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.

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.”

Times-Picayune newsroom “in triage, in mourning” Gambit editor tells “Informed Sources”

Kevin Allman, editor of New Orleans’ Gambit alternative weekly, who has exhaustively and compellingly covered the changes at The Times-Picayune, appeared last night (July 20) on New Orleans’ public television station WYES-TV’s “Informed Sources” to talk about the latest developments. (Watch the entire episode by clicking here.)

Some of what he had to say:

On Thursday’s largest mass departure from the newsroom, which included veteran City Hall reporter Frank Donze, fellow City Hall reporter Michelle Krupa, and health care and state politics reporter Bill Barrow. (Friday’s night’s going-away party at the Ugly Dog Saloon also feted soon-to-depart crime reporter and Pulitzer finalist Brendan McCarthy, business reporter Jaquetta White, St. Bernard community news editor Kim Gritter, special projects reporter Cindy Chang, Kenner reporter Mary Swerczek Sparacello and managing editor Peter Kovacs.): “What they’re losing right now is a lot of institutional memory. The whole list of people going down the line that are leaving, I don’t think they (newspaper management) expected to leave.”

State of the newsroom:The newsroom is in triage, the newsroom is in mourning. They’re afraid they’re going to be missing stories in the next couple of months, both because the man and woman power isn’t there, and because there’s no one really in charge, they don’t see where they’re going, they still have not been addressed by this new publisher.” Incoming publisher Ricky Mathews has editorialized on the front page of newspaper and met with fellow executives and major advertisers, but has not yet spoken to the rank-and-file.

Shifting control of the backstory? “The NOLA Media Group feels like it’s getting control of what they call the narrative again,” boosted this week by the high-profile hiring of Larry Holder from CBSSports.com to cover the New Orleans Saints. “Some changes may be coming to NOLA.com, which I don’t think anybody likes very much. So I think they think they’ve got a long-range plan that come October, they might be in pretty good shape.”

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)

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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.”

Author and freelance journalist Jason Berry discusses Times-Picayune saga on WYES-TV’s “Informed Sources”

Freelance investigative journalist and author Jason Berry, who penned a June 12 article for The Nation about the debacle at the newspaper titled “Rolling the Dice at The Times-Picayune,” appeared last night (June 29) on New Orleans’ public television station WYES-TV’s “Informed Sources” to talk about the latest developments in the ongoing saga. (Watch the entire program by clicking here.)

Among his choice observations:

On Friday’s decision by at least eight newsroom staffers to reject the newspaper’s offers to stay: “This is like the New Orleans Saints – everyone is wondering when Drew Brees is going to sign – this is like the entire backfield.”

On Advance Publications/ Newhouse’s new direction and the resulting brain drain: “This has been an amazing disaster. Here you have a newspaper that won four Pulitzer Prizes in 20 years, and they’ve wiped out their institutional memory, they’re losing many of their best reporters and they’re making money in the process.”

On profitability: “They had about an 8% profit last year, which means the Picayune made somewhere in the $8 million-to-$10 million range, not a bad profit.”

On the single-mindedness of the Newhouse’s plan: “They made no effort to build a circulation drive, to try to draw in younger readers, or any number of things they could have done, and absolutely had no interest in doing. And so now we have this skeleton where they once had a pretty healthy, thriving newspaper.”

On the New Orleans business community’s responsibility to do more to ensure that the resurging post-Katrina city has a daily newspaper: “I think the challenge to the business community here is striking because we are becoming an international city, we have become a city of the young … the number of entrepreneurs, website developers, young filmmakers who have come here in the last several years, not to mention the resurgence of the music community, the restaurants … All of this is fodder for a good daily paper. The question is whether the business community will simply sit back, be passive, let the Picayune lumber along as this new skeleton, or whether they’ll recognize that getting behind a serious, bona fide news engine will be to the betterment of the community, which certainly it would be.”

Exodus has begun: Gambit reports on veteran T-P staffers declining offers to stay

In a post late tonight, Gambit, New Orleans’ alternative weekly, reports that at least four veteran Times-Picayune reporters and columnists are rejecting offers to remain with NOLA Media Group when the company abandons daily print publication beginning Oct. 1.

You can read the story here.

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.

AJR: Can changes at a newspaper unify a city?

The website of the American Journalism Review, one of the nation’s two preeminent magazines about the journalism business, today published an article titled “How Changes at a Newspaper are Unifying a City.”

The article profiles New Orleans civic activist Anne Milling, restaurateur Ralph Brennan and Times-Picayune alumna Rebecca Theim about the community’s and staff’s reactions of the newspaper’s owner, Advance Publications, to cut the daily publication of the paper to thrice weekly, slash the staff by one-third and focus resources on NOLA.com, the newspaper’s much-criticized website.

You may access the article by clicking here.