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City news organizations respond to Times-Picayune layoffs

New Orleans news oganizations discuss The Times-Picayune's major reorganization.
Erin Krall
New Orleans news oganizations discuss The Times-Picayune's major reorganization.

News of widespread layoffs at The Times-Picayune, the city’s only daily newspaper and a mainstay of morning routine for generations of New Orleanians, continued to reverberate through the city’s media establishment late Tuesday.

Though the layoffs were expected — an effort to cut costs and transition to a digital delivery model mandated by parent company Advance Publications — the extent of the cuts took many by surprise, a tectonic shift in the local media landscape that has upended many newsrooms in a city notoriously resistant to change.

“We and others need to step up — television, radio, bloggers, the Gambit and anyone who is interested in journalism or cares about the news,” says Clancy Dubos, Political Editor and Chairman of the Gambit, New Orleans’ weekly alternative newspaper. Otherwise, he warns, “They are going to wake up one day and ask what happened to their news.”

Dubos worries that readers have not yet fully grasped the consequences of the recent cuts to the newspaper’s staff. “They are not cutting back, they are folding,” he says. But, “it’s not going to happen all at once. There is going to be a void. The Picayune is a very significant newspaper, and I think investigative and political news will see a drop off.”

In his opinion, the only way to influence the company’s decision to eliminate the paper as a daily broadsheet is for readers and advertisers to abandon it. “The only way they are going to stop it is if they boycott the website, or the advertisers stop giving them money.”

The Gambit, which is currently the second-largest print newspaper in the region, with a circulation of about 40,000, would be the first logical heir to inherit the mantle of The Times-Picayune. But Dubos says his paper isn’t necessarily eager to fill that void. “We don’t have the resources Steven Newhouse [president of Advance Internet, and member of the family that owns the Times-Picayune and Nola.com] has. He’s a billionaire.”

Dubos says The Times-Picayune’s parent companies are taking their readers and writers for granted, and are abandoning the paper at the worst possible time, as younger people are less and less likely to pick up a newspaper.

“One reason this is happening is because young people do not read the paper,” he says. “They need to pay attention, and the best way to pay attention is to read.”

Dubos keeps circling back to the hole in the center of the city’s communal conversation The Times-Picayune’s absence will leave.

“This shows a lack of creativity, imagination, and a lack of vision on the part of the owners of the company,” he says. “If people just lie down and accept this, you will see it happen in other cities as well.”

Michael Giusti, a journalism instructor at Loyola University and the advisor to the award-winning Maroon student newspaper, says newspapers like The Times-Picayune are still operating under the same revenue model that was set up in the 1960s. However, as readers and advertisers have transitioned to the web, newspapers just haven’t been selling enough ads to keep that model afloat.

“The media environment requires a much more nimble organization, and sustainability has to come from reducing the payroll, as much as it hurts,” he says. Since paper ads are far more valuable than electronic ads, the move toward an online product necessitates lowering costs.

Giusti, who also researches the business of media organizations, says daily newspapers like The Times-Picayune are essential to the operation of all news organizations in a city. Most stories originate in the newspaper before moving on to television, radio and internet newsrooms.

“The newspaper is really the one that’s producing the content, covering the beats, covering the day to day, and other news organizations are taking advantage of the investment the newspaper is doing,” he says. The revamped Times-Picayune is “still going to have 80-plus reporters, but they’re going to have to do more with less. They’re still going to have to cover the city, but with less resources. That means there are going to be areas of the city that aren’t going to be covered as well.”

Giusi says it’s an opportune time for other news organizations to reinvest in the daily beat journalism that The Times-Picayune provided.

“If they are willing to spend money, other organizations can step into the void” left by the downsized newspaper. “If TV and radio stations in the city want to buy up one or two of the reporters, and pick up the responsibility the paper was supporting, they could really stand out.”

He says niche media organizations that provide original reporting stand to benefit, as the paper’s newsroom gets smaller and essentially cedes certain issues to its upstart competitors. However, The Times-Picayune’s new publication schedule and emphasis on weekend lifestyle coverage means some entertainment-focused publications may feel like they’re coming under a full frontal attack.

“It’s definitely shifting the media environment,” says Giusti. “There will be winners and losers.”

But the biggest losers are the journalists who were cut loose today.

“Almost a hundred high-quality journalists have just lost their jobs,” says Giusti, including some of his close friends and former students. “It’s heartbreaking to see these losses and these cuts.”

And for the city as a whole?

“Is the civic function of journalism going to suffer? Fewer journalists on the street means journalism will suffer.”

Paul Maassen, General Manager of 89.9 WWNO, the city’s NPR affiliate, says his organization was already working to increase its local offerings well before the Times-Picayune announcement.

“We had already been planning to step up our local coverage, and have expanded our news and cultural programming significantly over the past two years” says Maassen. “This just validates our increased focus on local coverage and local news.”

WWNO is also in the process of hiring a full-time news director, a first for the station, says Maassen.

Across town, Steve Beatty, Managing Editor of The Lens, was noticeably shaken by the layoffs.

