Newhouse on New Orleans changes: ‘There’s every reason to be upset and angry, but…’

Steven Newhouse knows a lot of people don’t like his company’s decision to reduce print frequency and staff at its newspapers and move most of its publishing online.

“There’s every reason to be upset and angry,” the chairman of Advance.net said in a phone interview Friday. I interviewed Newhouse after a representative offered us the opportunity to publish an op-ed by him.

Newhouse said the changes the company’s imposing on The New Orleans Times-Picayune and its three Alabama newspapers were painful but inevitable. Especially in New Orleans, the anger and upset directed toward Advance has been remarkable. “But left unsaid is that we would not be able to produce a seven-day-a-week newspaper” given the newspaper business’ trend lines, Newhouse said.

“We really feel the most important element for our journalistic future is our quality. Not how many days we publish but how well we cover the community,” Newhouse said.

Once the changes are implemented this fall, New Orleans will be the largest city in the United States without a daily newspaper. Both of Louisiana’s U.S. senators, as well as its governor, have pleaded with Advance to reconsider. Community leaders have begged the company to sell the paper. The Advocate in Baton Rouge has announced it will launch a daily New Orleans edition, and four online news sites plus a just-announced nonprofit online news site have made plans to compete with Advance’s soon-to-be-digitally focused operation for local eyeballs and dollars.

“I say bring them on,” Newhouse said. “Competition is great. We’re not afraid at all. We’re gonna have a really fantastic website and great print editions, and we’ll let the readers decide.”

What happens next will determine whether Steven Newhouse is viewed as a publishing visionary or the man who traded New Orleans journalism for a theory.

“They’re either smarter or bolder than everyone else or wrong,” said Poynter business analyst Rick Edmonds.

So anger is reasonable, Newhouse said. Misreporting the mechanics of the company’s changes is not. The newsgathering force will be reduced by a smaller number of people than has been reported, he told me.

“In New Orleans, the overall newsroom reduction is about 20 percent. That has been reported on differently because the newspaper staff was reduced by more than 20 percent. However, the NOLA Media Group is hiring and eventually when we’re fully staffed we’re gonna have a very significant content team” of about 150 journalists.

“We think that by deploying those journalists to produce a really incredible website and great print editions three times a week we can really focus on capturing the growth in digital … and at the same time serve our print audience with really great newspapers.”

Edmonds says it’s important to note Advance isn’t abandoning print but is cutting back to the days advertisers are already voting for with their dollars. “It’s advantageous to readers to get print seven days a week,” Edmonds says. “Already by and large,” he says, advertisers have “sort of checked out on the Monday and Tuesday papers. Three days a week serves their needs pretty well.”

Steve Newhouse is the chairman of Advance.net, the digital division of Advance Publications Inc., which owns more than 34 newspapers in 11 states.

Advance’s websites have been criticized widely for their garish colors, cookie-cutter templates and poor ease of use. Newhouse said, “first of all, our websites have very good numbers.” He shared a survey from The Media Audit that shows at least six Advance properties, including Nola.com, among the top local websites in the country. AnnArbor.com is the nation’s top newspaper site by Media Audit’s metrics, with 55 percent of its area’s adult population logging on monthly. “No one likes to talk about” those numbers, Newhouse said, “because it contradicts the attacks on us that our websites suck.”

That said, Newhouse allows, “a lot of the criticism of our websites is fair. We have struggled with our navigation and our presentation and with balancing the immediacy and real time benefit of a more blog-like format with the curated presentation of a more newspaper-like website.”

Advance, he said, needs “to do a better job” appealing to people who expect their newspaper website to behave more like a newspaper than a blog. Just this week, Nola.com exchanged its eye-searing background for subtler colors and implemented a top table that allows editors to decide which stories should hang around for awhile.

The changes Advance forged in Michigan, Newhouse writes in a commentary published on Poynter Friday, taught the company a lot about digital transitions. On the phone he said those changes were forced by significantly declining print revenue that meant the company had to “support our journalism off of a much lower cost revenue basis.”

Pay walls, he said, aren’t part of the calculation: “We’ve looked at pay walls, and we believe there’s revenue in it, but there’s not nearly enough revenue to really support the kind of journalism that we aspire to continue. The real revenue growth is this tremendous increase in digital spending.” With the company’s “superior local product,” Newhouse said, it believes “we can capture our fair share” of that growth.

