CJR’s highly critical “Battle of New Orleans” report about The Times-Picayune is live

The anticipated critical evaluation of The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com since last fall’s dramatic “digital first” restructuring is live on the Columbia Journalism Review‘s website. And NOLA Media Group Vice President of Content Jim Amoss is not happy about it.

Chittum’s lengthy piece talks unflatteringly about last summer’s “Rapture,” during which several top editors disappeared from the newsroom to surreptitiously plan the coming changes, swearing underlings of co-Managing Editor Peter Kovacs and Dan Shea to secrecy because their bosses would be purged along with 199 colleagues. He describes parent company Advance Publications’ “Michigan Model,” the seeming dry run at their eight Great Lakes State newspapers. He chronicles the pain of The Purge, June, 12, 2012, when employees found out they were losing their jobs in the most humiliating of circumstances, and the push-back editors received from some reporters the organizations sought to retain.

But Chittum spends the bulk of his report exploring the metrics and “strange finances of the move, which help explain what to many appears inexplicable, from either a journalistic or a business point of view.”

Read the report here. But also peruse the reader comments, in which Amoss takes Chittum to task, first for not accepting NOLA.com’s invitation to visit its new offices, which it moved into atop the Canal Place high-rise in January. Amoss then went on:

As reporters we choose our subjects, our quotations, the lenses to frame our work. The best put aside conventional wisdoms and derivative points of view. They allow their writing to be shaped by deep reporting and their own fresh responses to what they find. Mr. Chittum’s backward-looking and narrow take falls short of doing that. American newspaper journalism has been beset by bloodletting and decline for a decade. Those who find a path forward will do so by being innovative and entrepreneurial in their thinking. We don’t claim to have all the answers to finding a viable future for our industry. But we believe that we’re advancing the essential conversation about what kinds of bold changes will save us.

Chittum’s response to Amoss’ response:

As Jim well knows, I was in New Orleans in early December and asked for interviews then and in the weeks afterward. I didn’t hear back from anyone for about seven weeks, at which point my deadline was nigh. My editors declined to fly me down to New Orleans again just to see the new newsroom.

The report will also appear in the magazine’s March/April print edition.

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.com editor on messy digital announcement: “Arrogant to think we could keep a secret in a newsroom”

JamesOByrne

NOLA.com State Editor James O’Byrne

(UPDATE, 12/12/12, 4:41 PM CST: The Inland Press Association has deleted the tweets written about below. Two clarifications also have been made below in strike-through and underlined text. )

NOLA.com State Editor James O’Byrne apparently spoke to the Inland Press Association’s Executive Program for Innovative Change in Chicago Tuesday about The Times-Picayune‘s decision to end daily publication and instead place its bets on its widely derided website.

No complete coverage of the session appears to be will be available (at least not as of midnight CST), but according to several tweets from the organization’s Twitter handle, @InlandPress, manned by Chicago veteran media journalist the association’s Publications Editor Mark Fitzgerald, O’Byrne made the following comments about the summer’s wrenching changes, in which one-half of the newsroom’s employees lost their jobs:

