By: Rebecca Theim
When former journalists and alumni of the New Orleans Times-Picayune heard the news about the imminent changes at The Plain Dealer, our hearts broke for Cleveland.
Both newspapers are owned by New York-based Advanced Publications, a chain of nearly three dozen dailies and weeklies stretching from Portland’s Oregonian to Staten Island, New York’s Advance. (Advance and its sister company, Condé Nast — publisher of The New Yorker, Vogue, Vanity Fair and other high-profile magazines — are owned by the billionaire Newhouse family.) For decades, Advance newspapers have been among the most stable in the United States, with a hands-off management philosophy that generally allowed local publishers to run papers as they saw fit and a formal and highly unusual job security pledge that helped to retain employees by promising never to render them jobless.
As we all now know, that began to change in 2009, initially at Advance’s eight smallish papers in Michigan. The company slashed staff there, reduced editions from daily to two-to-four a week, and sought to drive readers to its universally derided websites.
Although Times-Picayune employees were certainly aware of what had occurred in Michigan, most felt New Orleans would be different. The 175-year-old newspaper is, after all, older than the tradition-bound city’s other famous institution, Mardi Gras. And the Picayune was widely lauded (four Pulitzer Prizes), universally beloved (largely for its heroic coverage of the aftermath of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina), and perhaps most important in the eyes of the Newhouse family, consistently profitable.
Yet shortly before midnight on May 23, that confident denial began unraveling when The New York Times broke a story on its website that the Picayune would be the next Advance paper subject to the company’s “digital first” strategy. The following four-and-a-half months were a blur of protests, rallies, petitions, letter-writing campaigns and yard signs. The New Orleans Saints billionaire owner Tom Benson offered the buy the newspaper, while everyone from liberal actor Ed Asner (TV’s newspaper editor "Lou Grant") to conservative suburban Congressman David Vitter publicly condemned the changes. But Advance was unmoved. “We have no intention of selling, no matter how much noise there is out there,” Advance.net Chairman Steven Newhouse declared to The New York Times in mid-June. About 30% of the newspaper’s total staff was cut, including almost one-half of its newsroom. Beginning Oct. 1, the previously daily newspaper began being printed on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.
So, New Orleans has been where Cleveland is now, and we feel your pain. Your experience no doubt will be different in important ways, mainly because you saw it coming, but I get no satisfaction in advising that you’re still in for a wrenching ride. One would hope Advance learned some valuable lessons from its very poorly managed New Orleans experience, but having grown accustomed to seeing companies and millionaires (not to mention billionaires) behaving badly, I wouldn’t hold my breath. Based on what we saw at our revolution, below are eight things you can expect:
1. Skulking around. Yes, you know something bad is coming, but The Plain Dealer’s management still has a lot of sensitive and emotional decisions to make, including who will be fired and who will be spared, when it will happen and how everyone will be told. Based on the New Orleans experience, expect off-site, super-secret meetings from which employees — even those not in attendance — may end up divining their own fates. For example, The Times-Picayune’s two longtime managing editors, Peter Kovacs and Dan Shea, basically deduced they were in trouble because they weren’t invited to said top-secret meetings their colleagues were attending. As a privately held company, Advance is required to disclose very little about its business, and generally declines to voluntarily share information, no matter how nicely — or often — a community asks. So scores of inscrutable, seemingly bone-headed decisions will be made in those meetings — and never explained to anyone other than a handful of executives.
2. Your own twisted memes. Ostensibly unrelated places, utterances and events will take on their own, usually slightly perverse, meanings. For example, those super-secret meetings occurred in New Orleans at the super-luxury Windsor Court Hotel, which is also where The Times-Picayune’s new publisher, Ricky Mathews, stayed when he made the trek from his Gulf Coast home. “Ensconced at the Windsor Court” became a favorite phrase of derision for the seemingly out-of-touch management team. In Page One opinion pieces and statements about the changes, management often referred to the coming “robust content” or “more robust newspapers” — a word choice that only served to make “robust” the new way of expressing anything but.
The most poignant meme became the symbol “-30-”, the traditional journalistic “end of story” notation. When the axe fell in New Orleans on June 12, employees used it to simply, yet powerfully, communicate via social media that they were one of the more than 200 who would lose their jobs. Logging on to Facebook that day was to witness a digital death watch. The symbol later became the name of the non-profit created to raise money for employees losing their jobs.