But New Orleans is, as Jim Gabour memorably wrote in the Guardian in June, “an analogue planet in a digital universe.” The digital divide there is starker than in many U.S. cities — by one estimate, 36 percent of the city is without Internet access. “We’re very aware as we focus more on digital and reduce the number of days we’re publishing, we have an obligation to serve people who don’t have the same access to digital or the same understanding that other groups have,” Newhouse said. He said the company is close to announcing “significant initiatives” to ease that burden.

In June, NOLA Media Group President Ricky Mathews told a gathering of tech professionals, “We’re going to invest money working with the Knight Foundation to begin to make a dent” in the digital divide. A Knight rep told Poynter at the time “we prefer not to comment on discussions that may or may not be under way about individual grants.”

I asked Newhouse whether the company’s other newspapers can expect such changes. “We’re facing the same conditions everywhere,” he said. “We’re looking at every market and trying to figure out what the right model is. We have local teams doing it because the conditions are different in different markets, but our goal everywhere is to come up with a formula where we can see a long-term future.”

Advance doesn’t want to “look at addressing the circumstances as they develop and to see a downward spiral of revenue losses and cutbacks.”

So why not just take the money and run, I asked, and sell to one of the suckers who thinks they can make a go of sustaining The Times-Picayune with an older model? “The Times-Picayune is profitable,” Newhouse said. His goal is to “make a transition to a model that has a chance to work and not ride down a model that we’ve been successful at for many, many years but is eroding rapidly.”

“Sure people can criticize and challenge the strategies we’ve chosen, but these were choices we made based on years of effort and thinking and gaining experience and only because we are deeply committed. That’s why we have no intention of selling in New Orleans or anywhere else.”

Related:Securing a Future for Our Local Journalism,” op-ed by Steve Newhouse

Disclosure: This past February, Steve Newhouse hosted a luncheon in Poynter’s honor at Conde Nast.

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_XDCJTPZFFRVOK3M76ZYTZUT52Q Sean

    Newshouse, you want New Orleans to be stuck on perpetual Katrina mode. But, it is you Mr. Newhouse that is stuck on Katrina mode and New Orleans will not be your guinea pig!

  • Anonymous

    Lets face it Nigggggers speak Ebonics, and cant read the New Orleans paper…… no surprise here they had to layoff staff.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1377616268 George Schwarz

    Steve Newhouse

    Advance Publications

    950 Fingerboard
    Rd.

    Staten Island, NY 10305-1453

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1377616268 George Schwarz

    Newhouse and other folks,

     

    I have not read such blathering bullshit in my life.

     

    This insipid and arrogant analysis of the industry is the
    result of sucking on that sliver spoon in your mouth, Steve, while flitting
    around with your country club friends while thinking you really know journalism
    or how to deliver what people need for news. Or maybe your ilk is too inbred.

     

    Others have pointed out some obvious points, which you will
    ignore as “noise.” Did you all really say that about New Orleanians’ reactions?
    Here are some other things we in the real, non-country club world know.

     

    First, you should know the Media Audit data, as with the
    Audit Bureau of Circulation, numbers are fudged all the time. The scam is to
    convince you all and the advertising agencies that you’re worth spending money with.
    Remember, we follow the money. Don’t ask me how I know this. You don’t want the
    answer. You’re deluding yourself if you think Ann Arbor is a typical community. With the University of Michigan there (You do know what a university
    is, don’t you?), the community will far likely be better “connected” for
    Web-based information delivery than many places, including New Orleans. I just
    can’t believe no one in your employ is smart enough to tell you about this, but
    you sure aren’t smart enough to figure it out.

     

    All this adds up to the arrogance you show in Andrew Beaujon’s
    interview. Hang onto what few balls you have left, Stevie-boy, because by the
    time the New Orleans
    community is through with you and your company, you’ll all be singing soprano.

     

    “‘But left unsaid is that we would not be able to produce a
    seven-day-a-week newspaper” given the newspaper business’ trend lines, Newhouse
    said.” We all know the Times-Picayune wasn’t following the industry’s trends. As
    a traditionalist city, it was still profitable. But typical of big corporation
    hubris and one-size-fits-all stupidity, you will treat the venerable newspaper the
    same as the crap you publish in Alabama.

     

    Second, you are sorely underestimating anger and passion as
    motivators. Inside an organization, the former is a cancer and the latter is a
    blessing. But combined on the outside with your enemies, they are weapons of
    mass destruction. With the Advocate having made the decision to compete and the
    other on-line alliances, plus the loss of some of your best staff, you and the
    NOLA thing (Is THAT really what you call a Web site?) are doomed. Buh-bye.

     

    Third, what’s with Jim Amoss? How did you turn a great
    leader and smart editor into a Newhouse zombie? And when are you, like most
    corporatists like you, going to stab him in the back? Inquiring minds want to
    know.

