Government & Politics
 

Opinion: Changes at TP were necessary, but are they the right ones?

 

Photo by Laura Beatty

 The decision by The Times-Picayune to cut publication to three days a week and go all-in on the web is a response – probably belated – to some pretty grave realities.

Whether it’s a solution is another question.

What the bean counters have to hope is that they’ve struck the right balance between the web, which has large audiences but low advertising income, and the traditional paper product that has a dwindling readership much more highly esteemed, eyeball for eyeball, by Dillard’s and JC Penney and the car dealers and realtors who have long carried newspapers on their backs.

If the T-P’s New York-based owners have got the balance wrong, then the changes announced today are just an interim step before there’s another plunge down the rabbit hole that leads to ever shrinking profits, more staff cuts, a trashier product and – in the case of print on paper – no product at all.

As cities go, New Orleans has a more than normal affection for its daily. The T-P’s  “penetration rate” – industry lingo for the proportion of the market that reads the paper – has long been the nation’s highest. New Orleans is not a rich city any more, but surely there are enough local investors out there with the means to assure that a first-rate news town doesn’t have to settle for a second-rate newspaper.

Memo to St. Charles Avenue: How about a Hornets-style “I’m in” campaign where the ante isn’t the cost of a season ticket. Instead it’s an investment sufficient to save a local institution at least as important as any other cultural asset or sports franchise. Warren Buffet knows a thing or two about bottom-feeding. Anyone notice his latest coup?

If there’s a certainty in all this, it’s that newspapers, including The Times-Picayune, are jealously studying the lead of The New York Times and want to start charging readers for access to their websites. Or at least try to.

So goodbye to the free lunch. A lot of analysts will tell you that the papers were fools to serve it up in the first place as the Internet gained traction and publishers hoped, with increasing desperation, that it was a passing fad.

The problem is that a lot of readers, at least in the short term, will migrate to the free websites that more profitable rival organizations – TV news in particular – can continue to finance more or less indefinitely. That would shake nola.com’s current dominance among local sites and further impair revenues, leading to further staff cuts and …

All of this is deeply saddening to an old-time newsman such as me, a 20-year veteran of The Times-Picayune. And it’s not just because I like to do a crossword puzzle while jolting myself awake with the morning infusion of caffeine.

News gathering – serious newsgathering, as distinguished from hour-by-hour blogging and tweeting – is an expensive, labor-intensive proposition. Its importance to the quality of discourse and community awareness that makes democracy possible has been much touted – and lamented, as resources diminish.

It takes a lot of warm bodies – far more than web economics can afford – to crank out the full spectrum of news and investigative work that a thriving city needs. As the staff has been slashed and slashed again during the recent downturn, The Times-Picayune has done a heroic job of disguising the damage to its news gathering army. It’s to be wondered whether the big cut ahead will be the point of no return.

There’s a qualitative difference between the products of most news organizations and their sister web products. Mass-circulation news services, such as network news in the Walter Cronkite era – performed a minor miracle on a daily basis: at the end (or the beginning) of each day they stitched a fractious and squabbling nation back into at least the illusion of common purpose and forward motion toward an achievable consensus, however far in the offing. Decent daily newspapers did the same thing. The web sites, particularly the commercial web sites, seem to be engines not of unity and common purpose but of divisiveness. The garish, in-your-face graphics, the absence of an orderly or nuanced hierarchy of news value and – perhaps especially – the bigotry and malice embodied in reader “comments” foster more rancor than enlightenment.

Some sites operated by multi-modal news organizations have managed to strike a balance. National Public Radio’s site – NPR.com – beautifully complements its broadcasts with supplementary material, rather than simply digesting and reshuffling news stories in an effort to “freshen” the site on an hourly basis. And The New York Times has put the lie to industry mavens who celebrate the crudeness of their largely un-navigable websites by insisting that they must be as different as possible from the papers they feed off.

Nytimes.com manages somehow to look and read like a newspaper. That’s not just a concession to a dying generation of old-time print addicts. There are reasons – honed over a century of experiment and adjustment – for the architecture of the traditional news page and the way in which, at a glance, it signals priority and news value.

These are the grounds for cautious optimism in any survey of the troubled news media landscape. What’s missing in New Orleans, if this is to remain a city capable of publishing a daily paper, is the resolve and commitment that comes with local ownership.

