Why we should defend the changes at the Times-Picayune

There has been a lot of criticism of Newhouse-owned Advance Publications since the media chain announced it was scaling back printing of some newspapers in Louisiana and Alabama, including the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, which will now only be printed three days per week, with a website picking up the slack. Some celebrity fans of the city have written an open letter asking the Newhouse family to either return to printing daily or sell the newspaper to someone who will, but the chain has refused. Are the critics right? In a blog post on the issue, Digital First Media CEO John Paton makes a strong case that the Times-Picayune has to find some way forward in a digital world, as all newspapers do: There is no going back.
Although the changes announced by Advance affect daily newspapers in Alabama and other states, shutting down the daily printing for the Times-Picayune has attracted the lion’s share of attention, in part because of eulogies written by New Orleans fans like David Carr, a media writer for the New York Times (who initially broke the news the paper would no longer be printing daily and would also be laying off staff). Critics say the bond between New Orleans and its printed newspaper is different than it is in other towns and cities, as a result of incidents like the disastrous flood of 2005.

Change is coming, whether newspapers like it or not

Carr and others have tried to make the case that having a daily newspaper in print — rather than just an online operation — makes a crucial difference in how journalism is practiced in New Orleans, and they point to the low penetration of Internet access in the region. But Paton, who recently took the helm of Digital First Media (the parent company of newspaper owner Media News Group) after turning around the bankrupt Journal-Register Co. chain, argues Newhouse had no choice but to make some drastic moves in New Orleans and elsewhere, as print advertising revenue continues to dwindle. As Paton puts it:

An old and distinguished business in New Orleans has seen more than half of its revenue disappear in five years and has decided to change how it conducts business — before it goes out of business . . . The business is not alone in its problems. Everyone they know in the same industry has the same problems. Everyone knows something has to change.

Much of the coverage has focused on the way Advance communicated (or miscommunicated) the news, the departure of some key staffers from the Times-Picayune and other newspapers, and also the fact that the chain’s websites — including NOLA.com, which is expected to pick up coverage from the no-longer-daily paper — are underwhelming in the extreme when it comes to being bastions of local journalism. Some reporters have also been offered online jobs with odd titles such as “buzz reporter,” which hasn’t exactly helped to dispel such concerns.

No one knows what the right solution is

In his defense of the changes, Paton acknowledges the chain communicated poorly, didn’t have its new digital assets in shape before it made the announcements, let some key writers go when it shouldn’t have, and made other mistakes that “chew[ed] up a lot of goodwill.” But despite those failings, Paton — whose own chain has made some dramatic changes at many of its newspapers in an attempt to deal with a decline in ad revenue — says he supports Newhouse and its desire to try something different:

I support them because their industry is my industry and it will not survive without dramatic, difficult and bloody change. And like them I am willing to do what it takes to make our businesses survive.

In a lot of ways, the criticism triggered by Newhouse’s moves is similar to the backlash some other newspapers have faced for using outsourcing services like Journatic,¬†which was attacked recently after using fake bylines on some of the content it provided to papers like the Chicago Tribune. As I argued in both a post on the topic and a segment on WNPR earlier this week, newspapers of all kinds are trying to find whatever means they can to cut costs, since they are facing an almost unprecedented decline in advertising revenue. Some are trying paywalls, some outsourcing: No one is sure of the right answer.
Could Newhouse have done a better job of handling the printing changes at the Times-Picayune and other papers? Almost certainly. And it remains to be seen whether the chain will actually devote the kind of resources to NOLA.com and its other online properties that they require (although it should be noted the Times-Picayune published online only for several days during the floods of 2005 and later won a Pulitzer Prize for its work). But it is no different from any other newspaper owner, all of whom are trying to find a way of salvaging what they can from the wreckage of their former business model. Trying to return to the glory days of old just isn’t an option.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Zert Sonstige