CJR looks critically at NOLA Media Group’s upbeat numbers

Ryan Chittum, deputy editor of The Audit, the business section of the Columbia Journalism Review, earlier today provided what could be a CRJ_LOGObit of a preview to his upcoming expected hard-hitting assessment of The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com since last fall’s mass layoff and dramatic “digital first” restructuring.

Chittum looks critically at the seemingly cherry-picked newspaper circulation and NOLA.com unique visitor numbers touted by NOLA Media Group VP of Content Jim Amoss in a commentary published in early January on NOLA.com, and by Amoss and President Ricky Mathews at the Key Executives Mega Conference, sponsored earlier this week in New Orleans by The Inland Press Association, the Local Media Association and the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association. (Amoss’ and Mathews’ presentation was reported on earlier by nonprofit media think tank and continuing education organization Poynter Institute and the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism’s BusinessJournalism.org.)

Today’s CJR post is available here. Chittum’s longer and more comprehensive assessment is expected to go live on the magazine’s website next week and be featured in its March/April print edition.

New Orleans’ 2013 Mardi Gras parades take aim at radical changes, layoffs at Times-Picayune

Tonight's Krewe D'Etat takes aim at Advance.net's Chairman Steven Newhouse.

Friday (Feb. 8) night’s Le Krewe D’Etat took aim at Advance.net’s Chairman Steven Newhouse.

UPDATE: Le Krewe D’Etat lined up to parade Friday evening (Feb. 8), AP New Orleans Bureau reporter Michael Kunzelman tweeted the photograph at left. The front of the float, titled “Gone with the Wind,” features an effigy of  the iconic Times-Picayune Tower, located at the building where only a fraction of the newspaper’s employees continue to work.

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Also from Krewe d’Etat’s “Gone With The Wind” float (via Laura Beatty)

Although it’s now been five months since the layoffs and changes at The Times-Picayune, New Orleanians haven’t forgotten, and some are transforming the dismantling of their beloved and previously daily newspaper into satirical centerpieces in this year’s Mardi Gras celebration. Four parading krewes satirized the newspaper’s traumatic decision to end daily circulation Sept. 30, 2012, and lay off hundreds of employees and contractors.

Le Krewe d’Etat got plenty of mileage out of its “Gone With The Wind” float, which was preceded by a sign that said, “I Don’t Know Nuthin’ ‘Bout No Internet” and poked fun at:

  • Steven Newhouse, chairman of Advance.net, the digital arm of Times-Picayune owner Advance Publications.
  • former Publisher Ashton (“Ashley”) Phelps, who unexpectedly announced his retirement two months before the radical changes coming to the newspaper were detailed in a New York Times‘ story.
  • new Publisher Ricky Mathews, who was the subject of a “Ricky, Go Home!” campaign after he assumed his role in New Orleans from Advance Publications’ Mobile Press-Register.
  • Times-Picayune food writer Brett Anderson, who was told he could either accept his prestigious Nieman Fellowship last fall or keep his job, but not both. (The newspaper ultimately relented and made good on its previous promise to grant Anderson a leave of absence to complete the fellowship).

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    Le Krewe d’Etat’s “Gone With The Wind” float was devoted to satirical skewering of The Times-Picayune and its drastic changes last year.

  • Saints-loving football fans who, thanks to the paper’s new three-days-a-week publishing schedule, would no longer would get a Monday edition of the newspaper filled with Saints coverage. (T-P execs also relented on that point and began producing a post-game Saints tabloid during football season.)
  • Uptown doyennes upset by the lack of “Social Scene” columnist Nell Nolan‘s debutante coverage, which was initially slated to be eliminated. (Again, the newspaper’s management relented and kept Nolan on in a freelance capacity).
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Krewe DuVieux’s “Black, White & Dead All Over” float.