Meanwhile, one can only hope a newly reconstituted Times-Picayune regains its footing, finds the right balance of web to paper – and retains the staff sufficient to fulfill it. If it happens, it will almost compensate for the time when New Orleans had a daily newspaper and, not infrequently, a pretty damn good one.

Jed Horne was an editor of The Times-Picayune from 1988 to 2007 and is now the news editor of The Lens. 

 

 

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  • http://www.GreenbergRants.blogspot.com Paul Greenberg

    Jed,
    Well stated and absolutely right on. I will say this: I believe we are in the pioneer days of online journalism, and what will develop therein will be the result of three things; consumer demand, technological advances and the cultural shift to digital communication. I am also a former TP writer, and now I teach journalism at Tulane University, Every semester I ask my students how many of them read the newspaper. Not one of them ever raises their hand. You may think that is an exaggeration, but it is the truth. The decline of newspapers is a generational component of the 21st century. Older citizens are extremely loyal to their daily newspaper and younger citizens are loyal to their smartphones. The sooner we accept that and work within the reality of this cultural shift, the better we can shape our news delivery. Personally, I regret the loss of the daily paper, but professionally, I totally get it, and I think the company did what they had to to survive.
    Paul A. Greenberg

  • Anne Rolfes

    Thanks for the insight. I am hoping that someone (anyone?) will step up to save it as you suggest. I’m in!

  • Rebecca Theim

    Thank you, Jed, for an insightful analysis. I wish I thought it would come to pass. Who’s the closest New Orleans has to an Eli Broad (assuming he does indeed buy the L.A. Times) or Marc Cuban (with HDNet and some of the programming he’s supporting on it)?

  • Darlene Olivo

    Jed, you are absolutely right with your call-to-investments by local owners. Let us hope they respond–if only to keep their daughters’ debutante pictures on the Society Page.

    Excellent article.

    Darlene.

  • alright

    At the top of your article, “New Orleans is not a rich city anymore”.

    WHY IS NOLA not RICH..anymore?

    After more than 100 years, wasn’t the Times Picayune supposed to be the WATCH DOG and watch out for the GOOD of New Orleans?

    For a city to not only become poor, but DIRT POOR, with no Fortune 500 companies and just more 24/7 alcohol on Bourbon Street, Casinos, lotteries, video poker, WHERE IS THE MONEY?????? And why can’t the locals even afford to pay for a newspaper? Oh, that’s right, it went right into the video poker machines and lottery tickets.

    The Times Picayune have ONLY themselves to blame for their own demise as they advocated and protected a population who are just plain poor, corrupts and don’t have the skills for a decent job, or for that matter apply for a job to begin with as they can’t even read the job application form.

    You spent your time advocating for gambling and lotteries all in the name of funding better education. Well, we can see how that went. Worse schools in the nation and students as well as adults who can’t read or write, much less want to read a newspaper to begin with.

  • areader

    Can we do a public funding campaign like WWOZ, WWNO and so many other cultural institutions like the symphony, opera, etc? I like reading the newspaper with my breakfast. I need to flip through the Lagniappe each Friday to set my weekend schedule of fun activities.
    I even look at when the sales are. Put me down for some cash.
    A devoted reader

  • http://www.google.com/imgres?q=Ignatius+J+Reilly&hl=en&sa=X&biw=1068&bih=1153&tbm=isch&prmd=imvnsuo&tbnid=oQB85bsEvWPagM:&imgrefurl=http://judson2history.wordpress.com/ JEB2

    The move was somewhat inevitable but poorly executed. The future of publishing in print is certainly up in the air. And there is no doubt that distributing news in print is an inefficient way to deliver information and advertising. Just consider the huge amount of waste that is generated each day. And consider how old the news is by the time it reaches your doorstep in the morning. Who doesn’t check up on the news throughout the day on their phone, tablet or computer? People are just more likely to read on their portable screens today.

    The move to online is risky for a variety of reasons. 1) Once online readers will drift to other sites and services that provide more engagement with the topics they are interested in. There is no brand loyalty to NOLA.com 2) Online competitors are going to emerge like termites from a flooding building. Watch for radio and tv stations to take a grab. And, neighborhood bloggers and vertical market options like restaurant & entertainment review sites, will pull off the choicest remaining pieces from the carcass. 3) NOLA.com is simply not ready. It needed to be thoroughly tested. Today it doesn’t even work with the Google Chrome browser which 32% of internet users in the US currently use as their default browser. The changeover site is awkward to navigate and the color sceme is jarring.