“I worked at the Times-Picayune for 15 years, until Hurricane Katrina,” he says. “Some of my dearest and closest friends learned today they no longer have jobs. I’m just sick about it.”

The Lens, a non profit newsroom that partners with other media organizations in the city — including The Louisiana Weekly, Fox8-TV, and WWNO — was created to fill in the gaps in coverage left by other news organizations, and from previous cuts to the Times-Picayune, according to Beatty. News of the cuts was especially bittersweet for the four-person operation, coming on the same day they were awarded a national Edward R. Murrow award for their examination of a 9th Ward woman’s struggles to rebuild her home six years after Hurricane Katrina.

“Investigative reporting in New Orleans is like a fire hose,” says Beatty. “There was already more news than anyone could cover. The loss of the T-P is a loss for us all.”

Layoffs at the paper will create new gaps, and Beatty says the challenge for The Lens is to start filling those gaps without diluting their reporting expertise in their core issues of criminal justice, education, land use, and the way recovery money is spent, along with the politics involved with it.

“I would love to expand into more topic areas, and do them more in depth,” says Beatty. “If the opportunity presents itself to expand, then we’ll see about taking that opportunity. But this is a terrible loss; the competition makes us all stronger and benefits the community.”

Beatty says today’s cuts at the Times-Picayune mean there’s no going back to a seven-day publication schedule, despite the protestations of a community still grappling with the fallout from the announcements.

“With the number of cuts to personnel they made today, it’d be impossible,” to continue publishing daily. “They’ve boxed themselves in with their actions today, and Newhouse has made it clear for the past two weeks they aren’t going to sell, and aren’t going to change their mind.”

Beatty said he kept an eye on the Friends of the Times-Picayune Editorial Staff Facebook page throughout the day, and “watched the roll of casualties pile up. Each one cuts into the soul of the newspaper, and we’re all going to be poorer for the loss.”

In the meantime, Beatty and The Lens will be reaching out to the journalists left behind, trying to close the gap in coverage while succeeding in the new normal of online niche news organizations.

“It’s the dawn of a new era in getting your news,” he says. “People will start going to separate sites for different kinds of information. The Lens, Uptown Messenger, NOLA Defender and the like.”

“No city has ever been made better from fewer journalists,” says Robert Morris, News Director of the Uptown Messenger, a hyperlocal news site he founded in 2010 with his wife Sabree Hill.

“I don’t see the loss of the daily paper as such a problem; it’s getting rid of the reporters,” says Morris. “It seems like they bottled up all their layoffs and saved them for one time.”

Morris is dedicated to online journalism, and doesn’t see a reduction in print frequency as major issue. Instead, it’s the absence of the Picayune’s journalists that will have wide-ranging repercussions in the type, quality and frequency of news that residents will be able to access.

“Uptown Messenger was always intended as a way to fill in coverage” about hyperlocal issues facing residents of Uptown New Orleans, says Morris, but he wasn’t prepared for anything of this scale. He runs a tiny two-person shop, supplemented by contributors, and can only cover so many things each day. But what about the rest?

“For people who don’t read Uptown Messenger, I just have to wonder: are they [Times-Picayune reporters] going to go to fewer crime scenes? Uptown Messenger will not have full-time reporters covering public housing,” either, he says. “There’s your loss.”

Morris left print journalism to move to New Orleans and, despite the new challenges on the horizon, is confident in his decision to strike out on his own.

“I never wanted to be a part of a newsroom that was slowly being dismantled.”

Jonathan Shelley, WDSU-TV’s News Director, says the station has been dedicated to expanding its coverage for years, and future endeavors won’t be in response to what any other organization is doing.

“We’ve always considered ourselves to be aggressive on the three screens: TV, internet and mobile. And, regardless of what our competitors do, we’re going to stay really aggressive in all three."

Changes in technology have significantly altered the way television newsrooms operate, Shelley says. “Hearst [WDSU’s parent company] and WDSU have been at the forefront of those changes. In addition to expanding our newscasts to over five hours each day, we made a commitment ten years ago to internet and mobile, and we have a lot of people and resources committed to it.”

Rather than being a disruptive influence, Shelley says advances in technology have actually benefited television news.

“Video is one of the most valuable types of content you’ll find online, because it’s harder to come by,” he says. “In the early days of the internet really taking off as a type of platform for news consumption, TV stations excelled because we had the pictures. Newspapers, including The Times-Picayune, have absolutely tried to become competitive online, but newspapers couldn’t deliver video. They’re trying to get into it, but it’s just easier for them to produce text.”

But that doesn’t mean Shelley welcomed today’s layoff announcement.

“As someone who has a career in journalism, I understand a vibrant community needs all kinds of journalism,” he says. “Newspapers here and everywhere are making changes to stay relevant, but with fewer reporters on the street, it’s disappointing. It reinforces our need to be a multi-level news organization.”

He paused before continuing. “New Orleans is just such an important community, and news outlets play such a critical role in it. We take our role very seriously, and we’ll continue to commit as much as we can to informing the public.”

With additional reporting by Doug Cardinale.

Jason Saul served as WWNO's Director of Digital Services. In 2017 he took a position at BirdNote, in Seattle.

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