Carnival’s first krewe to parade each year is Krewe du Vieux, known for its “eyebrow-raising, low-brow amusement [that] often hits the mark with its rude designs and naughty details,” as Times-Picayune | NOLA.com Arts Writer Doug McCash commented in his review of this year’s parade, which rolled early (Jan. 19) to accommodate Super Bowl XLVII the following weekend. KDV had three floats aimed at the newspaper’s management: “All Out of TP?”, “Times Prickayune Fails to Deliver” and “Black and White and Dead All Over.”

McCash noted that “sexual explicitness is Krewe du View’s stock and trade, with beyond-bawdy float designs and costumes that could very well be banned in less laissez-faire communities.” And photographs of two KDV Times-Picayune-themed floats were labeled “NSFW” (“not suitable for work” viewing)  on social media accounts that dared to distribute them.

The lubricity of one of the float’s names caused the now-daily New Orleans edition of the Advocate, to make a mistake in its coverage of the KDV parade. “One float ann

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Krewe du Vieux’s “Fresh Out of TP?” float.

ounces, ‘Tricky Mathews Fails to Deliver,’ a reference to the paper’s new publisher, Ricky Mathews,” the Advocate reported, not realizing that “Tricky” actually began with a “P” in the float’s name. (Note: The coarseness of the float led to the deletion of a photo of it, but you can find it on Twitter by searching for “Krewe du Vieux” and “Ricky Mathews.”) 

A float in the Muses‘ parade Feb. 7, “Canned Goods,” took aim at longtime newspaper Editor Jim Amoss, with “Famous Amoss” and his “Cold Cuts.” (A number of former and current Times-Picayune | NOLA.com employees are members of Muses.)

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Muses “Canned Goods” float took aim at T-P Editor Jim “Famous Amoss” and his “Cold Cuts,” a reference to the more than 200 employees and contractors who lost their jobs Sept. 30, 2012 as the newspaper ended daily publication.

McCash’s review of the parade noted that “NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune was the target of one pun-filled float design” without elaborating, and went one to say none of the floats “was especially aesthetically memorable.” However, a number of former Times-Picayune staffers beg to differ.

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Knights of Chaos “Abandoned Ship” float satirized The Times-Picayune’s death as a daily newspaper.

Also on the evening of Feb. 7 was the Knights of Chaos, which skewered the newspaper with its “Abandoned Ship” float.

The colorful, creative and often contemptuous costumes that mark Mardi Gras Day itself are also expected to comment on the newspaper’s unpopular changes, NOLA.com reported Thursday night. Former New Orleanian Chris Johnston plans to costume Tuesday as the death of the daily newspaper, he told reporter Michelle Hunter. He will dress his 16-month-old son, Brooks, as a newspaper delivery boy, while the elder Johnston will wear a skeleton costume and carry a newspaper bag that reads, “Times-Picayune RIP.”

Advance Publications’ likely true target at Cleveland Plain Dealer: the union?

NewspaperGuildLOGOYesterday’s tentative agreement between Times-Picayune sister paper the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Local 1 of the Newspaper Guild, which represents the paper’s 168 newsroom employees, didn’t make immediate sense to a non-member observer.

The guild would accept a workforce reduction of 58 in exchange for a guarantee of no further large-scale layoffs through 2019. Without the agreement, The Plain Dealer would purge 80 to 85 employees. Although devastating for anyone who would lose his or her job, the deal, on its face, looked grudgingly good for a union that didn’t seem to have much bargaining power against a national company clearly intent on making the newspaper the next cog in its “digital first” wheel.

Advance’s Real Motivation: Weakening – or Obliterating – the Union?

But in a blog post this morning, Cleveland Magazine‘s Senior Editor Erick Trickey details PD owner Advance Publications’ likely true motivation in the proposed agreement: weakening, if not destroying, the union.

As part of the agreement, “non-union Cleveland.com journalists will be able to write for the Plain Dealer, while Plain Dealer reporters’ work will still go online,” Trickey writes. “It’s a major concession by the newspaper guild, and it’ll weaken the union over time, since new hires will likely be on the online side.”

