The Times-Picayune’s digital-first strategy is working, the publisher said at a conference Tuesday.
His comments come after the paper switched in October from seven days of print editions to three days a week. The move was publicly criticized by residents in the city and has been the source of much discussion in the journalism industry.
But, Ricky Mathews, publisher of The Times-Picayune and president of NOLA Media Group, said the change was needed and is going well.
“This is a 50 chapter book,” he said. “The first chapter was we decided to make a bold change. This is chapter two. So far, so good, but we’ve got a lot to learn. Hopefully as a result of things that are successful for us and the mistakes we make, you can learn from that.”
He and Jim Amoss, vice president of content for NOLA Media Group, were guest speakers Tuesday at the Key Executives Mega Conference, being held in The Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans. The Inland Press Association, the Local Media Association and the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association joined forces to put on the conference, which attracted more than 500 publishers, editors, sales directors and other media representatives.
Mathews said average daily circulation grew about 1 percent from the third quarter of 2012 (before the print change) to the fourth quarter in 2012 (after the change). Average Sunday circulation is flat. It’s not a huge growth, but Mathews said the paper’s circulation had been tracking down four percent to seven percent the past few years.
“We’re not kidding ourselves,” he said. “We’re trying to slow the decline.”
However, the numbers are dramatically climbing online and on mobile. NOLA.com had 3.4 million unique visitors a month in 2011. In 2012, it had 4.2 million. NOLA.com’s mobile platforms combined had more than 12 million page views in December 2012.
“Our readers have a voracious news appetite and we have to feed it,” Amoss said.
That task falls to the newsgathering operation.
“And let me dispel the notion that we have gutted our newsroom,” Amoss said.
He said the paper went from 181 staffers to 155. The organization, he said, also reinvigorated itself by hiring experienced journalists who were well versed in the digital world.
Mathews said, “One of the fundamental changes in the newsroom is our reporters and photographers no longer live in a print world. They are competing in the digital space in ways we’ve never done before.”
Added Amoss, “Our goal as journalists is to focus on our audience, to engage with them, to respond to them. That requires a culture change on the part of everyone in the newsroom.”
The company was split to further promote the idea of “digital first.” The NOLA Media Group includes content, human resources, sales and marketing employees. In January, it moved to the top two floors of One Canal Place in downtown New Orleans.
“We felt like the physical move was extremely important,” Mathews said. “We wanted to change a culture and move away from the print-centric culture.”
The newsroom is a reflection of the change. Mathews on Tuesday gave conference attendees a photo tour of the newsroom. The outside walls are glass windows and provide a 360 degree-view of the city.
Reporters have MacBooks and iPhones, but don’t have assigned desks.
“It helps control clutter,” Mathews said. “We worked hard to make it feel clean and be as paperless as possible.”
The newsroom also has a video studio. Mathews said they hired videographers and people with a TV background to help produce content.
The space also focuses on collaborative efforts, with several meeting spaces, white boards and creative spaces.
The collaborative efforts paid off during the Super Bowl, when NOLA.com’s coverage racked up 1.9 million page views in two weeks. It published 614 stories, 1,317 photos and 93 videos.
The Super Bowl, Amoss said, is just one example of coverage NOLA.com plans to continue providing.
“Our embracing of the digital future is in no way a diminishment of the kind of journalism we’ve always been committed to as a news organization,” Amoss said.
Carlie Kollath Wells is a New Orleans-based freelance reporter. She founded NewinNOLAblog.com, a website for new residents in New Orleans, and previously worked for the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Retailing Today and Drug Store News.