Will New Orleanians follow The Times-Picayune online after it cuts back on print?

Starting this fall, New Orleans will become the largest U.S. city to go without a daily newspaper, but it won’t be the first.

That distinction is held by Ann Arbor, Mich. In 2009, Advance Publications stopped printing the paper all but two days a week, cut the staff and started focusing on its website. The company expanded the model at several more newspapers in Michigan earlier this year.

The question — in New Orleans, as well as in Birmingham, Mobile and Huntsville, Ala., where Advance is doing the same thing — is whether Ann Arbor is the model that Advance should follow.

How has the online-only approach fared in Ann Arbor? And does that say anything about whether it will work in New Orleans?

Mixed results in Ann Arbor

Rick Edmonds, Poynter’s business analyst, has heard mixed assessments of Ann Arbor’s online focus. “On the one hand, they liked it enough that they did it with the rest of the Michigan papers. On the other hand, I’ve never had the impression that it’s been a real financial success, and it has the typical difficulty of trying to generate meaningful online ad revenues.”

Mary Morgan, publisher of the online-only Ann Arbor Chronicle — yes, a competitor — was more critical. AnnArbor.com’s staff has been cut, she wrote in an email, and the site has dropped features that were supposed to differentiate it:

You can find isolated community voices who offer a positive take on some aspects of the publication. However, with respect to its overall journalistic success, it’s fair to say that the general sentiment in the community ranges from disgruntled resignation to outright loathing. …

Having watched the debacle here as it continues to unfold, I find it incredible that the Newhouses would impose this on another publication, particularly one as storied as The Times-Picayune. It’s truly baffling. Or maybe not: Owners who don’t live in a community — or in the same state or region —see these publications as commodities to be optimized.

Though the Picayune’s approach is modeled on Ann Arbor’s, the city of New Orleans has more in common with the home of another experiment in curtailed circulation: Detroit.

The Detroit Free Press (owned by Gannett) and The Detroit News (owned by MediaNews) still print the papers, but they deliver only three days a week; on the other days, readers can buy slimmed-down editions at newsstands.

Edmonds said there are downsides even to that approach. Big news sometimes breaks on days when the newspapers aren’t delivered. Some older residents have complained that by the time they hear someone has died, the funeral already has occurred. (Detroit News Managing Editor Don Nauss said that could be the result of people preferring paid obits in the home-delivery editions.)

New Orleans: A newspaper city

One thing that may work in the Picayune’s favor, Edmonds said, is that it relied so heavily on its website for its Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The newspaper wasn’t published for three days; even after it resumed, the website was the central source of information for the Katrina diaspora. That may have strengthened the community’s relationship with the website.

Market research, however, shows that print still rules in New Orleans, even as the paper’s circulation has dropped by almost half since Katrina:

  • March 2005 circulation: about 285,000 Sunday, 257,000 weekday
  • March 2012: about 155,000 on Sunday, 134,000 weekday

Some of that is the typical decline of the American metro newspaper; the rest is due to the fact that the city hasn’t regained all the residents it lost in the storm. (The 2010 census put the population at 71 percent of what it was in 2000.)

But many of those who remain read the paper. The Times-Picayune had the fourth-highest market penetration in the country in 2011, reaching 65 percent of adults via print and online, according to PEJ’s State of the Media.

What makes that notable is that newspaper readership generally correlates with higher income and educational level, according to the report.

When you look at just print, The Times-Picayune has the highest market penetration among the top 50 designated market areas in the U.S., said Deirdre McFarland, vice president of marketing for Scarborough Research.

The newspaper reaches 60 percent of adults, according to Scarborough. And although 24 percent of adults visit the newspaper’s website weekly, most of them read the paper, too. The website adds only 5 percentage points to its overall reach, which Edmonds said is typical.

“It is a profoundly print habit” in New Orleans, wrote media analyst Ken Doctor:

How will its readers really adjust to the other four days week of digital-only, if they’re not strongly digital — and don’t have great digital products to consume. Big worry: Breaking the daily habit makes newspaper companies far less essential far more quickly.

Adding to the challenge is Internet access, particularly in poorer parts of the city that contribute to the Picayune’s unusually high penetration rate. According to The New York Times, 36 percent of New Orleans residents didn’t have Internet access at home in 2010.

report on broadband access concluded:

Subscribers to high-speed Internet services in New Orleans are generally white and in the higher income brackets. … This issue is about more than convenience for watching movies and listening to music; increasingly, high-speed Internet access is essential for effective education, civic engagement and economic opportunity.

And news.

Who did that report? The Center for Public Integrity, American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop and The Lens, a nonprofit news site in New Orleans.

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  • http://twitter.com/mututemple Mu Lin

    If a person has a choice between picking up a newspaper at the doorstep vs. logging on to their computer, typing in web address and clicking links around, many people would choose the easy or, lazy way, out.

  • Anonymous

    This 30-year subscriber won’t follow the Times-Picayune online, especially since each successive website rebuild / remodel seems to “dumb down” the site even further, putting up less information, making information harder to find, and generally making the page visually unappealing. Moreover, I don’t intend to follow the T-P any further whatsoever if it persists in dismantling a prize-winning, profit-making newspaper and turning it into another bit of sporadically published tabloid fluff.  I think long-term subscribers need to vote with their feet and make this move so unprofitable for Advance that either they reverse course or the Baton Rouge Advocate or a newly minted paper steps in to fill the void, because, Mr. Lange, you’re right:  these cutbacks don’t make sense. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Lange/100000489723304 Mike Lange

    Two figures really stand out. The T-P has an unheard of 65 percent market penetration and 36 percent of the residents don’t have Internet access.  Adding those up, the cutbacks don’t make sense. Sounds like the area could be ripe for another newspaper.

  • http://bleacherreport.com/users/535519-nick-p nick price

    Never thought I would live to see the day newspapers disappear from the streets of a major city.

  • http://www.facebook.com/pat.burek Pat Burek

    What needs to happen to NOLA.com in order to make it a better and more user-friendly format? You can see what people think here: https://www.voteit.com/v/GbexrTLKJp9KwTT.

  • Anonymous

    No Saturday morning high school sports? No Monday NFL reports? This is a revolting development.
    Former New Orleanian,
    jworkman

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    No problem at all!

    Steve Myers
    Poynter.org

  • http://twitter.com/charlesapple Charles Apple

    [Whoops. You have the link already. Never mind.]