In other words – and in a departure to what’s been done in the seven other markets that already have gone or are now going through Advance’s “digital-first” change – the company will not “merge the Plain Dealer and Cleveland.com into a single “media group,” but instead “will run parallel news operations: a shrinking unionized newsroom and a new, non-union digital news staff,” Trickey reports.

“A big part of that is we’ve given them some language that could, over the years, really diminish our numbers,” guild chairman Harlan Spector told Julie Moos of Poynter.org. “It gives them the ability to put cheap content in the paper.”

The Guild’s Gain: Security and Benefits for Members Who Dodge the Layoff

In exchange, the new contract would allow the guild to protect eplain-dealer-exteriorxisting members: the company would restore the 8% wage cut the journalists took to avoid layoffs in 2009 and add money to the guild’s underfunded pension and health care funds, Trickey reports. The newsroom would be reduced from 168 to 110 after May 1, 2013, and then for the next six years, only five more employees would lose their jobs, with those cuts coming in 2014.

“After the massacre of 2013, we wanted a guarantee for people,” Spector told Trickey.

Advance Long Acknowledged as Anti-Union

The move definitely reflects a long-acknowledged and vociferous anti-union philosophy at Advance. Former Times-Picayune publisher Ashton Phelps, Jr., was known to publicly declare to employees, “We don’t like unions here,” and a primary motivation behind Advance’s once-remarkable and now-discarded job guarantee pledge was assumed to be to keep unions at bay.

The vote by the full union membership at The Plain Dealer will be Tuesday. If the proposed agreement is rejected, in addition to the 80-to-85 job cuts, the company also likely will seek to deduct health care and pension fund contributions out of the employees’ wages rather than the company continuing to cover those costs, which reportedly would cost each employee about $200 a month.

“It’s not much of a choice: a bad option and a worse option,” PD Road Rant columnist John Horton told Trickey. “You see what we have – it’s being dismantled. You’re losing something. You won’t realize it until it’s gone.”

The loss will go beyond Cleveland because the “1” in “Local 1,” after all, represents the first. Chartered on March 20, 1934, it was “the birthplace of the [Newspaper] Guild,”  its website notes.

Successful fundraiser and unexpected visit by new publisher

LePetite Grocery will donate 30% of its receipts from its June 26 dinner hours to the fund.

La Petite Grocery Restaurant and Bar in Uptown New Orleans Tuesday (6/26) hosted the first of several fundraisers this week at local restaurants and bars for dashTHIRTYdash. La Petite will donate 30% of Tuesday’s dinner proceeds to the fund and also politely solicited diners for additional, direct donations to the fund. (Please see text at bottom of the image, left.)

Although we don’t yet have a final report on the evening, business was reported as very “robust” (to borrow a new favorite word in the newsroom) and many Times-Picayune staffers joined friends and family at the restaurant.

The evening’s only real drama occurred early, when incoming Times-Picayune Publisher Ricky Mathews and David Francis, the Picayune‘s VP and GM, accompanied by another man, entered the restaurant. A sharp-eyed and quick-Facebook-posting Times-Picayune staffer waiting at the bar for a friend almost spit out her cocktail when she saw them.

“Ricky Go Home” fliers have been posted around town.

Mathews, who has encountered every manner of scorn and ridicule in NOLA because of the plans to reduce the Times-Picayune’s daily publication to thrice weekly, lay off one-third of its employees and reallocate remaining resources to the newspaper’s widely derided website, recently wrote about the changes on the front page of the newspaper in an article titled “The Times-Picayune and NOLA.com are here to stay.” He also spoke about them with NOLA.com Editor James O’Byrne at a recent gathering of New Orleans tech industry professionals. Mathews also has been the subject of a grassroots “Ricky Go Home” campaign. (He’s coming to New Orleans from Times-Picayune sister newspapers in Alabama.)

After taking a seat at a table near the bar, Francis, Mathews and the other man abruptly left only a couple of minutes later, according to the T-P staffer, who will lose her job on Sept. 30 along with about 200 other employees, but asked that her identity not be disclosed because of concerns about her severance. The employee asked the maître d’ why they left so quickly and the maître d’ responded that Francis and Mathews “said they had an emergency and kind of giggled when they said it.” Francis had made the dinner reservation, the maître d’ told the staffer.

