Columbia Journalism Review on the changes at The Times-Picayune

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The Columbia Journalism Review's Ryan Chittum was in New Orleans in December to conduct interviews for a wide-ranging story about the changes at the NOLA Media Group/Times-Picayune, and Chittum's story landed last night — becoming the talk of T-P employees both past and present.

Chittum paints a picture of a newsroom where "coverage looks thin at times," "incomplete versions of stories have ended up in the paper" and "some staffers say, the quality of the report is deteriorating." Much of this is attributed to unnamed sources at the T-P, as well as those who have left. Chittum's basic thesis is spelled out early:

Ten months later, a battle still rages for the soul of the Times-Picayune, and over the meaning of what happened. Much of the media coverage of the changes in New Orleans, while critical of Advance and the paper’s leaders, has focused on the decision to cut publication to three days a week and, to a lesser extent, on the layoffs, which were devastating even by today’s standards. Those are, of course, important storylines.

Less examined: the radical change in how journalism is done at the 176-year-old Times-Picayune and what that means for the future of news coverage. And even less examined are the strange finances of the move, which help explain what to many appears inexplicable, from either a journalistic or a business point of view.

Advance argues that it is taking a difficult but bold step into a digital future, in New Orleans and across the country. But its actions make more sense with a close look at the numbers, which suggest something other than its claim of “securing a vital future for our local journalism.”

Editor Jim Amoss, who does not come off well in the tale, has already responded in the comments section of the story:

It's a shame that Ryan Chittum refused our invitation earlier this year to visit our newsroom before writing a piece filled with bad assumptions, inaccuracies and preconceived notions. If he had, he would have seen firsthand an extraordinarily talented team of journalists working to produce an excellent newspaper and digital report. He would have heard the unmistakable hum of a news operation in top form — reporting, editing, collaborating on a range of work from brief dispatches to ambitious enterprise pieces. He might have caught the excitement that comes from engaging with your readers and allowing your work to be shaped by their reactions and suggestions. He would have been hard-pressed to ignore the storytelling energy in the room and our use of the many tools to express it.

But in a conversation with Gambit this morning, Chittum — who lives in Seattle — says he tried to meet with the paper's top executives while he was in New Orleans researching the story, and that his calls and emails went unreturned until "seven weeks later," when he was submitting the finished piece to his editors at CJR. At that point, Chittum says, he was put on a conference call with Amoss, "director of metro content" Mark Lorando, and other executives with the NOLA Media Group, who invited him in to the office for a meeting. With a deadline a few days away, Chittum said, "I asked CJR if they'd fly me back to New Orleans," and the company declined to do so. (After talking with Gambit, Chittum went on Twitter to characterize Amoss' claim with the hashtags #chutzpah and #baloney.)

If true, it seems that Amoss is splitting some pretty thin semantic hairs here; Chittum admits he "refused our invitation earlier this year," but not the year before — he was in New Orleans in December 2012.

As for "bad assumptions, inaccuracies and preconceived notions," Gambit emailed Amoss and asked him to elaborate specifically as to what Chittum got wrong. If that email is returned, we'll update this post. And Chittum hasn't had his last word; he will be posting "web extras" next week of details that didn't make the original story.

"There's a lot of material," Chittum said.

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