometown paper — have massive layoffs and cutbacks that left it a mere shadow of what it once was, so I can relate to the anger and hurt, and I can understand the “if only they had better owners” thinking, because I thought that myself at one point. But my own experience also showed me, once the initial hurt subsided and I was further removed from the experience, that having different owners would’ve made little difference. The ugly truth is that even if the newspaper industry finds the right path RIGHT NOW, there’s still going to be a lot of blood on the tracks before its transformation is complete.

    1. It’s not entirely due to newspapers looking like dinosaurs. The business did it to itself.

      I worked at a small-town paper from 2001 to 2001–about 10.5 years. Two years before I started there, they had 10k subscribers. Not big, but nothing to sneeze at; that was equivalent to about 80% of the town’s population (though to be fair, that was spread out over the county.) The paper wasn’t making a huge amount of money, but it was in the black; one of the higher-ups made the decision that the paper, while profitable, would be much more profitable with a staff reduction of about a third. Quality almost immediately went down, and the subscription rate almost immediately dropped about as high a percentage as the staff reduction.

      Then, because it was no longer profitable, the staff was reduced further.

      By the time I got there, the circulation was around 5,000, or about half what it had been just five years earlier. If you believe starry-eyed technologists, this was due entirely to the Internet. Not really, though it was a significant factor; small-town local markets tend to be served poorly by Internet providers.

      Newspapers are partly to blame for that, too, since websites were seen as necessary, but a bothersome afterthought. They tried to rely solely on web ads. Funny thing, people don’t want to pay print rates for a tiny banner ad. Just try putting a newspaper behind a paywall, though; you’ll get the same reaction that you would if HBO tried to implement commercial breaks. People will tell you they already pay $20-$80 a month for Internet and have no interest in paying for a newspaper subscription.

      I enjoyed my experience for the most part–I worked on the production end with some IT presponsibilities, so I say at a desk, wearing jeans, on a flexible schedule, using QuarkXPress, Photoshop, Illustrator, etc. along with scripting hackery in MacVim. It was frustrating, though, watching attrition by illness, old age, people getting better jobs, etc. and replaced by no one.

      It was equally frustrating to have people come in who were loyal subscribers, and would each be able to articulate exactly what they thought was wrong with the newspaper. It’s a common story across the country, too; newspapers are afraid of losing those few loyal customers, those loyal customers tend to be connected with everyone important in the area, so reporting real dirt tends to alienate the people paying to keep the lights on and the paychecks coming in…so you end up with newspapers full of human interest stories, news stories about poor, unimportant people engaged in minor criminal activity, Chamber of Commerce meetings, every sport the local schools are engaged in, and ribbon cuttings, nearly drowned out with wire copy, with papers being dummied so tight that they’ll take up half to three-quarters of a page with ads. SNOOZE. When I left, almost all the subscribers to that paper were people past retirement age. None of the local papers put full obituaries on their websites, because they know they won’t sell any papers if they make ‘em available.

      I can think of ways they might be able to profit from their website–sell larger ads, sell subscriptions to a “value added” website, work with newer tech like Kindle and iPad to make daily editions available as epubs, stop giving away the RSS feeds, and so on. Will any of them do it before they die off? Probably not. They’ll probably keep consolidating operations until there are only a handful of production people in each state, almost no local content, and the websites will all be run out of New York, Chicago, LA, and Bangalore, with no local production or news staff other than community volunteers doing it out of a love of community. And they’ll live on far longer than they have a right to.

      If it weren’t such a heavily-regulated market, I’d be tempted to build competing websites.

  8. New Orleans Levee Saturday, July 14, 2012

    Let’s get this straight, you’re an online guy and espouse without even coming close to knowing or understanding the situation in New Orleans, right? You have no firsthand knowledge of the T-P’s content or editorial practices and whether those are to blame for the failures at all. You absolutely soft sell the negatives and recklessly play up the positives to the company. You say “some celebrity fans of the city” are making noise about the changes. Is the archbishop of New Orleans really a celebrity? How about some of the most prominent business people? You need to check your list and your facts (a true online problem). This story of yours stinks, is written in a biased fashion and even your responses to comments are picky. Furthermore, what the hell is a Gigaom (what a ridiculously stupid name, by the way), and why are you such a Newhouse? I’d love to interview you not to back print over online or vice verse, but to show people the effect of someone, who in this example, is a hack. This isn’t a report, it’s advocacy at the very least. These comments are the very tip of the iceberg of a shoddy story. Looking forward to a snarky reply.

  9. “Although the changes announced by Advance affect daily newspapers in Alabama and other states, shutting down the daily printing for the Times-Picayune has attracted the lion’s share of attention, in part because of eulogies written by New Orleans fans like David Carr, a media writer for the New York Times…”

    With all due respect to Carr, I’d say New Orleans has drawn the lion’s share of attention because there’s been significant local community pushback, the likes of which were not seen in Ann Arbor, Birmingham, etc.

    New Orleans is a paradox — a city with high poverty and illiteracy rates that also has some of the highest newspaper print penetration in the country.

