A few weeks have passed since the news hit regarding cutbacks at the Times Picayune and my thoughts have come together on what Slabbed has to add to the discussion since I think some very important aspects of this story have been missed. In the interim I’ve spoken with reporters at several publications since the stunning announcement was made last month via the New York Times media decoder blog that the T-P will be drastically downsizing.
First off I need to make clear that for inkophiles there is no hope as the notion of a daily printed newspaper is a figurative dead man walking. The subscribers base that is left for newspapers these days are those stuck in habit they will not voluntarily break in reading the daily paper version of the paper. Mrs Sop is one of those folks which is why we still have the Sun Herald delivered. I pick it up most mornings but I never read it as I read the news on my tablet. That does not mean I wouldn’t pay for online news as I would and have since the 1990s via the online Wall Street Journal. That aspect of this topic needs its own post though because newspapers have conditioned people to believe gathering news is free by giving their web content away for free.
Another aspect of this whole saga is that the way it went down indicates serious internal problems exist inside the Newhouse family publishing empire. There is no way to candy coat that part of it but former Newhouse employees that spoke to Slabbed indicated the current family decision makers represent the third generation of Newhouses to run the business, taking control around 5 years ago. It appears they are very intent in putting their own mark on the company. What is disturbing to me is they do not appear to have fully anticipated the management turmoil the changes have caused. Let’s review.
In 2009 Ricky Mathews was poached from The Sun Herald to run the combined operations of the three Newhouse papers in Alabama, media outlets with a combined circulation larger than the T-P’s. Mathews is a Mississippi Coast guy who broke in with his hometown paper and according to newsroom lore quickly became Roland Weeks fair haired boy, quickly rising in management eventually taking over for Weeks running the Sun Herald. He was in charge when Hurricane Katrina hit and was part of the Team that ended up winning a Pulitzer for reporting the aftermath of Katrina on the coast. He got the issues caused by the Hurricane and simply let his reporters do their jobs including making a priority of certain issues like our dysfunctional insurance market. Aside from leaving for a competitor when he took the Press Register job, I’ve not heard a disparaging word from Mathews old employees at the Sun Herald.
Mathews work at the Sun Herald also attracted notice from the third generation of Newhouse family and a person familiar with his hiring indicated to me they had him on deck well before he was hired to replace publisher Howard Bronson, who was forced out against his will. Bronson simply did not fit into the new vision for the company and the very nasty, public way his termination played out was not a harbinger of good tidings to come across the Newhouse media holdings.
Lost in the local news cycle is the fact that around the time the T-P restructuring was announced, a similar announcement was made at Newshouse papers in Alabama. The restructuring itself IMHO, had been discussed behind the scenes for several months before it was announced that Ashton Phelps was retiring in favor of Ricky Mathews, who had been tinkering with the structure of the Press Register since his arrival. In fact I think we can reasonably surmise Phelps was retired Bronson style when the senior management team concluded he would be an impediment to the coming changes.
This brings us back to Ricky Mathews, who clearly enjoys the support of the Newhouse family. The T-P is a lateral move in certain respects for Mathews as the Alabama ops are actually larger than the T-P’s. I think it is a sign the people at corporate are intent on forcing cultural changes on the company that go well beyond the structural changes. For instance Newhouse papers historically considered each other competitors and all had a huge amount of editorial latitude. For instance during the oil spill we had the T-P serving as a voice of the oil industry in areas like the drill moratorium while the Press Register was the place to go to learn about many of the bad environmental impacts caused by the corexit mixed sunken oil. The public was well served by the diversity of viewpoints. Today the three major Alabama daily papers share a reporter on the state government beat and the consensus is the arrangement works out well for profitability but not so well for covering how what happens in Montgomery impacts the local community served by the paper in Huntsville. Sources indicate to Slabbed employee morale in the various Newhouse Alabama newsrooms is terrible.
And this brings us to the management turmoil I think events clearly indicate exists at the Times Picayune. The Gambit had a story last month from which we can draw several inferences. Here is a snippet:
David Carr’s report comes after a tumultuous week in the T-P newsroom, which began after incoming publisher Ricky Mathews came to New Orleans last week and held meetings with some — but not all —Times-Picayune executives off the building’s premises.
Multiple sources have told Gambit that editor Jim Amoss and city editor Gordon Russell were in the meetings, as were sports editor Doug Tatum and features editor Mark Lorando. Managing editors Peter Kovacs and Dan Shea, the No. 2 lieutenants to Amoss, were excluded.
The article goes on to state Amoss is leaving too so the three senior editors at the T-P all hit the chop shop. Word on the street is editors and the folks working in copy are most at risk for losing their jobs. Still the announced cuts of 40 plus jobs means reporters must also be cut.
This is a new world into which the Newhouse family is taking their business and it is clear the beat journalist is endangered, especially the experienced ones. Who will Mathews keep, seasoned journalists like Becky Mowbray that sport salaries on the top end of the pay scale or newbies just starting out? Will there still be 3 guys on the Jefferson Parish beat or will it be cut? Will Mathews pull resources out of St Bernard Parish like they did Plaquemines a few years ago?
Make no mistake at the end of this we’ll have less news for consumption not more and therein lies the most damning criticism I’ve heard of the Newhouse family: They are not investing in their business. This more than anything else should tell everyone what kind of future awaits the Newhouse chain as rumor has it the family does not have a crushing debt load like Gannett and McClatchy that prevent new investment at those outlets.
Time will talk as to the wisdom of the massive changes in the offing at the T-P. IMHO the problem here is not getting rid of the daily paper, rather it is cutting the people who generate the content that everyone will miss. The bad news will trickle out soon on that front.
I’ll have a few more thoughts on this topic down the line,