Based on how quickly the trio left, the staffer believes their selection of La Petite on the same evening as the dashTHIRTYdash benefit was purely coincidental. As soon as they opened their menus and saw a flier promoting the benefit, they thought better of dining at the restaurant, at least on that particular evening, she speculated.

Before talking to the staffer, it never would have occurred to me that Mathews’ and Francis’ dining selection was anything other than reconnaissance at best, superciliousness at worst. (Reporters, even former ones, are big on conspiracy theories and evil lurking around every corner.) Before speaking to her, I had sent the following email to Mathews and Francis, and copied outgoing Times-Picayune Publisher Ashton Phelps and Editor Jim Amoss. Mathews, Frances and Amoss all have opened the email, according to “read” receipts I’ve received, but I haven’t received any responses yet.

Incoming Times-Picayune Publisher Ricky Mathews’ Page 1 banner editorial in the June 17 edition of the newspaper.

Subject: May we count on you to make a dashTHIRTYdash contribution in light of your aborted LaPetite dinner?

Dear Messrs. Mathews and Francis:

I’m a Times-Picayune alum and one of the primary organizers of dashTHIRTYdash, the fund that’s raising money to benefit newspaper staffers who will lose their jobs as the paper makes the changes Mr. Mathews and others have been writing and speaking about so much recently.

Because you’ve both been in the business for so long, I know you understand the challenges many of these dedicated individuals face, particularly if they want to stay in the business or remain in their beloved New Orleans. For that reason, I assume you support our grassroots efforts to make their upcoming unemployment a little more comfortable as they chart a course to the next chapter in their working lives.

We were disappointed that you and your companion could not stay for your dinner reservation tonight at LaPetite Grocery, which you no doubt knew is hosting the first of several dashTHIRTYdash fundraisers this week. I hope the emergency that you mentioned to the maître d’ as you left before having dinner wasn’t too serious.

Especially given that you were unable to stay and show your support of the fund, may we count on you to make direct and personal contributions to dashTHIRTYdash? If so, please make your checks payable to the Contemporary Arts Center of New Orleans, which is serving as our fiscal agent, and write “dashTHIRTYdash” in the check’s memo line. You may then mail your checks to dashTHIRTYdash, c/o The Contemporary Arts Center of New Orleans, Att’n: Glenn W. Gruber, Associate Director/CFO, 900 Camp St., New Orleans, LA 70130.

Because the CAC is also our 501(c) sponsor, any donation you make to the fund is fully tax-deductible.

I understand that some may find our modest effort amusing, or even comical enough to elicit a giggle or two, but I’ve been once again amazed by the generosity and kindness of New Orleanians as they rally behind these wonderful people. We raised several thousand dollars before we were even formally capable of accepting contributions, so I’m hopeful we’ll do some genuine good for these dedicated, soon-to-be-former staffers of  the wonderful publication you will continue to helm.

I thank you both in advance for your consideration of my request.

Sincerely,

REBECCA THEIM, Times-Picayune Alum (1988-94)

Next up on the dashTHIRTYdash fundraising circuit is a triple header Thursday night (June 28): a pub crawl along St. Charles Avenue at The Avenue Pub, Mia’s Balcony and The Irish House. The venues are donating anywhere from 10% to 100% of the proceeds from various offerings throughout the day and evening. Then on Sunday, July 1, Slim Goodies Diner, 3322 Magazine St. also in the Lower Garden District, will contribute 20% of its 6 AM-3 PM breakfast/brunch receipts to the fund.

UPDATE, 6/27/2012, 10:12 AM CDT: No responses to my email, although I did receive a “read” receipt at about 10:30 PM CDT last night that Francis also had opened his copy of it. Phelps’ copy to his Times-Picayune address generated an automated response asking that any emails be re-sent to his personal address, which I did.