Critics ask if Times-Picayune, other Advance papers are ready for their new digital focus

Forbes | Reinventing the Newsroom | Newsonomics | The New York Times

There's been much consternation about the stop-printing-daily part of the news from The Times-Picayune and Advance Publications' three Alabama papers. But what of the "exciting changes" — the new emphasis on digital? There are skeptics.

The goal isn't bad, writes John McQuaid, who used to work at the Picayune, but Advance has so far fumbled efforts to integrate its legacy and online operations.

The company, McQuaid writes, "has pursued a web strategy that is only lightly tethered to newsgathering." Its websites often combine information from several newspapers and "are not very attractive and are notoriously difficult to navigate." (Wade Kwon Storified reader reaction to the Alabama papers' bloggy design after it debuted recently.)

At the TP, the intrinsic clunkiness has improved somewhat of late; but in spite of all the bold talk, jargon and corporate branding going on around online news, Advance has yet to provide a clear sense it’s committed to making a systematic move to the online news ecosystem, or that it “gets” digital news at all beyond the crude basics: more blogging, tweeting, video, mobile.

The papers are following the "Ann Arbor model" with this transition. In 2009, Advance's Ann Arbor News in Michigan became, a new website with a twice-weekly print product.

Micheline Maynard, who lives there, calls "a constantly updated blog, which gives equal play to impaled cyclists and rabid skunks as it does to politics and crime."

Jason Fry, a member of Poynter's adjunct faculty, thought the Ann Arbor plan was "unfortunate but sound when announced, but I had to revise that once I saw how thin and generic felt — it’s journalism on the cheap, with crummy materials making blueprint irrelevant., the Times-Picayune’s website, has always looked and felt cookie-cutter despite repeated redesigns — a crying shame given it represents America’s liveliest city."

Ken Doctor calls the Times-Picayune shift "a forced march to digital."

I’d call it a forced march because it doesn’t look like the Times-Picayune, or its new successor, the NOLA Media Group, is yet ready for the digital transformation. It has been making a digital transition, and there's a big difference between the two. It doesn’t have a digital circulation strategy yet in place; though about a fifth of U.S. dailies do. Digital circulation is key to making this work, so that core print readers become more likely to transition with the enterprise — and keep paying their monthly subscription bills. The Times-Picayune did launch an iPad app in April, though it’s clearly in beta, with four of the same stories repeated this morning on the iPad version home page.

Doctor doesn't argue that digital transformation is unnecessary; he just wonders if Advance has its timing right: "The creation of community journalism — in tradition or transition or transformation — demands readiness," he writes.

Some of the locals are not ready for this. Thursday night in New Orleans, according to The New York Times' David Carr and Christine Haughney, some town swells gathered at the home of a Times-Picayune board member to discuss ways to keep the paper as-is or even buy it. Steven Newhouse, Advance's president, told Carr and Haughney that the paper is not for sale.

“We are very bullish on our future in New Orleans,” he said. By creating enhanced print products three days a week, he expects to protect that ability of the newsroom to create quality journalism while using the Web to compete in a changed news cycle.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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