The Times-Picayune is changing. And not necessarily for the better.
The New Orleans title finds itself simultaneously cutting jobs and struggling to keep a hold on the talented journalists who contributed so much to the paper’s prestige. Earlier this year editor Jim Amoss revealed that more than 200 employees at The Times-Picayune will lose their jobs at the beginning of October, and in the newsroom alone 84 out of 173 reporters will find themselves unemployed after September 30th. What is more, from the second half of this year the once daily title will now only be printed three times a week. The bulk of the paper’s news content will be carried by the website Nola.com, run by Nola Media Group.
The move has angered journalists and local residents alike. Reacting to the recently announced restructuring and dramatic job-losses, reporter (or “content-provider”) Kari Dequine Harden wrote an angry missive to her employers. In it, Harden takes aim at what she calls “the worst news website known to man”: Nola.com frequently buries breaking news behind fluff-pieces and older news stories, and a quick visit to the site will tell you everything you need to know about its lack of aesthetic appeal. Meanwhile, limited Internet connectivity in the region means that many of the paper’s print subscribers have been left wondering how they are going to access local news.
Arguably one of the most striking revelations to come out of the affair is that the paper is having difficulties persuading members of its journalism staff to accept positions within the new digital venture. Thanks to the dedication of many of the reporters who have decided to leave, The Times-Picayune won a Pulitzer for its coverage of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005. Now however, journalists who were willing to stay in the city when the levees broke are refusing to compromise the quality of their work for the sake of what they deem to be a flawed business model. At the core of Harden’s message to the paper’s editors and managers was anger that at the T-P real journalism and journalists were treated with contempt, leading to a decline in the standard of news information being produced by the title. Harden finishes her letter with the words: “I am writing you because I care about our product and I care about being the best reporter – sorry – content provider – I can be until I no longer have a job. But our product is suffering. Big time. And you all should be aware of that because it means losing respect in the community and losing readers and I’m not sure ya’ll want to be risking that right now.”
It is evidently a sentiment shared by some of Harden’s more high-profile colleagues. The paper’s outdoors editor, Pulitzer Prize winning Bob Marshall, turned down the chance to continue working for the website, whilst David Hammer and rising-star Brendan McCarthy decided to move to the TV station WWL-TV, where they will continue to serve the people of New Orleans. Bill Barrow, another stalwart of The Times-Picayune who has chosen not to return, voiced his concerns about writing for a title where “[the] newspaper is no longer a priority and no one knows what it is going to look like or what it will have in the way of news when it comes out.”
Clearly executives at the paper have adopted the attitude that a switch to online content is vital to the future of the publication. However, when looking at the news landscape in New Orleans, nothing could be further from the truth. The city has a love for printed newspapers that will be hard to shake; in terms of print circulation, the T-P has the highest market penetration among the top 50 designated market areas in the U.S., reaching 60 percent of adults in the area.
All in all, the paper appears to be undergoing a rather clumsy attempt at modernisation, one that prioritises cost-cutting and devalues the high-quality journalism that is surely the true currency of any newspaper. The loss of respected journalists who fear the long-term effects of newly introduced efficiency measures is a clear indication that The Times-Picayune is the latest newspaper struggling to strike a balance between cost and quality.