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.’”