A year after daily publication ceased in Alabama and New Orleans, media market is ‘fractured’

B.E. Mintz is attuned to the irony: After the 176-year-old New Orleans Times-Picayune ceased daily publication a year ago this week, “people took the position, ‘I’m so angry that I have to read the newspaper online, that I’m going to go read my news somewhere else online,’” he said.

Mintz is editor and publisher of NOLA Defender, a 3-year-old news and arts website. Not coincidentally, he said, the site’s readership has doubled and its advertising revenue has increased by more than 50 percent since the T-P’s cutbacks were announced.

Besides New Orleans, the communities of Huntsville, Birmingham, and Mobile, Ala., and Pascagoula, Miss., also lost their daily newspapers on Oct 1, 2012, as part of a radical “digital-first” restructuring by Advance Publications, the nation’s second-largest privately held media company. After publishing daily for a combined total of more than 500 years, the papers became primarily digital operations augmented by less frequent print papers. (Since those restructurings, Advance rolled out similar changes at its newspapers in Syracuse, N.Y., Harrisburg, Penn., Cleveland and Portland, Ore.)

The Advocate’s New Orleans edition next to the Times-Picayune on a newsstand in Metairie, La., last September (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

I’m a former reporter with The Times-Picayune and last year became deeply involved in the unsuccessful effort to save the daily newspaper. I subsequently wrote a book, being published this month, about that battle and the dynamics roiling the newspaper industry that provoked those changes.

For this report, I interviewed 17 residents, journalists, businesspeople and academicians living and working in New Orleans and the three Alabama communities.

All but one — a Times-Picayune reporter — said their communities now receive print products with a marked reduction in enterprise and investigative reporting.

“On a day-to-day basis, you can tell a difference in what’s not getting covered,” said Chris Roberts, a former editor and reporter at newspapers in Alabama and South Carolina, who now is a journalism professor at the University of Alabama and wrote a chapter about the Alabama component of Advance’s digital-first initiative for a forthcoming book edited by mass communications faculty at Louisiana State University.

The past year has been “a black hole for news in this city,” says Doug Jones, a Birmingham attorney who rose to national prominence for reopening and successfully prosecuting the infamous 1963 16th Street Church bombing case while serving as U.S. Attorney for the Northern Alabama district.

Jones said he and his wife are contemplating dropping their Birmingham News subscription in favor of the still-daily Tuscaloosa News, based some 60 miles south, which is testing the competitive waters by offering subscriptions in some Birmingham neighborhoods.

“We’ve got some good journalists who still write for al.com, and on occasion, they’ll come up with some great coverage and analysis, but I think they’re probably more frustrated than the readers at what all has transpired,” he added. “All is not completely lost, but it’s getting there, if they don’t watch out.”

“It’s been a rough year on all fronts,” said Times-Picayune environmental reporter Mark Schleifstein, the only person still employed with either Advance or The Times-Picayune’s newly constituted parent company, NOLA Media Group, to speak to me on-the-record for either the book or this report. (As in the past, neither Editor Jim Amoss, who I worked under during my tenure there, nor Publisher Ricky Mathews responded to my requests for interviews.)

“As one of the remaining reporters of what was The Times-Picayune, I can say it’s now a completely different newsroom,” he added. “I think we’re holding our own in terms of our coverage, with some minor slots that need to be filled. In terms of what we hear, we’re holding our own on the circulation front, and we’re more than holding our own on the electronic front. And we’re beating the hell out of the competition.”

Competition was something Advance once rarely worried about – the late S.I. “Sam” Newhouse, the company’s founder, targeted monopoly markets for his newspaper acquisitions and most have remained the top outlets in their communities. But the disastrous way the T-P’s employees, readers and advertisers learned of the changes in May 2012 — courtesy of The New York Times — led to outrage that fueled and emboldened other media outlets.

