Advance Publications announced Tuesday that it will cut about 600 jobs at The Times-Picayune and its papers in Birmingham, Mobile and Huntsville, Ala., when the papers stop printing daily and shift focus to their websites.
Employees are being told Tuesday in short, individual meetings whether the company wants to keep them, and if so, what their jobs would be, how much those jobs would pay and how long they have to think about it. Some of those without job offers are being told they can apply for other positions; others are simply being offered severance packages.
Sixty percent of the editorial staff at The Birmingham News is being laid off, according to a source there who has seen a list of the targeted positions, which includes the ages of the people who hold them. That’s a higher share of layoffs than in other departments, according to the source.
Throughout Alabama, about 400 Advance employees will lose their jobs, according to a post on al.com:
As part of forming the new companies, functions such as copy editing and design, advertising production and the companies’ call center will be centralized in Birmingham. Additionally, printing and packaging of The [Huntsville] Times will be performed in Birmingham beginning this summer.
The cuts at The Times-Picayune, according to NOLA.com: 201 employees, or 32 percent of the company. The company said that 84 of 173 employees in the newsroom will lose their jobs. (NOLA.com originally reported different figures for the number laid off companywide and the number of newsroom employees.)
Several Times-Picayune journalists said Tuesday on Facebook that they had lost their jobs. Gambit is confirming and tweeeting some of the departures, which include Brett Anderson, who has won a James Beard Award for his restaurant writing. “I was told I’m being let go because I’m taking a Nieman Fellowship,” Anderson told The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple.
As many in the Times-Picayune newsroom expected, managing editors Dan Shea and Peter Kovacs are out. So is religion reporter Bruce Nolan, who in a staff meeting criticized how the company had kept its employees in the dark, leaving them to learn about the cutbacks in The New York Times. “If I have a beef with this business decision — history will either vindicate this or not, I don’t care, but this isn’t the way to do it.”
“I guess I’m trying to figure out how I didn’t fit into the new organization,” reporter Katy Reckdahl told WWL-TV after she wasn’t offered a job. “I think they’ve torn apart an institution. It’s not about me really, it’s about who I’m seeing walk out of that door crying. It’s the end of news in New Orleans, I think.”
In a video posted to NOLA.com, Times-Picayune Editor Jim Amoss describes the changes to the paper. “Many readers can’t imagine a morning without our newspaper in their hands. I understand that; I’m a print guy. I grew up in this business, but I’m also a news guy.” (We’ve posted the full transcript.)
Chuck Dean, a senior reporter at The Birmingham News who specializes in political reporting, said he was told Tuesday morning that his job didn’t fit the “template” of the new operation and that he’d be terminated as of Sept. 30. But, he said, departing Editor Tom Scarritt praised his work and left open the possibility that the incoming director of content could ask him to work in some other capacity.
Dean said he understands that the business is shifting to the Web, he believes the company is committed to quality reporting and editing, and he’d like to learn more about what type of journalism will be practiced this fall.
“I think it’s most likely they want to hear me commit to a digital-first philosophy,” said Dean, who’s been at the newspaper since 1981. “I don’t have a print-first philosophy. I have a journalism-first philosophy. If you can do journalism on carved stone, I’m all for that.”
Another source at the News said that some mid-level editors have been offered severance; some of them have been told they can apply for reporting positions.
On Monday, journalists said the atmosphere in their newsrooms was tense and uncertain; one at the Picayune called it “pretty funereal.”
“I’d say people are upset by the callousness with which the thing is being implemented,” said the same journalist, “and I think they’re also upset by the fact that the performance of the people implementing it does not give you confidence that this thing’s going to work.”
Staffers at the paper recently sent an open letter to their bosses asking what kind of news the company will value and if their pay will be based on page views; the company has not responded. Editor Jim Amoss has said the reporting staff will be comparable after the changes, and the journalism will remain high-quality.
On Monday, a group of local advertisers called on the newspaper to reverse its decision to cut back on print. They join other local leaders, the owner of the New Orleans Saints, and former journalist and “Treme” creator David Simon in saying New Orleans deserves a daily paper.
The protests include a website called “Ricky Go Home,” aimed at Ricky Mathews, who will be president of NOLA Media Group.
Advance’s head of local strategy has said the company believes in this approach, which it spearheaded in Michigan and may bring to other markets. “For us, this is not about print versus digital. It’s about print and digital, and there’s a huge difference,” Randy Siegel told the American Journalism Review.
Most of the coverage has focused on the Times-Picayune, in part because of what the city and the paper endured after Hurricane Katrina and because it would be the largest U.S. city to lose its daily newspaper.
Yet when it comes to print circulation, the Picayune isn’t much bigger than The Birmingham News on Sundays: March figures show the Picayune at 154,353 and the News at 150,510 (not including a branded shopper). The Picayune is still significantly larger during the week.
The total circulation of the Alabama papers is more than twice their sister paper’s in New Orleans, although the Alabama circulation is spread around the state, not in one metro area.
The people in those Alabama cities, such as Birmingham, have not protested the loss of their daily paper as loudly as those in New Orleans. Even there, according to former Picayune columnist Lolis Eric Elie, some residents “are unmoved by the demise” of the paper:
As the novelist John Biguenet told us shortly after the storm, the great enemy of New Orleans culture is American culture. The Times-Picayune used to understand this. Its coverage, even its very name, suggested a somewhat idiosyncratic perspective in keeping with our idiosyncratic community. It’ll be hard to maintain such relevant coverage if decisions like these are made in New York.
Long before the Internet, the daily newspaper was the virtual water cooler. Citizens from various walks of life and regions of the circulation area were brought together daily by a shared, though imperfect, vision of what was news, what was important, what was interesting. This thirst for community cannot be satisfied on a thrice-weekly basis.
I can’t imagine what daily print newspapers will look like a generation from now. But I remain convinced that newspapers will continue to exist and to be relevant in some form. Seen in this light the demise of our daily paper is less a result of the murderous forces of the Internet than it is a result of the suicidal inclinations of a company that has lost faith in its product.
Disclosure: I worked as a reporter at Advance’s Press-Register in Mobile, Ala., for about five years.