In Defense of the Times-Picayune

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

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.

It is going to sell its old line of products three times a week instead of seven times and will focus on selling a new product line. The owners believe the new product line, if successful, will ensure the business survives.

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.

So, they start on their plan. 

They don’t handle it very well out of the gate. They poorly communicate the changes to their employees and to their customers.

They mis-step by not having their new product line anything close to being ready and clearly didn’t take the right steps to protect their top talent. The very talent that can make a big difference in the new product line.

They chew up a lot of goodwill all round. 

And no one believes the owners for a half-century or so suffered having to let go employees because the business of the future cannot support the same expenses of the old. These would be the same owners who used to try and guarantee employees a job for life.

But imagine the owners’ surprise when they are lambasted for not continuing with the old line of business that is driving them out of business. 

Imagine their surprise when community leaders  – politicians, musicians, restaurant owners – demand the owners sell their business to them (for a song surely, it’s a dying business after all) because they want to stick with the old dying business.

Imagine their surprise when their industry colleagues and critics lambaste them for changing when change is what is needed.

As for me, the owners are doing what they think right. 

Could they do it better? I think they could do it a lot better but they are attempting to dramatically change their business.

And it is a change largely directed at a future that focuses on the new line of business and less on the old.

Importantly, they remain committed to their core business and mission with what resources they have.

So 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.

24 thoughts on “In Defense of the Times-Picayune

  1. Yes – it is bloody and painful but unavoidable. So many, though, are stuck in that first emotional stage Kubler-Ross describes: Dumbstruck denial. It will get worse for those who refuse to move toward acceptance.

  2. I largely agree with this — something absolutely needed to change. The survival of the institution is on the line. Doing nothing = death.

    I tend to believe, however, that a better approach would have been to spin off as a separate entity, with a core group of reporters and none of the legacy costs of the newspaper. It could have allowed the newspaper to continue publishing daily for a while longer, while perhaps allowing a smarter reinvention of the online product.

    Time will tell.

  3. Pingback: John Paton on Times-Picayune: News biz needs dramatic, difficult, bloody change « The Buttry Diary

  4. Yes,the newspaper industry has to adapt but the Advance Management long ago gave up on quality journalism across its regional papers and has settled for whatever they can just get by with.The site is not much better and will have not that many more resources to generate local news. New ownership would be better in New Orleans and the writer seems not to understand that some very prominent local folks may be willing to pay for that opportunity.

  5. Too bad your support is not based on any of the actual facts of how they have been squeezing the papers to pay for their web excesses and cover for anemic web only revenue. Too bad you have not spoken to any of the former publishers to understand the real facts of their real print operations health. Too bad you call yourself a journalist.

  6. Well, considering they’re stupid enough to still not institute a paywall if they’re going digital-first John, tell me if they’re really that committed. Maybe this is more about depreciating the hardcopy product for tax write-offs?

    • I’ll add that MediaNews went through Chapter 11 in part because its strategy, or “strategy,” also didn’t include paywalls. Traditional web ad rates continue to plunge; mobile ad rates will probably peak in a year or two. Other revenue sources, plus the “guaranteed eyeballs” that paywalls offer advertisers, have to be part of a real strategy, don’t they?

  7. I had posted a pretty lengthy, blistering and harsh critique of this, but I guess I’ll just boil it down to a few questions.

    Why no mention of journalistic quality?

    Why no mention of reduced staffing?

    Why gloss over the fact that journalists learned they would be laid off via the New York Times? (Somehow, “They poorly communicate the changes to their employees…” doesn’t quite cut it)

    Why no mention of the T-P’s insane insistence that it will be able to maintain quality while slashing the newsroom in half? Do you agree with the paper that New Orleans residents are that dumb?

    Your entire “defense” comes down to a misstatement of the true criticism of the T-P’s moves: Journalism and, by extension, the community, will suffer because of these changes. That is the real problem with these changes.

    I don’t think anyone is criticizing the owners for trying to keep their business viable. Even the most ardent journalism purist would want their media company to stay in business.

    What they are is criticizing the method and the inevitable civic and journalistic fallout from such bone-headed decisions.

    The real question is, can you defend THAT?

  8. Amen to your “sermon” !! A very brillant man once said and I quote, “insanity is doing the same old thing over and over, and expecting to get different results.” I can relate to what you wrote as I am in a related business, (church pages in newspapers). We also realized that we had to change with the times or face being left in the dust. Thank you for your very timely comments.

  9. The only place in this essay where you address the hundreds of layoffs is gently chastising us for not being sympathetic to what the paper’s owners “suffered” by “having to let go employees.” That tells me all I need to know about where your priorities lie.

    For reasons including the awkwardness of the prepositional construction, I think “fire” would be a better word choice than “let go,” and the passive voice of “having to” ducks attributing agency to the action.

  10. Everyone knows the industry needs to change and there are various ideas, some implemented, on how to do it. But I cannot understand why some think you can give the information away on the Internet, yet charge for it in print. Either charge for what you put online or use the web to get people to buy your paper, no matter how many days a week you publish.

  11. Advance Media didn’t go far enough in some respects. Newspapers have been failing partly because their product has been diminishing in quality for decades. The print product needs to be jettisoned completely and the resources devoted to it need to be transferred to the newsroom.
    I know that sounds naive to some, but I’ve mentioned a specific plan on how to approach it to Jim Brady.

  12. JC Penney also thought “change” or “die” was the challenge. Their customers wanted it one way, they defied the customer and moved to change. They lost $160 million in sales and the CEO with his is CHANGE mantra was fired.

    Listen to the customer. They pay the bills.

  13. I find this article to be ridiculous. The writer went out of his way to make the statements about the circumstances and actions all sound like generalizations and so that’s what they are. I’m sure everyone says this of the city they love but in this case it’s true – New Orleans is a special case. What creative options did Newhouse try? How do you know that those ready to buy the business want to buy it for a song? New Orleans has a sense of community that is not easily understood. The former good will between the paper and the community – and the destruction of that good will is an amazing thing. It’s unlike what has happened elsewhere in similar cases. The one thing this story has taught us – probably too late – is the cost of media consolidation and absentee ownership. Perhaps after Newhouse/Advance has completely destroyed what’s left of the Times-Picayune, those community leaders and deep pockets will start The New Orleans Daily News or some such. The shabby one-size-fits-all approach that Newhouse/Advance is taking to saving their business is an insult and lacks any creativity. And upon what principle do they refuse to sell? They won’t even entertain an offer. What arrogance.

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  18. Every time I read a story about this, I think: How many of these sanctimonious civic leaders advertised in the Times-Picayune, or even subscribed to it? There’s no free lunch.

  19. It really shows you how valuable local news organizations are when anyone (at all) thinks they have a right to criticize how someone decides to run their business. Yes, customers can voice their feelings about brands and products but in few other industries would they suggest the ownership do anything that might jeopardize their company’s future. And if the owners don’t think this is the best solution for the future of the company, what is their motive? That said, employees may very well have a decent gripe if internal communications weren’t transparent and handled gracefully.

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