Since then, New Orleans billionaire John Georges acquired the Baton Rouge-based Advocate and aggressively expanded the New Orleans edition that its previous owners had launched in response to The Times-Picayune’s cutbacks.

Other New Orleans news organizations, like alternative weekly The Gambit, nonprofit investigative and public policy site The Lens, public radio station WWNO and hyperlocal sites Uptown Messenger and Mid-City Messenger report moderately-to-substantially larger audiences since the Picayune went to a reduced print publishing schedule.

“Because the news environment here is in transition and is still sorting itself out, people are willing to look at all kinds and different news sources, and that benefits us,” said WWNO General Manager Paul Maassen.

The communities’ alternative newspapers report significant growth and have either expanded or plan to do so in 2014. “We’ve definitely seen a big uptick in the past two quarters, and I think some of that is attributable to the fact that the daily is gone,” said Rob Holbert, co-publisher and managing editor of Mobile’s biweekly Lagniappe, which plans to go weekly in 2014. “It’s just changed the landscape around here, and the market has really expanded for us. If [the Press-Register] is abandoning the print market, we’re certainly willing to take it.”

The changes in the daily newspapers’ operations have also spawned media alliances. WWL-TV, New Orleans’ dominant station, has partnerships with The Advocate and the Messengers, while WVUE-TV, the region’s Fox affiliate, is allied with NOLA.com, and The Lens with WWNO. In addition, The Lens makes its reports available for free to outlets that publish them with attribution, and its work has appeared in the pages of both The Advocate and The Times-Picayune.

In Birmingham, al.com has an alliance with Alabama Public Radio, while alt-weekly Weld for Birmingham has a distribution partnership with the Tuscaloosa News and content partnerships with the region’s CBS TV affiliate and Birmingham Mountain Radio.

Advance’s experiment came in response to declining subscriber and ad revenues that U.S. newspapers have experienced for at least a decade. The most recent report it filed with industry group Alliance for Audited Media showed the newspaper’s average Sunday print circulation declined 9 percent, to 140,243, year over year. However, combined print and “digital non-replica” circulation – the latter which publisher Mathews told Poynter “represents average unique users of our digital apps” – climbed 13 percent, to 175,097 over the same period.

Combined average Sunday circulation at Advance’s three Alabama newspapers declined about 8 percent during the same period, with then-nascent digital edition circulation having little effect there.

Although The Times-Picayune made a number of new editorial hires, more than half of its old newsroom was laid off in the changes, while a total of more than 600 employees were cut across the three states. Those reductions are reflected in the quality of the news product both online and in print, most of those interviewed said.

“What I’ve seen, at least in this first year, is because of the reduction in resources committed to local reporting, we’ve experienced a dramatic decrease in quality news available to the community,” said Jim Aucoin, professor and chair of the Communications Department at the University of South Alabama in Mobile. “Investigative and enterprise coverage just isn’t there anymore.”

Birmingham lawyer Jones specifically criticized al.com and what he characterized as its generally superficial coverage. “You go online and there are all these teasers, but when you click on them, there are just two or three paragraphs,” he said. “And there’s no decent national coverage. Hell, we can’t even get good coverage of University of Alabama football anymore.”

Readers in highly technologically savvy Huntsville may be less troubled. “I think al.com has responded reasonably well to the increased [digital] demand by providing convenient and free online access to the state’s major newspapers,” said Eletra Gilchrist-Petty, associate professor of Communication Studies at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. “Overall, there do appear to be more strengths than limitations associated with al.com.”

Since the change, Amoss has insisted the outlet has a reporting staff comparable in size to before the change. Pew’s State of the Media report for 2013 said the paper laid off 84 of its 171 people in the newsroom, and that “ultimately the staff, including 8 people already working at NOLA, grew back to roughly 150. So the staffing loss was 20 to 30 positions together with some changes in the mix of job status and duties.” Amoss wrote in January that the staff stood at 155, a figure at odds with both my reporting for the book and Ryan Chittum’s reporting in CJR.

