Shortly before midnight on May 23, the Times-Picayune staff learned from a New York Times post by David Carr that Advance Publications, the Newhouse family media conglomerate, would end daily publication of the 175-year-old paper and move to a three-day delivery, a change that would be accompanied by deep staff cuts. Incoming publisher Ricky Mathews, down from Alabama, had huddled with key editors at the deluxe Windsor Court Hotel to map a shift from daily print to heavier coverage at Nola.com, the TP website. Carr wrote that managing editors Peter Kovacs and Dan Shea were excluded from the meetings and would lose their jobs. Kevin Allman, the editor of Gambit, the city’s alternative weekly, echoed that in a post three hours later, citing “multiple sources”:
All employees with whom Gambit spoke—even longtime senior writers and editors—said they learned of their fates from the New York Times report. “My supervisor didn’t even fucking know,” said one reporter. “My supervisor.”
As editor Jim Amoss tried to mollify an angry newsroom, the decision by Steven Newhouse, 55, chairman of the Internet division of Advance in New York, took on the shape of a hostile corporate takeover. Advance’s plan, under the new Nola Media Company, is to drive consumers to the Nola.com website, which is part of the TP brand. By cutting four print days, they reduce 60 percent of production costs to boost profit while squeezing journalism into short posts on Nola.com, which tilts toward sports and entertainment. This seems in sync with the strategy Advance used at its Ann Arbor News, which shifted from a print daily to a spectral website of the newspaper. But in New Orleans—a city where 36 percent of the population does not utilize the Internet—the loss of a daily paper will cut deeper still.
The Times and the Wall Street Journal have pay walls for online readers. The websites replicate the print front page with easy links to articles. Nola.com is different. It follows the model of other Advance properties, with a vertical column that the reader scrolls down for headlines, photos, lead paragraphs and links to the full copy.
“This is one of the dumbest decisions by any newspaper publisher ever,” states historian John Barry, a New Orleans resident, authority on the levee system and author of Rising Tide, an award-winning history of the 1927 Mississippi River flood. “The Nola.com website is one of the worst I’ve ever dealt with. By coincidence, for the last few years—because I have a personal interest in something that happens in Ann Arbor—I’ve been going to the website and it is exactly the same—awful. Frustrating, unnavigable, with a terrible search engine.”
“I don’t rely on Nola.com as a news source,” Dennis Woltering, anchor of WWL-TV, the New Orleans CBS affiliate, said by e-mail. “I read the Times-Picayune daily. Love it. And I will miss getting it on a daily basis. I think the loss may be a business opportunity for someone smart enough to give this community the kind of daily newspaper it deserves.”
“This is a breathtaking gamble,” says Bruce Nolan, the TP religion reporter, who has worked there forty-one years. “Some of the best brains in the country are working on an Internet model that creates revenues of sufficient strength to support serious journalism. No one has that model yet. But we’re going to double down with a website that is seriously problematic.”
The asset in Advance’s gamble is the Times-Picayune’s popularity, which was dramatically boosted by its Hurricane Katrina coverage. For a city that nearly drowned on television in 2005, only to absorb the BP oil spill’s economic impact on fishermen, seafood and restaurants, the Advance decision to end the newspaper as a daily hit like a sledgehammer.