    Patton said “a good plan violently executed now is a better than a perfect plan executed next week.” In the case of the TP matter, this appears to be a plan violently executed today with a proper consideration of tomorrow.

  • King Cobra

    Lately TP has not been a good daily. BR’s Advocate a better daily, should look at this as an opportunity to cover New Orleans in an exclusive New Orleans Edition, even if it means an afternoon edition. It is time for TP to take a back seat and stick to special issues and occasional investigation full length reports (Magazine style). It will all save us the bother of reading stale news.

  • Jim O’Quinn

    Jeb, thanks for the sharp analysis….it’s a bewildering development….I think there could be the kind of investment Darlene calls for, if the right people rose to the occasion, but how likely is that? Amazing. (I was on States-item city desk in the ’70s.)

  • http://nickp91.wordpress.com nickp

    Papers survived radio, movies, television, and cable. Why can’t they survive this?

  • http://noladder.blogspot.com/ Editilla~New Orleans Ladder

    Thanks Mr Horn.
    What you’ve done with The Lens has always been a check on my own edge towards Nola.com and it’s relationship to the Times-Picayune regarding the Corps of Engineers. Whew! Whadda mouf’ful! Anyway, where I’m convinced that Nola.com was used to facilitate the Corps agenda, the T-P was formerly the only thing standing against their failed engineering. I learned this from you. Don’t ask me how it’s a long story. Suffice to say, we all saw this coming when they canned Jon Donely.
    This ain’t yer daddy’s Newhouse. It is a political monopoly.
    Don’t get me started.
    I’m sorry for your loss.
    Thanks yous

  • Steve

    Good article. Had it been in the Times-Picayune, I would have never seen it. SG

  • http://brophyfootball.blogspot.com brophy

    I’m with areader above. OZ offers some of the best and culturally rich treasures while providing partnership opportunities for all to sustain itself.
    No doubt cranking out print media is fruitless economic venture.
    It would be a shame to lose the fine professional craftsmanship of the TP writers. I would certainly pay for their online content, whether it was their environmental reports, the recent prison expose, or the countless perspectives presented from a local’s POV….the reader truly gained something by reading and participating. This is truly a sad development

    The impending storm is the news-by-numbes template of a Gannet entity that bombards viewers (not readers) with spam and BS.

  • Jeanie Blake

    Great article, Jed. The TP is more than a newsgatherer or watchdog or whistleblower (all important roles, for sure); it gives us a balanced view of our world. Its editorial page, which features liberal and conservative columnists, is needed now more than ever before. Maybe this – and your article – will be a wake-up call to those who take it for granted.

  • Conservative

    I see it differently than most of you and I have to gree with “alright”. The TP leans WAY too LEFT for me.
    I cannot support such an organization.

  • crusty

    So, what am I gonna eat crabs on now?

  • http://noladiy.org scott

    the money? the money went to Houston a long time ago. who do you think wants to build coal terminals in Louisiana?

    I’m all in for non-profit journalism.

  • Scott McLetchie

    Very astute comments. I would suggest that one way to mitigate rancor in the comments section of Nola.com (or any other news site) would be to require posters to use their real names – just as required for letters to the editor. Do not let them hide behind anonymity, and see whether they make the same idiotic, inflammatory remarks.

    And as another poster suggested, might it not be possible to take the paper “public” – as in the NPR model. Non-profit, community-supported. A suggestion that merits consideration.

  • Michael

    Dunno how up to date these numbers are, but the TP’s daily circulation is around 140,000. It’s safe to say that among the 1/2 million in the metro area, over 100,000 are illiterate. Some estimates are much higher. So, roughly one in two people in the metro area read the TP. Yet the shift to a, at least presently, terrible website?

  • Gene Brandt

    When was the TP upgraded to second rate?

  • Harry S. Tervalon, Jr.

    “Monthly cost for home delivery reduced by $2.00. Home delivery reduced by 4 days.

    New person in charge states that the three days selected for home delivery “have proved to be the most valuable days for the newspaper’s advertisers.”

    Since I pay for the newspaper for news and not grocery ads, inserts, coupons, crossword puzzles, horoscopes, and other non news stuff, I am coming out with the short end on the stick.

    I am just a guy who likes to hold and read my morning paper. Guess I now have to go digital or whatever it is call to obtain my news from the Internet. Sad!”

  • Andrew G

    Excellent article. So many who get their news from the Internet think the hard news just magically appears. They simply don’t understand the hard work of professional reporters and the high cost involved. I have thought for years the “business model” of giving away your product for free on the web to be borderline moronic.