In that same piece, Amoss detailed six major investigative and enterprise reports NOLA.com had recently produced, and highlighted its state capital, arts, dining, entertainment, sports and community coverage. “Readers had to accept on faith our assurances that we would maintain the journalistic excellence they have come to expect from us. … Now that we have more than three months under our belt, you have a basis for judging our performance.”

New Advocate owner Georges has launched the country’s most aggressive response to Advance’s changes. He has hired some 30 former Times-Picayune employees since acquiring the newspaper in late April, and recently launched a marketing campaign featuring TV advertising, along with alliances with the New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Pelicans, and LSU’s sports teams.

“Maybe I win, and maybe I don’t, but I can tell you that I have a very long-term outlook and a very high threshold for pain,” Georges told me in a May interview for the book. But even if he achieves his home subscription circulation goal of 30,000 by year’s end, The Advocate will still have roughly one-quarter of The Times-Picayune’s current average print circulation.

“In terms of reaching the audience I felt it was important for me to stick around for, this is still the place to be,” Schleifstein said about NOLA Media Group and its far higher circulation.

Within a week on either side of Georges’ acquisition of The Advocate, NOLA Media Group launched BR, a free weekly tabloid circulated in Baton Rouge, and a newsstand tabloid available the three weekdays on which The Times-Picayune no longer publishes.

Even among fellow privately held companies, Advance is particularly secretive, so any financial analysis of digital first’s early success is speculative.

Ken Doctor, consumer news industry analyst for global research and advisory firm Outsell, has estimated that Advance has slashed 25 percent of its expenses and retained 90 percent of its advertising revenue. This “means that strategy is working pretty well” from a financial perspective, he told me in a May interview for the book, and affirmed this week.

However, “a year out is probably a little too soon to tell” anything meaningful, said Poynter business analyst Rick Edmonds. “This is not something that was done for an immediate payoff.”

Thus, the big question remains: Will New Orleans’ advertisers migrate online with NOLA.com, and support two newspapers and numerous online and broadcast outlets?

“The immutable fact is that if there wasn’t enough print advertising for one daily newspaper a year ago, that’s even truer today,” Gambit Editor Kevin Allman said. “So now, we have two newspapers competing for the same pot of advertising money and the same diminishing subscriber base. The next big battle will be the ground war for advertisers and subscribers.”

Gambit publisher Margo Dubos observed that The Times-Picayune has so far held on to the lucrative preprint advertising supplements. But interviews I conducted for the book showed that the reduction of print editions has prompted at least four major advertisers to significantly reduce overall advertising spending with NOLA Media Group, or to stop advertising in the company’s products altogether.

“The actions they have taken over the past months are driving us away from their print publication,” Rick Haase, president of New Orleans-headquartered Latter & Blum, Inc., the largest real estate agency in the Gulf South and The Times-Picayune’s largest advertiser in the real estate category, told me for the book.

“We have always supported local businesses and will continue to do so, but if [NOLA Media Group] thought cutting its number of print editions was going to drive our print spend into the NOLA.com digital space, they made a serious error. We think they are really hurting themselves.”

Executives with three other formerly major advertisers offered similar assessments.

But if local advertisers embrace digital advertising, another irony may arise.

NOLA Media Group “legitimized online news overnight,” said Robert Morris, founder of the Messengers, which he said have doubled both unique visitors and ad revenues since The Times-Picayune announcement in the spring of 2012. “They had a monopoly on print newspapers, and then all of the sudden, directly because of the action they took, we now have two newspapers in the city.

“The market was impenetrable, but now it’s completely and utterly fractured.”

Rebecca Theim grew up in Huntsville and was a Times-Picayune reporter from 1988-94. Her book, Hell and High Water: The Battle to Save the Daily New Orleans Times-Picayune, published by Pelican Publishing Co., will be in bookstores later this month.

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