  • Asked if he had any “regrets on The Times-Picayune transition,” O’Byrne cited the planning of the changes – which involved at least two weeks’ worth of secret, off-site meetings, the obvious exclusion of editors who later were laid off, and staff members reading about the coming layoffs and changes at the 175-year-old newspaper in The New York Times. (More about those issues here.) It was “arrogant to think we could keep a secret in a newsroom,” O’Byrne said, according to a tweet. It was the first specific acknowledgement by any newspaper or Advance Publications executive that the process was poorly handled – in addition to being unnecessarily cruel.
  • Going from a daily to three-days-a-week has “not [been] painless, not seamless in any way,” O’Byrne said, according to another tweet. The “hardest thing to do is make [a] decision to do something different. But once you’ve made that decision, you have to go all in.”
  • “It didn’t help that we became so bland,” in contrast with The Times-Picayune‘s “passionate reporting during [the aftermath of 2005’s Hurricane] Katrina” for which the newspaper won two Pulitzer Prizes, another tweet quoted O’Byrne as saying. (Update:) (Several laid-off and former staffers have taken issue with this comment on a private Facebook group created for the newspaper’s current and former rank-and-file and their supporters. One specifically cited work by current and former staffers Brendan McCarthy, Gordon Russell, Rich Rainey and Paul Rioux, on subjects including the now-infamous New Orleans Police Department’s Danziger Bridge shootings and cover-up, convicted former Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard, convicted former New Orleans Chief Technology Officer Greg Meffert, and landfill owner Fred Hebee.)
  • (New bullet) “The problem with seven-day papers is no one has time to read [them],” Fitzgerald quoted O’Byrne in another tweet. (A complaint of some Times-Picayune subscribers is that they don’t have time to read the “robust” content of two or three days of newspapers crammed into the-now Wednesday and Friday editions, which includes multiple days of traditional daily features, such as cartoons, horoscopes and puzzles, not to mention news reports.)
  • “Being [the] only newspaper in town had no value for us. Being the place that people go for information – that had value for us,” he added, according to another tweet.
  • In New Orleans, “post-seven-day publishing [is a] complete flip. It’s digital to print.”

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.’”

T-P reporter to newspaper brass: “I can’t keep my mouth shut and pretend everything is OK”

UPDATE 7/24/12, 1 PM CDT: Times-Picayune Editors Meet with Reporter Who Said She Was “Pissed” (JimRomenesko.com)

_________________________________________________________________________

July 9, 2012 - Times-Picayune Reporter Kari Dequine Harden was mad as hell and wasn’t going to take this anymore.

In an email she sent to incoming Publisher Ricky Mathews, Editor Jim Amoss, Online Editor Lynn Cunningham, NOLA.com Director of Content James O’Byrne and NOLA.com Managing Producer Keith Marszalek, and later forwarded to reporters including widely followed media blogger Jim Romenesko, Dequine Harden detailed how difficult it is to work for the newspaper as its staff continues its death march toward decimated ranks, thrice-weekly publication and increased reliance on the much-derided NOLA.com.

“I take a lot of pride in my work, even after I’ve been fired and told my experience, skills, and talents are of no use after Sept. 30,” Dequine Harden wrote. “But compared to other news outlets, our website is a joke. We break news – but no one would know because of the worst news website known to man and the priority setting – whoever is doing it, is totally fucked. Embarrassing, compared to TV. And yet we are focused on digital now? Enhanced? Who is buying this crap?”

Read all of Dequine Harden’s email – along with the note she sent to Romenesko – by clicking here.

As soon as Romenesko posted Dequine Harden’s email, the closed “Friends of The Times-Picayune Editorial” Facebook page lit up with dozens of congratulatory and admiring comments. And numerous Twitter accounts spread her missive, including those of native New Orleanian and NBC’s “Meet the Press” Executive Producer Betsy Fischer Martin, Forbes.com contributors Micheline Maynard and John McQuaid (the latter also a Times-Picayune alum), Memphis Commercial Appeal columnist Wendi C. Thomas, Dillard University President Walter M. Kimbrough, Gambit and countless other journalists around the country.

“Being in this newsroom has been the best experience of my life,” Dequine Harden, 32, noted later in the day on the Facebook page. “It’s the coolest. Being around these amazingly talented and kind people has made me a much better journalist, and for that, I am eternally grateful.”

Because of her “occasional” status, Dequine Harden – who has written for the paper in some capacity for about six years, and worked weekends and holidays, and temporarily filled other shifts for the past two – is ineligible for severance and therefore isn’t signing the non-disparagement agreement required of full-time staffers who want the payouts.

“Financially, I have a lot less to lose than my colleagues. What I have to lose is about 11 more weekends and the opportunity to pitch stories, which I really don’t want to lose … But every time I think I’ve made it through the anger phase of my grief, something makes me snap (and send emails).”

In a separate message, Dequine Harden also mentioned that she’s headed on vacation and that now “may be good timing to disappear for about 10 days.”