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.

Times-Picayune on “60 Minutes” and Monday morning quarterbacking

The long-awaited “60 Minutes” report about the radical changes at The Times-Picayune finally aired Sunday night. To watch it, please click here.60MinutesMorley

Gambit Editor Kevin Allman provided a quick analysis of the segment last night, and non-profit media organization Poynter this morning also offered a report about it and NOLA Media Group Vice President and Editor Jim AmossSaturday commentary.

“60 Minutes” “Web Extras” also include outtakes of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu reminiscing about his early days as a Times-Picayune newspaper carrier and Amoss dismissing fears that reporters’ future compensation will be based, at least in part, on clicks their reports elicit on NOLA.com as “a somewhat cartoonish view,” although he didn’t deny the concern.

The Huffington Post also weighed in Monday with a report that basically summarized the “60 Minutes” segment and Amoss’ Saturday commentary.

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.

Real-life Trolley Problem, Advance Publications-style: Sacrificing some to save others

Note: This post has been corrected, as indicated by underline and strike-through below.

The guild representing newsroom employees of Times-Picayune sister paper, pd_thumbThe Plain Dealer of Cleveland, is living a real-life Trolley Problem, Advance Publications-style.

In a meeting in a cafeteria dining room at the newspaper this afternoon, the bargaining unit of Local 1 of the Newspaper Guild apparently laid out a tough proposal to their members: accept 60 layoffs in exchange for a guarantee of no more large-scale cuts through 2019. Or, fight on, and 80 or more newsroom employees will lose their jobs when the current contract expires Jan. 31, 2013.

With a total of 168 newsroom jobs, the guild must either accept a reduction in newsroom ranks by nearly 36%, or endure a 48% or greater reduction if it fights on past the Jan. 31, 2013 expiration of its current contract, which prohibits layoffs.

“The loss of any of The Plain Dealer‘s journalists – whether it’s one-third or one-half the staff – will be a severe blow to the community,” read a post added late Thursday afternoon to the “Save The Plain Dealer” Facebook page.

Backed organizationally and financially by its local and a grant from the Communications Workers of America, Plain Dealer employees several weeks ago unleashed an advertising and PR campaign aimed at dissuading newspaper owner Advance Publications from making the same draconian changes there that it has at 13 of its 34 newspapers across the country.

“Launche03dealer-blog480d with a full-page ad in the Sunday, Nov. 12 paper and media stories on NPR, WKYC, and other outlets, the committee’s Don Quixote effort has also plastered the city with ads and produced a television commercial,” alternative weekly Cleveland Scene‘s Vince Grzegorek reported in a Dec. 5 cover story  titled “Can The Plain Dealer Be Saved?” “Its Facebook page has over 3,900 likes; the petition at Change.org has over 5,900 signatures. ‘Hot in Cleveland’ star Valerie Bertinelli lent her star power to the cause, and local leaders like Councilman Joe Cimperman have taken up the flag as well. Events have sprung up, like a “Save the Plain Dealer” party at Market Garden Brewery and Distillery this week, all aimed at getting Advance to respond to public pressure.” (Any of this sound familiar?)

But as dashTHIRTYdash founder Rebecca Theim expressed to Grzegorek, “You hope and wish that it’s different in Cleveland, but history has shown that if the Newhouses have made up their mind, that’s what’s going to happen.”

The post on the Save The Plain Dealer Facebook page Thursday asserted that the campaign has minimized the severity of the cuts. “While the forced departure of one-third of our journalists will cause deep, lasting harm to the work of news-gathering, we believe your outpouring of support for the Save The Plain Dealer campaign has helped dissuade the company from making even deeper cuts, and causing even greater community harm, as has happened at the other Advance newspapers,” the post read.

Cuts at Advance Publications Papers = At Least 1,336 Jobs

The Times-Picayune‘s newsroom was cut by 49% effective Oct. 1, although some new employees have been hired since then. (At least 14 employees originally asked to stay when the newspaper announced details about the layoffs in mid-June chose instead to leave, prompting the newspaper to “unfire” about 10 employees it originally had laid off.) About 30% of the newspaper’s total workforce was eliminated, including all of the Marketing Department except for one person, all Special Sections employees, all of the Library staff except for one employee, and the entire Human Resources staff, New Orleans’ alternative weekly Gambit reported.

Advance eliminated the jobs of 550 of its 1,100 employees in Michigan, but has said that more than half of those jobs have been offset by new hires, The Wall Street Journal reported in August.

Another 600 jobs were eliminated Sept. 30 at three Alabama newspapers Advance owns: The Huntsville Times, the Birmingham News and the Press-Register of Mobile, including 55% of the newsroom at the Birmingham paper, Alabama’s largest news organization.

The Post-Standard of Syracuse, N.Y. will shed 115 jobs Jan. 31, out of a total of 386 full-time and 26 part-time employees. The newsroom there will shrink from about 115 to 75, a 40% reduction. At the Patriot News in Harrisburg Pa., 70 of about 285 full-time employees also will be axed Jan. 31, or about 25% of the staff.

Both of those papers will move to a three-day-a-week publishing schedule, like The Times-Picayune and the Alabama papers, Feb. 1.

All told, at least 1,336 jobs have been eliminated at Advance Publication newspapers since this “digital-first” strategy began in 2009 in Michigan Feb. 2 (not including expected Plain Dealer layoffs), according to a compilation of the figures published in news reports about the layoffs. Several of the newspapers, including The Times-Picayune, have hired an undisclosed number of generally younger, less experienced and presumably less expensive employees since then. A June analysis by Poynter news analyst Rick Edmonds showed that the only way The Times-Picayune changes made financial sense was through the purging of experienced, higher-paid employees and replacing them with “young people, more tech-dextrous and a lot cheaper.”