New Orleans, Alabama and the future of digital journalism

As expected, Newhouse-owned newspaper chain Advance Publications announced on Tuesday a wave of layoffs at its properties in Alabama and at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans — the fallout from a recent decision by the company to stop printing those newspapers every day and instead shift its focus to the web. As sensible as this decision might seem from a financial standpoint, however, the reaction to the cuts has made it obvious that many observers see only carnage, not a transition. And while Advance has promised that it plans to devote more resources to the web, its critics say the company’s existing digital properties don’t exactly fill them with confidence.
For the most part, reaction has been dominated by the staffing cuts: in total, Advance cut more than 200 employees at the Times-Picayune, or about 32 percent of the staff — including a number of the reporters who contributed to an investigative project that just finished winning a major journalism award. The company also cut more than 400 employees at its Alabama newspapers. In several cases, including both the Times-Picayune and the Birmingham News, close to 50 percent of the existing newsroom staff were let go, as well as sales and support staff.

Some staff may be re-hired — but for what?

According to Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss — who will be running the editorial side of the new entity that includes both the online operation and the print newspaper — Advance plans to hire as many as 50 new writers for the new unit, and laid-off staff have been told they are welcome to apply for those jobs. Once that process is complete, Amoss said, the overall newsroom would only be down by about 32 bodies, but the details of what those jobs will involve are few and far between. The editor admitted that Wednesday was “a painful day for many of us,” but added:

We’re committed to being the journalistic watchdog of our communities. We’re committed to the high quality of journalism our readers have come to expect from us, produced by a formidable news staff.

To say there’s a lot of scepticism about that promise would be an understatement. To take just one example, Pulitzer Prize-winning former Times-Picayune reporter John McQuaid wrote in The Atlantic that “a weak website can’t replace a daily newspaper in New Orleans.” McQuaid noted — as others such as New York Times media writer David Carr also have — that the city will now be the largest in the United States without a daily paper. The former Times-Picayune staffer asks whether the process of “relentless downsizing” that owners like Advance have employed ultimately “degrades a newspaper’s relationship with its community, and with it those last sources of journalistic strength.”
As Carr has pointed out in his pieces on the Times-Picayune, the newspaper has a somewhat unique bond with New Orleans because of the events of 2005, when a devastating flood swamped the city and the paper continued to publish using a skeleton staff. What’s particularly ironic is that the Times-Picayune published on the web only during that time — but the experience seems to have deepened the ties that many have to the print version of the paper rather than promoting the digital version.

What is a newspaper’s duty to its community?

McQuaid’s main concern is one I tried to raise in a recent post about the ultimate purpose of a newspaper. Is it simply to make money? If it is, then shedding staff and going online only shouldn’t be anyone else’s concern but the publisher. But even Advance chairman Steve Newhouse seems to agree newspapers have a duty of some kind to cities like New Orleans. He believes that duty can be filled with a lot fewer people and a website, but plenty of people seem to disagree — and they are basing that on the existing web entities run by Advance. In his Atlantic piece, McQuaid describes them in this way:

They’re like local versions of or… they are run independently of the affiliated local newspapers, sometimes by non-journalists, and it shows… they present news in a rolling blog format, as it is fed to them, without regard to its importance or community interest. In this framework, news is primarily a click-generating engine, featuring movie listings, weather forecasts, or the doings of the Kardashians.

At its worst, McQuaid says, “this is one stop short of a content farm.” Others have pointed to the experience of readers in Ann Arbor, Michigan — where Advance shut down the printed version of the newspaper in 2009 and replaced it with a website that has a much smaller staff. Critics say the web version lacks most of the strengths of the printed newspaper, especially the news-generating or investigative aspects, which New Orleans supporters like David Carr and others argue is especially necessary in a city known for its political corruption and crime.
Advance hasn’t helped its cause any by not covering its own layoffs very well, and by not providing many details about what the web operation will look like, or what kinds of jobs it will be hiring for (some reporters have said they were offered positions with generic names such as “buzz reporter”). And Amoss did not deny a rumor that reporters would be compensated based on page views or other traffic measures, saying only that “they’ll be operating in a digital world, and how they do will be evaluated.” Not the kind of thing that is likely to dispel any lingering fears about a “content farm.”
If Advance has some kind of vision for what the future of digital-first journalism in New Orleans or Alabama looks like, it is keeping it to itself — and what we have seen of the company’s web properties doesn’t generate much optimism, as McQuaid and others have pointed out. The need for a transition from print to digital is not in doubt, but if the company wants to convince outside observers that it isn’t just cutting staff in order to prop up its historic profit margins, it’s going to have to come up with something a bit more substantial.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Zarko Drincic and Yan Arief Purwanto and George Kelly