    The trouble we face in NOLA is that the carpet-bagger owners of the Times-Pic aren’t interested in selling. Clearly they are making money – just not enough for their taste. It’s a shame.

  • Jane Johnson

    I’m in! A day without the Times-Pic (the real one, made of paper) is like a week in Cleveland. Given the paper’s market saturation, is there not an alternative to the internet?

  • Cameron Williams

    For those who say the Times-Picayune leans “way too far to the left”: their editorial page is mainstream moderate. Yes, this is far to the left of Hannity and Limbaugh, but you know, those guys are extremely far to the right. I think the Times-Pic is a mainstream paper, fitting for a city center that is extremely liberal and a suburban readership that is largely conservative. They strike a balance in the middle, and for this I think the Times-Picayune deserves to be commended. They are a consensus paper in an era when everything else is screaming left or screaming right.
    One of my many, many, many big fears of this news is that there will no longer be any editorial voice for local news whatsoever. Does nola.com even post the opinion section? Do they post editorials? Do they post letters to the editor? Where will a citizen go for thoughtful discourse on local issues? No, the “comments” section on nola.com full of people in the suburbs hating the inner city does not count as thoughtful discourse.

  • Poplar

    @Cameron I actually worked at the Picayune years ago, and your calling the paper “main stream moderate” had me in stitches. Back in the day, my fellow employees nick named the second floor newsroom “Red Square” or “Pravda.” The hard boiled local reporters were being phased out when I worked there, and northeastern liberals were being trucked in by the bushel. This is not a matter of opinion, but a fact. There was no way in hell a “moderate” or conservative reporter was getting a gig unless you were the mail clerk. Where was the “diversity” in staffing? (The Picayune’s idea of “diversity” was putting equal numbers of New York & New Jersey liberals on the payroll.) I am not sorry to see this monument to the stupidity of leftist ideologues go. The Howard Ave. bldg. should be turned into a museum, so future generations can go to see the place where news went to die.

  • Rebo

    I’m in.

  • Moodonthepitch

    Regardless of which way folks think the T-P leans, nola.com doesn’t lean anywhere near the direction of news, and that’s my biggest issue with this whole situation. Two days this week, one being Sunday, the homepage has been nothing but college baseball, entertainment stories, and the lottery numbers.

    No news is not good news.

  • Daryl Nichols

    If the Times cannot afford to support the Newspaper and the online version, they should drop the online and quit trying to split their advertising revenue. New Orleans is not a market that is ready to go completely digital. The person that sold them this idea is a great sales person. He/she needs to be on the street selling advertising to support the newspaper and not the online version. In my family alone they are going to lose over 12 subscribers that do not DO the online viewing. It will not take long for the subscribers and advertisers to catch on to this.

  • John P. Jankowski

    I work for a company that was outsourced the home delivery portion of two newspapers in Illinois. While the experiment’s effectiveness has yet to be determined (i.e., profitability), there’s no denying its impact. I am the only full-time district manager for a four-oounty area; all carrier piece rates have been cut; and route size for carriers has in most cases doubled. Not only that, but staffing in all areas of circulation have seen similar reductions, which has translated, in my opinion, to an expedited retreat in overall subscription numbers. Sadly, given the average age of a newspaper reader, along with the race to the Web, the need for high-quality customer service has never been greater. Yet the realities that I and many of my fellow circ/distribution middle management types face, dictate the necessity of the contrary, whereby doing more with less can only go so far in keeping an increasingly sub-par product, with an ever-increasing subscription rate, on the porches and in the driveways of an increasingly-hostile elderly subscription base.

  • Patty

    I am one of the 200 plus that has been given notice that a position is not available for me. I don’t know where it went, but apparently it disappeared right before my eyes. Now, I walk into the building and I feel shunned. Shunned by co-workers that I have worked beside for years. Ignored as if I might rub off on them because I was not “okay”. Amazingly enough, when I was given the news by the department head, I found that a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I’ve seen this coming for awhile and now I will work until September 30. But for the others that are left behind, I truly feel bad. Because of the technological age that we now live in, you too will face what I have just gone through. I hope you can handle it with the grace and dignity that I have and will continue to have until it is my time to go. I have ideas for the future and look forward to moving on. I will miss the feel of the paper. The ads and sales papers cannot be conveyed on a computer screen like they can in person. It’s been a good ride, so long to an institution that once was…