Letter from New Orleans

A report on the Newhousing of the Times-Picayune

Dear Portland:

Sorry to hear about your paper. We in New Orleans got “Newhoused” a year ago, and readers of The Times-Picayune are still grousing. Advance Publications promised us, and you, that mass firings at the rebranded “NOLA Media Group” (NMG) would result in a more “robust” news product. (Among readers down here, “robust” became both a new term of sarcasm and a Twitter hashtag. A three-day-a-week paper? #Robust!)

Here, the cutbacks leaked before the bosses were ready to announce them; the city got pissed off, and that anger hasn’t ebbed. But first the readers were in shock, wondering about the future, just as they are in Portland.

You’ll still get a seven-day print product, but it won’t land on the porch every day. We got cut to a thrice-weekly publication, a decision reversed June 17. Turns out print-advertising revenue isn’t dead.

It’s all very confusing for readers. Advance will explain it to you as soon as they figure it out themselves. (Looks like there was some mix-up in Portland over whether home delivery would be three days a week or four, and they haven’t figured out subscription rates yet.) When the executives do talk to the public, believe about half of what they tell you.

Down here, the editor became the “vice president of content,” just like Oregonian Editor Peter Bhatia. Copy editors, who do the paper’s fact-checking, got axed; “quality assurance producers” were added to “ensure that every post meets search engine optimization goals.” Out went page designers; in came “curators of news,” who scrape the website for content and assemble stories for the print edition. Experienced reporters and editors with decades of institutional knowledge were fired, replaced by folks who are more Internet-friendly.

Will reporters get posting quotas? Not exactly. But reporters who manage three or four stories a day here are the ones getting stroked by bosses. Earlier this month, after the corpse of a young local teacher was recovered from a bayou, NOLA Media Group’s digital czar was crowing. “2 galleries, one of the car being pulled from the water, and a second of the memorials, have generated 863,463 page views,” he wrote in a staff memo. “We were everywhere, and we owned this story!”

Oregonian Publisher N. Christian Anderson III says Advance may sell the paper’s headquarters. Here, reporters moved into new high-tech offices atop a shopping mall and were given cellphones so they could shoot photos and video for their stories. Many of them still do fine journalism. But you can’t whack dozens of experienced people and expect the same overall quality in a newspaper.

Your future is what they are already serving up on nola.com: “rivers of news,” heavy on sports scores and entertainment and polls designed to “get people talking” in the comments section. (That means encouraging the readers to provide much of the content themselves, just like Reddit—another Advance Publications holding.) One of the most-read stories on nola.com recently was “Zombie Run Infests City Park.”

We got “NMG.” You’re getting “OMG.” It’s all very #robust.

Love, New Orleans.

Kevin Allman is the editor of Gambit, an alternative weekly in New Orleans. He lived in Portland from 2005 to 2008.

WWeek 2015

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