Times-Picayune changes a result of financial losses, says publisher

The Wall Street Journal | Gambit Weekly | Oxford American | New York Post | NJ.com
The intense community resistance to the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s plan to cut print frequency and staff “is largely based on the widespread misconception that the Times-Picayune is doing fine financially,” The Wall Street Journal’s Keach Hagey writes, based on a conversation with Nola Media Group President Ricky Mathews.

In fact, he says, the decision to slash the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s print publication to three days a week from seven was driven by falling print ad revenue that threatened to put the paper into the red. Print ad sales fell 23% in 2009, 10% in 2010, 7% in 2011 and 10% so far in 2012.

“With a 10% revenue decline this year, it could be not profitable real quick, unless you drastically cut costs,” Mathews told Hagey.

Mathews’s decision to share numbers with The Journal seems to represent a tweaked message from the paper’s parent company, Advance: “The Times-Picayune is profitable,” Advance.net Chairman Steven Newhouse told me last month. The company was trying to get ahead of the inevitable declines in print revenue every newspaper was facing, he said. Advance wanted 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.” (Poynter’s Rick Edmonds looked at the business case for the changes in June.)

Hagey also writes about the dangers facing the company from the changes: “The Times-Picayune had a near-monopoly in print but now will have to compete for ad dollars against national giants like Google, Yahoo, Groupon and Autotrader and against local media such as the websites of TV stations,” she writes. Mathews tells her revenue at Nola.com is growing:

Online revenue at Nola.com has grown 20% in the past year, Mr. Mathews says. He wouldn’t say from what base, only that the share of ad revenue that comes from online is bigger than the industry average of 13.5%, as estimated by Newspaper Association of America. “Our goal is to be at 50/50 split between print and digital revenues within five years,” Mr. Mathews says.

One of those competitors is the Baton Rouge Advocate, which will begin printing a New Orleans edition. The Advocate has hired several former Times-Picayune staffers, Advocate publisher David Manship tells Gambit Weekly’s Kevin Allman.

That “team on the ground” includes not only salespeople, but new editorial hires, several of whom are Times-Picayune alumni. The New Orleans bureau will be helmed by Sara Pagones, a T-P veteran reporter and editorial page writer. Kari Dequine Harden, a former weekend reporter who created a stir with an open letter to Times-Picayune management saying that the paper had “the worst news website known to man,” has been hired as well. (Gambit has also learned of a third high-profile hire from the T-P ranks — a multi-award-winning reporter with a familiar front-page byline.)

The Advocate has “between 800 and 1,000 new subscribers in the New Orleans metro area,” Allman writes; Manship tells him he’d “like to get 20,000.” The Advocate won’t “initially” hire arts writers but will expand arts coverage in its Sunday magazine. It’s getting office space in town and will launch a “New Orleans edition” website on Sept. 21. “We haven’t had a chance to get to the real local advertisers yet, but that’s coming,” Manship says.

Former Times-Picayune reporter Chris Rose writes a bourbon-and-branch-water-tinted essay in Oxford American about the cultural resonances of the Times-Picayune changes. Rose says he left the paper after economic winds starting buffeting the staff and the website became a focus:

The preoccupation with the website was already in full bloom; “blogging” was the daily mantra, all the better if it were video. We were feeding an insatiable beast; it felt like half of my output never even made it into the paper—just the website.

Like so many others of my tenure and temperament—stubborn ancients, I suppose—web reporting is anathema to everything I love about newspapering: getting a tip, developing leads, fleshing-out the details, then telling the story.

Now it stops with the tip. Just verify (hopefully!) and post it. I didn’t write stories anymore; I “produced content.”

Hagey reports the changes made by Advance in New Orleans and Alabama, coming soon to Harrisburg, Pa., and Syracuse, N.Y., could follow at the company’s newspapers in Oregon and New Jersey. In South Jersey, three Advance papers will combine into one, NJ.com reports. The Gloucester County Times, News of Cumberland County and Today’s Sunbeam will become the South Jersey Times, Jim Cook Jr. of the South Jersey Media Group says. Penn Jersey Advance President Martin Till tells him the paper will be produced seven days a week.

“An insider” at Advance told Keith J. Kelly late last month that a thrice-weekly publishing schedule is coming to Advance’s Star-Ledger in Newark. “We have no plans at the moment,” Newhouse told Kelly.

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Comment from Mary Ann Sternberg: “Your article (about the Times Picayune and its financial problems) didn’t bother to mention that a group of local citizens had tried to buy the TP from Advance for the purpose of retaining a daily. Advance wouldn’t sell…If it was a money thing, how does that compute?”

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Thanks, Sean. Excellent point. I’ve changed the headline. –Julie Moos, Director of Poynter Online

  • Anonymous

    Might I suggest rewriting the headline on this post. Your intent is to say that the changes at the Times-Picayune are a result of the paper’s financial losses. But it could be read (as I did at first pass) that the Times-Picayune changed the result its financial records to show a loss. Who says we don’t need copy editors anymore?