David Francis, NOLA Media Group Vice President Business Manager/HR, and NOLA.com State Editor James O’Byrne today painted a very upbeat assessment of the digital transformation underway at The Times-Picayune on New Orleans NPR affiliate WWNO’s “Out to Lunch” business and public affairs show.
“We’ve been pleasantly pleased with what we’ve seen since Oct. 1, when we launched the three-day-a-week newspaper,” Francis told the show’s host, economist and Tulane finance professor Peter Ricchiuti. “From a circulation standpoint, the passion … for the paper and the 175 years we’ve been producing it, has resulted in, actually, in an increase in our circulation.
“Those who were concerned about what this may mean for the community … have found themselves embracing us again. We saw people’s attitudes and behaviors change, to the point that now we’re very satisfied and we’ve exceeded our targets in circulation.”
O’Byrne offered an equally glowing appraisal of the digital side of the business. While not quantifying the base on which the growth occurred, he said the company has enjoyed 20%-to-25% upticks in digital revenues over the past four years, “and that trend has continued. It’s been quite a pleasant surprise how well the launch has gone.”
Despite a wrenching restructuring over the summer that cost the newspaper almost 30% of its total workforce, 50% of its newsroom and more than 1,600 years of combined experience, the changes, O’Byrne stressed, do not represent a decreased commitment to quality journalism. “We continue to do great journalism, we continue to be watchdogs for this community, and we continue to take our responsibility, our civic responsibility, on that front very seriously,” he said.
While acknowledging that ad rates for digital advertising remain a fraction of those for print advertising, O’Byrne and Francis said advertisers have been receptive to the changes. “As you show advertisers how the digital audience behaves, and the different products and tools that we have to reach those audiences, we have seen them come into the digital space much more aggressively,” O’Byrne said. (Ad Age in May cited Kantar Media figures that The Times-Picayune collected $64.7 million in print ad revenue in 2011, but only $5.7 million from NOLA.com advertising, an industry-wide discrepancy other media companies point to in contending they cannot yet afford to replace print with digital.)
Francis and O’Byrne, however, were adamant that the changes being undertaken by NOLA Media Group are not optional. “We were managing in a climate of decline for years and years, and this transformation is designed to get us into a mode of growing again,” O’Byrne said. “The Internet is one of the most disruptive things to happen in society in hundreds and hundreds of years, if not thousands of years. It has upended entire businesses … It’s an incredibly disruptive force. We will have to adapt in significant and dramatic ways, not in small and incremental ways, if we’re going to have a long-term future.”
And other newspapers are looking to The Times-Picayune to forge the way, the men said. “We’re definitely on the front end of something,” O’Byrne said. “What we hear from other publishers and editors around the country, privately, is ‘good luck, we hope you make it. We want someone to show us a way out of this constant mode of decline. And if your business model is the one that shows us the way, we’re all going to follow.’”