“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.”
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.