3. Firings — and “unfirings.” Times-Picayune management was apparently so confident that everyone in the newsroom would be thrilled to join the bold new move that they were taken completely off-guard when at least 14 employees asked to stay instead said, “Uh, no, thank you.” This surprise exodus, which included a number of the organization’s most well-regarded journalists, in turn prompted management to “unfire” at least 10 employees who already had been told they would be losing their jobs. And then there were the just completely nonsensical layoffs. These included Brett Anderson, the James Beard Award-winning restaurant critic (in a city where food is big business and generates big advertising dollars), and Religion Editor Bruce Nolan, the an extraordinarily youthful 41-year veteran widely regarded as the most-gifted writer at the paper. Both were ultimately unfired. Anderson is now on a prestigious Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University and undecided about whether he’ll return. Nolan, a high school classmate of longtime Editor Jim Amoss, ultimately declined to stay, largely because the offer to do so wasn’t extended until three months after he was told he had to go.
4. Youth Movement. Rick Edmonds, an analyst with the non-profit Poynter Institute, penned an analysis in June that concluded Advance’s moves only make financial sense if its newspapers purge experienced, higher-paid employees and replace them with younger, cheaper staff. That means The PD, as the Picayune did, will lose many of its most experienced reporters, photographers, copyeditors, illustrators and designers. (The average tenure of laid-off Times-Picayune employees who have applied for assistance from dashTHIRTYdash is 20.6 21.6 years.) In turn, the newspaper has hired a number of very young staffers, several who have only an internship or year or two of work experience under their belts.
5. New offices with a “Google/Nike kind-of vibe.” Because The Plain Dealer’s headquarters were built in only 2002, you may not see this, but most NOLA Media Group employees will move in early 2013 to penthouse offices in a luxury high-rise on the city’s riverfront. The move seems to make little sense for a supposedly financially taxed organization with a perfectly serviceable building able to comfortably accommodate its employees. Speculation, however, is that the decision has more to do with generating some kind of legally significant distance from the newspaper’s longtime headquarters — and from any potential lingering liability related to its now-revoked job security pledge — than with creating what Mathews told the city’s tech community would be a “Google/Nike kind-of-vibe work environment.”
6. Losing “control of the narrative.” At that same tech community gathering in June, then-NOLA.com Editor James O’Byrne seemed to suggest that the company lost control of its message because The New York Times beat the company to the punch and broke the news about the coming changes. Given that the PR blunders continued to pile up like garbage on Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras for weeks afterward, it didn’t surprise anyone that the message had spun out of the company’s control. The shock, instead, was at the company’s surprise that it did — and that management thought it simply could dismiss or ignore the community’s vociferous and sustained outrage.
7. Shattered friendships and damaged reputations. Although I’ve been gone from the Picayune for almost 20 years, I personally know of several decades-long friendships that have completely disintegrated over the changes. Another laid-off employee reports that her relationship with a relative who kept his job at the paper is strained, although both have made efforts to prevent that from happening. Colleagues who literally spent their entire careers working side-by-side no longer speak. No one’s reputation has taken more of a battering than Amoss’, a “lifer” who earlier had been named “Editor of the Year” by both the National Press Foundation and Editor & Publisher magazine. “There are reporters who worked with Amoss for years who feel that he has betrayed them and should have retired rather than participate in the restructuring,” the American Journalism Review reported over the summer.
8. Touching and generous acts of kindness. Before we even had a chance to formally create a charity to raise money for employees losing their jobs, restaurateurs, bar owners and shop owners called, asking how they could help. State legislators joined with philanthropic activists and business leaders to underwrite production of 1,500 “Save the Picayune” signs that then dotted lawns throughout the region. A night club, restaurants, artisans, a supermarket, musicians, a design firm, rental companies and the Cleveland Scene of New Orleans contributed or subsidized venues, food, drink, entertainment, linens, illustrations, ads and auction items for a fundraiser/commemoration of the daily newspaper. Newspaper alumni flew in from 10 states spanning from Hawaii to New York to attend the event and show their support. Anderson Cooper, Ellen DeGeneres, Hoda Kotb of “The Today Show,” and dozens of other national celebrities, news organizations and ordinary people donated experiences and items for the auction. Retirees and employees losing their jobs joined with newspaper subscribers in contributing literally thousands of dollars to those losing their jobs.
Not a man predisposed to idle hyperbole, Nolan, the newspaper’s former religion editor, characterized the outpouring of support as “the most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen.” He wasn’t alone in his amazement.
Rebecca Theim is a former staff writer with The Times-Picayune and founder of dashTHIRTYdash, the non-profit that raised awareness about the changes at the newspaper and money for employees who lost their jobs.