Let’s hope T-P treats readers better than it treated its employees

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The Times-Picayune opinion page should razz its ownership for the way it handled plans to cut staff and shrink to a three-days-a-week paper. The inside account of the T-P restructuring story, as reported by Kevin Allman at Gambit, reveals a lack of professionalism among the paper’s new decision-makers:

Gambit spoke to more than a dozen T-P employees — reporters, senior writers, columnists and editors — all of whom said they learned of their fates from The New York Times report.

“My supervisor didn’t even f—ing know,” said one reporter. “My supervisor.”

On Twitter, crime reporter Brendan McCarthy wrote, “Just learned in the NY Times that my newspaper, my employer, my morning routine, may cease to exist.”

Many daily Times-Picayune subscribers, including yours truly, felt like McCarthy. Their cherished morning routines are about to be upended.

I don’t mean to pile on the T-P during this difficult time. Newspapers throughout the country are losing revenue and downsizing because of technological changes to their business. And I’m sure the newly formed NOLA Media Group was caught off-guard by the New York Times story that broke the news about the paper’s restructuring and their new “digitally-focused” vision. You’d expect the ownership group to frame the changes in a hopeful manner and assure longtime T-P readers that what will be lost in issue-frequency will be gained in “robust” content, spread over new-and-improved digital platforms.

However, you wouldn’t expect to hear exchanges like the one Allman reported occurred in a T-P employee meeting which editor Jim Amoss presided over:

At the employee meeting, [veteran T-P reporter Bruce Nolan} … spoke to his boss . “I find this difficult to say, because you and I go back a long time,” Nolan told the paper’s editor. “I don’t know to what extent your fingerprints are on the events of last week. I really think they’re probably not much.

“But I think everyone here thinks this doesn’t feel like the old Times-Picayune,” Nolan said. “There was, over the last week, a sense of anxiety and dread, a sense of disrespect, a sense people were being kept in the dark about terribly important things. …

“To read in The New York Times this morning that a 40-year career, in my case, is ending this way … That wasn’t right. And if I have a beef with this business decision — and history will vindicate this or not; I don’t care — but this isn’t the way to do it.”

“Hear, hear!” yelled another employee, and the newsroom burst into applause.

It’s depressing to learn that the city’s top local news source, under out-of-town ownership, is treating its employees this way. Newsmen don’t like to learn their fates in someone else’s newspaper. And I realize the “industry is changing” and “business is business” and all those other justificatory cliches… but big flipping deal. As Nolan said, that doesn’t make it right. And I think most New Orleanians would agree with him.

Worse, the T-P’s botched handling of its internal restructuring reveals more than a lack diplomatic style behind closed-doors. I fear it may be an indicator that the new T-P will deal with its faithful readers in a less-than-forthright manner, as well.

For example, the T-P published a letter to its subscribers on the front page of their May 25 edition. It’s from Philip H. Ehrhardt the vice president and director of circulation and in it, he makes a remarkable promise (my emphasis):

Beginning fall 2012, we will change our printing and delivery frequency from 7-days a week to 3-days a week. Our new package of Wednesday, Friday and Sunday will contain all of the news, grocery ads, inserts, coupons, comics, crossword puzzles, horoscopes and everything else you now receive through the current 7-days of delivery.

That’s an explicit, front-page commitment to T-P subscribers that the newspaper content they receive will not diminish. And I don’t believe it for a second.

In my daily Metro section I currently receive a couple T-P editorials each day along with four opinion pieces from national and local sources (except on Mondays). I also get to read a half dozen or so letters to the editor. Is the T-P really promising to enlarge its editorial section when it converts to publishing three-days-a-week, so that I can continue to enjoy the same amount of printed opinion content on a weekly basis?

Profoundly skeptical, I called the T-P’s customer service department and asked them whether the less-frequent but more “robust” editions of the T-P coming this fall would have double the opinion columns to honor their promise of no lost content. The gentleman assisting me was courteous, but his reply was evasive: “That’s a good question. I’d have to talk to someone here who knows about those plans.”

C’mon, T-P! Don’t start compounding your mistakes. The mistreatment of your loyal employees was bad enough. Don’t worsen matters by misleading your loyal subscribers with empty promises, too.

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