     

    Look, Newhouse, I am no a punk kid like you are. I am
    67-years-old and I don’t give a shit about who likes me or not. I am not scared
    of power and not scared of speaking truth to power. I am telling you right here
    and now, you have screwed up big time and your hubris is not letting you back
    down or response to the community YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO SERVE. (Yep, those capital
    letters are me shouting at you.

    Frankly, Seve, I think you’re a 24-carat asshole. I don’t
    hide behind screen names. My name is George Schwarz and I live in Amarillo, Texas.
    Bring it on.

  • Anonymous

    You’re right about one thing, Mr. Newhouse:  the readers will decide.  I’ve subscribed to the Times-Picayune for 30 years, and I do not intend to buy another paper or log on to your website until you resume seven-day-a-week publication or sell to someone who will. And your hubris throughout this painful denouement has made me “deeply committed” to that.  Your move will go down in history as a marketing paradigm, an example of how one very stubborn man took the most loyal readership in the country and made an enemy of them overnight.  Reed Hastings was at least smart enough to reverse course when he realized he was destroying the customer goodwill he’d spent years building.  You seem to feel the Times-Picayune can thrive without any. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jolie-Harris/1268859904 Jolie Harris

    I went to school in New Orleans with David Newhouse. Steven, you know NOTHING of New Orleans and her culture. Call David, your cousin, and get a clue. Sell out to the locals or look at devastation. That is the truth, if you know it or not. I have been a subscriber for 30 years. Come September, I am out. New Orleans is everything. You are not of New Orleans.  It is sad to lose the name “Times Picayune”, but that is the curse on your family, not the city.  So be it.

  • Eileen Loh

    It’s been made painfully clear — by the caliber of writers and editors fired from the Times-Picayune, and from the anemic, hard-to-navigate, terrible nola.com website — that Newhouse doesn’t give a damn about quality.What Newhouse is doing to the city of New Orleans, by gutting its Pulitzer Prize-winning paper and refusing to let anyone else buy it — is reprehensible.

  • Molly MacPherson

    “But left unsaid is that we would not be able to produce a seven-day-a-week newspaper” given the newspaper business’ trend lines, Newhouse said. 
    Ridiculous! The State of Vermont, roughly twice the size of New Orleans, supports TEN (10!) vibrant daily papers. http://www.vtliving.com/newspapers/index.shtml

  • Anonymous

    But you should be afraid, Steve Newhouse. You developed your formulas and your models in a vacuum. You neglected to consider the reactions of your customers and your competitors. Your fiery descent has already begun. You’ve started losing subscribers, as I’m sure you know, and the real hemorrhage won’t begin until September. Print subscribers will flock to the Advocate. Others will grudgingly get their news digitally, but not from you – sure, they may read an article here and there but there will be no loyalty to nola.com. You’ll be one of many sources of local news on the web – among all the radio stations and TV stations, not to mention the more credible local news sites like Uptown Messenger, The Lens and the new WWNO publication. You are so screwed. Sell!

  • Daniel Thompson

    When the New Orleans Advocate starts printing, the readers will vote with their dollars. I would love for Mr. Newhouse to explain how he plans on producing good journalism when all of his best reporters have left. We will be left with a human interest rag that will be a shadow of the 175 year old Picayune. It’s a shame that a slimeball with little idea of how the city actually works is killing off one of its institutions, but the Newhouses can all take Ricky Matthews and go jump into a lake for all I care. Soon I will be getting a 7-day-a-week Advocate to my door and will be canceling my subscription to the Sometimes Picayune. 

  • http://twitter.com/jacksonorleans1 jackie jackson

    that’s alright..we got a new newspaper coming to town..so bye bye…you might as well leave now…there’s the door don’t let it hit you in the butt!!!

  • Anonymous

    Why not even consider offers to sell to wealthy locals who want to extend the life of the seven day print model?

  • Anonymous

    So typical of Newhouse to deny what is plainly evident: NOLA.com DOES suck by any standards of measurement. And to lay off the accumulated years of knowledge and experience in the TP’s editorial department flies in the face of his claims that the resulting publication, whether print or digital, will maintain quality.  Between his lines of his blather. ” . . . that we would not be able to produce a
    seven-day-a-week newspaper” given the newspaper business’ trend lines,” really means that the Newhouses cannot continue to increase their wealth at the sustained levels they demand. Nothing he or his henchman, Ricky Matthews, says passes the “pants on fire” test. It’s all about greed. And that’s the real truth.