Day before “60 Minutes” report, NOLA Media Group’s Jim Amoss offers update

NOLA Media Group VP of Content/Editor Jim Amoss

NOLA Media Group VP of Content/Editor Jim Amoss

NOTE: Correction noted in strikethrough/underline below.

On the eve of a “60 Minutes” report about The Times-Picayune‘s end of daily publication and the decline of the U.S. newspaper industry overall, NOLA Media Group Editor/Vice President of Content Jim Amoss today posted an update about changes and progress made at the newspaper and NOLA.com since its radical Oct. 1 overhaul that made New Orleans the largest U.S. city without a daily newspaper.

Amoss notes that the newspaper’s three-day-a-week print circulation has increased (although he doesn’t say by how much), even after excluding free copies that continue to be delivered to households that cancelled or didn’t renew subscriptions after the change. (A commenter on Amoss’ commentary noted that it’s become extraordinarily difficult to cancel a subscription, while a commenter on a private Facebook page for newspaper supporters said an uptick could be because seven days of newsstand sales are now compressed into the three days a week the newspaper now publishes—not because subscriptions are up.) Amoss also wrote that NOLA.com viewers went from increased 7 million in 2012, to 2011 to 41 million last year, an impressive almost six-fold increase, a 17% increase. (Amoss’ statement is consistent with ones made in mid-December by David Francis, NOLA Media Group Vice President Business Manager/HR, and NOLA.com State Editor James O’Byrne during an interview on WWNO/New Orleans’ Public Radio’s “Out to Lunch” public affairs show – one of the few times anyone from NOLA Media Group or owner Advance Publications has publicly commented on the changes.)

The Times-Picayune‘s first official post-daily circulation figures are due March 31 to the Alliance of Audited Media (formerly the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the organization that compiles newspaper and magazine circulation numbers for use with advertisers), AAM spokeswoman Susan Kantor said in a recent interview. Total numbers from that report will be released some time in May, but publicly available “total average circulation” figures won’t break out free copies or digital figures from paid subscription or newsstand sales, Kantor said. AAM members, however, will have access to figures that break out paid circulation, meaning The Times-Picayune‘s paid circulation figures likely will be reported in the media.

The newspaper reported a total Monday-Friday average circulation of 127,760, and a Sunday circulation of 145,608 to the AAM on Sept. 30, 2012, the final day of daily publication, according to figures publicly available through the organization’s website.

In his commentary, Amoss went on to thank readers for their belief in NOLA Media Group and to detail how the NOLAdotComTP_logonews organization has kept its pact with them and the community.

“The TV news program [“60 Minutes”] came to town four months ago, as we were preparing our transition to printing and delivering the newspaper three days a week,” Amoss wrote. “A lot has happened since then.” The organization “refocused our news operation to produce a 24/7 digital report” as it shifted to producing print newspapers on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, he noted.

“Being connected to this community fueled our work after Hurricane Katrina. It still does. Holding government and officialdom—locally and nationally—accountable in that long recovery was our mission. It still is.”

- Jim Amoss, NOLA Media Group Editor/VP of Content

The newsroom now has 155 employees, Amoss said, down from the newspaper’s self-reported 175 before the changes were announced. The organization laid off 84 newsroom employees and another 117 throughout the organization on June 12, 2012, the newspaper also reported then, although about 10 newsroom employees ultimately were “unfired” after about 14 editorial employees the organization sought to keep instead left voluntarily, according to a tally several former employees reviewed and revised for accuracy. All told, significantly more than 1,600 years of combined experience was discarded in the layoffs.

Apparently in response to widespread criticism that the newspaper jettisoned many of its most experienced (and generally better-compensated) staffers, Amoss noted that 103 current newsroom employees “are veteran journalists who have been covering New Orleans for many years,” while another 52 have been hired in the past five months, “among them some veterans from around the region.” However, at least five new editorial hires carry titles like “Staff Performance Measurement and Development Specialist” and “Community Engagement Specialist,” which prompted some former news veterans to question how much such employees contribute to the editorial product.

“Four months ago [when “60 Minutes” traveled to New Orleans to report its story], our changes were still in the offing,” Amoss added. “Readers had to accept on faith our assurances that we would maintain the journalistic excellence they have come to expect from us. That took a leap of faith … Now that we have more than three months under our belt, you have a basis for judging our performance.” The news outlet has since produced “stories and features that we believe bespeak our commitment to enterprising, in-depth journalism.” He detailed six major investigative and enterprise reports NOLA Media Group has produced, and highlighted its state capital, arts, dining, entertainment, sports and community coverage.

The two dozen online readers who had commented on Amoss’ commentary by 4:20 PM CST seemed skeptical. None were supportive of the changes, and most were highly critical.

“It’s hard to believe that the Newhouses [the billionaire media family that controls Advance] are truly interested in quality when so many of the seasoned Picayune reporters were let go, and—your explanations notwithstanding—when owners think every few days is sufficient for a hard copy paper,” wrote mctwatlnola. “The tangible, print T-P was both part of the culture and the conveyor of the rest of the culture here, and the great unifier of the populace. Mr. Newhouse let us down, quality has suffered, the website should supplement, not replace, the flagship product, and—believe me—brand loyalty will be difficult to reestablish.”

NOLA Media Group reps paint glowing picture of Times-Picayune digital transition

L to R: David Francis, James O’Byrne and Peter Ricchiuti.

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.’”

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.