by Kevin Allman
Many newsroom employees spent their Memorial Day weekend updating resumes, obtaining copies of their clips, networking by telephone and social media and following job leads in New Orleans and elsewhere.
At the meetings, Advance, which owns The Times-Picayune, will reportedly offer severance packages to some employees, while tendering job offers to others. Job descriptions will likely be revised, and those who receive offers to stay will likely have to reapply for the new positions within the newly created NOLA Media Group.
Sources also say a number of entirely new people may be hired to contribute content to the company’s online operation, particularly in the fields of sports and entertainment, which are a big part of the plan. Sports editor Doug Tatum and features editor Mark Lorando were among those included in the off-campus meetings held in the middle of the month, when the company’s new publisher, Ricky Mathews, came in to speak to senior officials.
The parameters and scope of the restructuring means those who stay with NOLA Media Group will be reporting news very differently. Reporters/content providers will move out of The Times-Picayune’s iconic building at 3800 Howard Avenue and into office space in downtown New Orleans, where they will file more frequent and likely smaller stories for NOLA.com, the paper’s online arm.
Copy editors, graphic artists and page designers at the T-P building will then take the material and use it to construct three editions of the paper each week, which will appear Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. There will be no content that is produced specifically for print, though the company may produce some special sections. (One obvious place to do so would be after next year's Super Bowl in New Orleans; if a special edition isn't produced, the game will be played Sunday, but the next newspaper will not come out until the following Wednesday.)
According to sources who were in meetings with editor Jim Amoss, the reporters/content providers have been told to gather information and post it online as it comes in, rather than filing traditional long-form stories. They will be providing updates throughout the day on NOLA.com and other platforms such as Twitter, and expected to take photos and video as circumstances warrant to augment the content they file online — though this information-gathering will supplant, not replace, the paper’s photographers.
The plan was presented to newsroom employees as a positive change, “freeing” them from being concerned about how their work would appear in the newspaper edition in terms of word length and story elements.
“We’ve been hearing the word ‘nimble’ a lot,” said one employee.
Technology skills are widely varied among existing newsroom employees. At one end of the spectrum, sports columnist Pete Finney, who is in his eighties, is known for not using email. Other, primarily younger reporters, have taken to newer newsgathering techniques, posting frequently to Twitter and liveblogging events, such as New Orleans City Council meetings.
Several weeks ago, before the uncertainty about the company’s future was known, an order came down that all reporters had to post something for NOLA.com as part of their early morning duties, providing a shot of fresh content just as the day was getting started. Those postings could take the form of a brief story, a short blog item or even a bit of listings news. “The actual content didn’t seem important,” one employee told Gambit.
Around the same time, a new policy went into place in which employees received twice-daily notices of which stories were most widely read on NOLA.com. Those reports, which were issued at 12 p.m. and 8 p.m., ranked stories by the number of web hits they’d gotten. (Gambit provides similar but less formal statistics to its editorial staff twice a month.) While nothing has been said to encourage reporters to work on “sexier” stories in order to beef up Web hits for NOLA.com, some now worry the new company will be placing greater emphasis on stories and topics that are likely to be widely read.
Other changes are afoot at MLive.com, the Newhouse papers’ online hub in Michigan and the incubator for the recent changes at NOLA.com. Last week, MLive.com rolled out a redesigned comments section under its stories. The new comments section is updates in real time, like a Facebook page, with new comments appearing on the page as they’re posted and a “Like” button for registered users to mark comments. Reporters at MLive.com participate in many of the comments threads there, answering questions and conversing with the commenters — unlike most at NOLA.com. While no edict has come down in New Orleans, Times-Picayune reporters are wondering if participating in NOLA.com’s often-contentious and sometimes-idiotic comments threads will be part of their new job descriptions.
Newhouse is privately held, and its financials are not made public. A story to be printed about the changeover in tomorrow’s Ad Age, by reporter Nat Ives, quotes Kantar Media estimates as saying The Times-Picayune made $64.7 million in print revenue in 2011, while earning only $5.7 million in Web advertising. Publishing newspapers on three ad-heavy days of the week, while expanding online presence around the clock and eliminating staff positions eems to be the company’s formula for pushing those two numbers closer together.