Critics ask if Times-Picayune, other Advance papers are ready for their new digital focus

Forbes | Reinventing the Newsroom | Newsonomics | The New York Times
There’s been much consternation about the stop-printing-daily part of the news from The Times-Picayune and Advance Publications’ three Alabama papers. But what of the “exciting changes” — the new emphasis on digital? There are skeptics.

The goal isn’t bad, writes John McQuaid, who used to work at the Picayune, but Advance has so far fumbled efforts to integrate its legacy and online operations.

The company, McQuaid writes, “has pursued a web strategy that is only lightly tethered to newsgathering.” Its websites often combine information from several newspapers and “are not very attractive and are notoriously difficult to navigate.” (Wade Kwon Storified reader reaction to the Alabama papers’ bloggy design after it debuted recently.)

At the TP, the intrinsic clunkiness has improved somewhat of late; but in spite of all the bold talk, jargon and corporate branding going on around online news, Advance has yet to provide a clear sense it’s committed to making a systematic move to the online news ecosystem, or that it “gets” digital news at all beyond the crude basics: more blogging, tweeting, video, mobile.

The papers are following the “Ann Arbor model” with this transition. In 2009, Advance’s Ann Arbor News in Michigan became AnnArbor.com, a new website with a twice-weekly print product.

Micheline Maynard, who lives there, calls AnnArbor.com “a constantly updated blog, which gives equal play to impaled cyclists and rabid skunks as it does to politics and crime.”

Jason Fry, a member of Poynter’s adjunct faculty, thought the Ann Arbor plan was “unfortunate but sound when announced, but I had to revise that once I saw how thin and generic AnnArbor.com felt — it’s journalism on the cheap, with crummy materials making blueprint irrelevant. NOLA.com, the Times-Picayune’s website, has always looked and felt cookie-cutter despite repeated redesigns — a crying shame given it represents America’s liveliest city.”

Ken Doctor calls the Times-Picayune shift “a forced march to digital.”

I’d call it a forced march because it doesn’t look like the Times-Picayune, or its new successor, the NOLA Media Group, is yet ready for the digital transformation. It has been making a digital transition, and there’s a big difference between the two. It doesn’t have a digital circulation strategy yet in place; though about a fifth of U.S. dailies do. Digital circulation is key to making this work, so that core print readers become more likely to transition with the enterprise — and keep paying their monthly subscription bills. The Times-Picayune did launch an iPad app in April, though it’s clearly in beta, with four of the same stories repeated this morning on the iPad version home page.

Doctor doesn’t argue that digital transformation is unnecessary; he just wonders if Advance has its timing right: “The creation of community journalism — in tradition or transition or transformation — demands readiness,” he writes.

Some of the locals are not ready for this. Thursday night in New Orleans, according to The New York Times’ David Carr and Christine Haughney, some town swells gathered at the home of a Times-Picayune board member to discuss ways to keep the paper as-is or even buy it. Steven Newhouse, Advance’s president, told Carr and Haughney that the paper is not for sale.

“We are very bullish on our future in New Orleans,” he said. By creating enhanced print products three days a week, he expects to protect that ability of the newsroom to create quality journalism while using the Web to compete in a changed news cycle.

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  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    “NOLA.com, the Times-Picayune’s website, has always looked and felt cookie-cutter despite repeated redesigns …” Stunning that focusing on something other than content failed.

    Of course, you could take that sentence, replace the part before “has always looked” with any of the clueless daily print newspapers that decided to roll the dice with a redesign, and still have a factual sentence.This plan will fail. These newspapers have not invested in content, and they don’t have the first clue as to how to give a digital audience what it wants. Huntsville, in particular, has been a massive joke for years.

  • Anonymous

    Correction: The model is NOT based off Ann Arbor. There, Advance discontinued all print editions of the Ann Arbor News, and dropped the newspaper name entirely in favor of the AnnArbor.com brand. AnnArbor.com has since been absorbed into the MLive Media Group (http://mlivemediagroup.com/about). THAT is the model being used in New Orleans (soon to be the NOLA Media Group) and in Alabama (the Alabama Media Group).

  • Anonymous

    This is suicide by the Times-Picayune’s owners. Their web site isn’t ready for prime time and can’t deliver the same content, information, and entertainment that the daily paper does. This is strictly a money saving move by a company that is deeply invested in print and is losing its shorts. Who ever convinced the leadership at Advance to make this move is foolhardy at best. Advance would be better suited to sell the paper to local investors and leave the market instead of destroying an institution like the Times-Picayune. New Orleans deserves better.