    I think people in New Orleans will accept the reality that the future of what we now call newspapers will eventually move to the Internet. Newhouse seems to think that time is now. But what people here will not accept is management’s insistence that this is a GOOD thing, that the news product will get better, that this is a benefit to the community.

    Maybe Newhouse can’t, in your words, “return to the glory days of old.” But what’s ticked off the populace is the affrontery to pass this off as a positive move for the city. Don’t pee on New Orleans’ leg and tell the city it’s raining; we’re all amateur meteorologists down here.

  10. Earl J. Wilkinson Sunday, July 15, 2012

    Great post, Mathew.

    Stripping out the emotion of The Times-Picayune story itself, every newspaper faces the dilemma of connecting quality journalism with valued audiences and getting someone (advertisers? consumers?) to pay for them.

    Let’s face it: the blank-check journalism model whereby a newsroom does what it wants as an island unto itself – disconnected from the audience it serves and the rest of the news company that supports it – is a major contributor to circulation declines in the United States.

    That will continue to be an issue no matter the ownership models of the future: private-sector, foundation, non-profits, and more.

    I said as such on a recent blog post at INMA: http://www.inma.org/blogs/earl/post.cfm/what-rapid-changes-in-u-s-newspapers-in-past-30-days-mean-to-us-all.

    I don’t know whether the Advance model in New Orleans and Alabama is the correct model. Yet they have ownership willing to break with the old model of the past and aim to create new value. Isn’t that a better direction than those exiting the news business?

    Would we have felt better about ourselves if we continued to tweak around the edges and continued to scale downward – inch by inch – the newsroom relative to advertising sales? Or are we better off re-thinking the strategy and reaching for a foundation to build?

    I am confident when the changes kick in October 1 that this will be a more interesting story than it looks like today. The publishing cycle of The Times-Picayune will be only about 25% of the bigger story of re-positioning the brand, multi-platform publishing, and enthusiastic support for great journalism.

    Is a seven-day print newspaper the only model that can succeed? There are many models worldwide where newspapers publish only once a week, and that is their anchor for ancillary activities during the week.

    Will a market be better served with the equivalent of three Sunday newspapers per week, or should we amortize that energy over seven smaller editions?

    We should stop lamenting changing a system that, clearly, is broken.

    Where was the outrage as circulations plummeted from the 1970s to the 1990s as we ramped up the sizes of newsrooms?

    Where was the outrage as newsrooms were spared cutbacks in the past two decades as we killed the “oxygen” that would have connected audiences to journalism – sales, marketing and research. Newspapers spend only 1% of revenues marketing to consumers and only two-tenths of 1% on R&D, according to INMA data.

    Someone somewhere has to break the cycle. Maybe it starts in New Orleans.

  11. Earl J. Wilkinson Sunday, July 15, 2012

    Great post, Mathew.

    Stripping out the emotion of The Times-Picayune story itself, every newspaper faces the dilemma of connecting quality journalism with valued audiences and getting someone (advertisers? consumers?) to pay for them.

    Let’s face it: the blank-check journalism model whereby a newsroom does what it wants as an island unto itself – disconnected from the audience it serves and the rest of the news company that supports it – is a major contributor to circulation declines in the United States.

    That will continue to be an issue no matter the ownership models of the future: private-sector, foundation, non-profits, and more.

    I said as such on a recent blog post at INMA: http://www.inma.org/blogs/earl/post.cfm/what-rapid-changes-in-u-s-newspapers-in-past-30-days-mean-to-us-all.

    I don’t know whether the Advance model in New Orleans and Alabama is the correct model. Yet they have ownership willing to break with the old model of the past and aim to create new value. Isn’t that a better outcome than those exiting the news business?

    Would we have felt better about ourselves if we continued to tweak around the edges and continued to scale downward – inch by inch – the newsroom relative to advertising sales? Or are we better off re-thinking the strategy and reaching for a foundation to build?

    I am confident when the changes kick in October 1 that this will be a more interesting story than it looks like today. The publishing cycle of The Times-Picayune will be only about 25% of the bigger story of re-positioning the brand, multi-platform publishing, and enthusiastic support for great journalism.

    Is a seven-day print newspaper the only model that can succeed? There are many models worldwide where newspapers publish only once a week, and that is their anchor for ancillary activities during the week.

    Will a market be better served with the equivalent of three Sunday newspapers per week, or should we amortize that energy over seven smaller editions?

    We should stop lamenting changing a system that, clearly, is broken.

    Where was the outrage as circulations plummeted from the 1970s to the 1990s as we ramped up the sizes of newsrooms?

    Where was the outrage as newsrooms were spared cutbacks in the past two decades as we killed the “oxygen” that would have connected audiences to journalism – sales, marketing and research. Newspapers spend only 1% of revenues marketing to consumers and only two-tenths of 1% on R&D, according to INMA data.

    Someone somewhere has to break the cycle. Maybe it starts in New Orleans.

  12. Mark Heyert Monday, July 23, 2012

    New Orleans has the least amount of digitally literate citizens of any major metropolitan area in the USA, shouldn’t they have access to the news? Digital solution put forth by Advance seems motivated by cost cutting not building a profitable digital publishing business.

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