by Kevin Allman
“We did some research going into this effort, and we knew what we were doing was going to be culturally traumatic,” NOLA Media Group president Ricky Mathews told a group of New Orleans tech industry professionals Wednesday evening.
Mathews and NOLA.com editor James O’Byrne were the guests at a small after-work group hosted by entrepreneur and real estate developer Sean Cummings. Cummings had invited the techies to Loa, the bar in his International House hotel, for a meet-and-greet where Mathews and O’Byrne could explain the NOLA Media Group’s strategy to shift to a three-day-a-week Times-Picayune and a beefed-up online presence at NOLA.com in a new digitally-focused company.
Word of the digital plan had leaked out before the paper had planned to announce it (ironically, in digital form -- a blog item by The New York Times’ David Carr), and O’Byrne and Mathews were still batting cleanup, trying to get hold of what Mathews called “the master narrative.” Despite the civic shock, Mathews said, the NOLA Media Group had known all along that cutting back The Times-Picayune would be a tough sell in a traditional (if not hidebound) city that loves its institutions -- even if it doesn’t always support them.
“We could have had this play out exactly the way we wanted to, which is announce a new company and talk to your employees simultaneously, and we’d still be in the same spot -- with a really visceral reaction from the community,” Mathews said. “The way to change that is to be talking. I’ve been talking till I don’t have a voice any more, explaining to people what we’re doing.”
(None of that talking has been done in The Times-Picayune newsroom, where 48 percent of the employees were given severance papers last week; 200 people from around the company are being let go. Mathews and O’Byrne have yet to address the staff in person, though Mathews said he had met recently with Mayor Mitch Landrieu for “about three hours, and he [Landrieu] got it immediately.”)
[UPDATE, June 21, 1:15 pm: A source in the mayor's office said the office "wouldn't characterize the meeting in those terms, either in the amount of time spent or in the mayor's takeaway (from the meeting)."]
“This is an enterpreneurial effort on our part,” O’Byrne told the New Orleans tech group, which was enjoying light hors d’oeuvres and complimentary craft cocktails by mixologist Alan Walter. “Because of the leaks that happened in The New York Times, we lost control of the narrative, and for two weeks we really had to focus all our efforts on what we had to do as a company [which] was to tell all our employees where they stood.
“I know that the layoff at The Times-Picayune seems significant,” O’Byrne added, “but it’s important to realize that we’re advertising for about 50 people in the new digital company. So you end up in a space where you’re going from about 165 down to 140. But you’re eliminating four days a week of print, and a lot of that labor existed to get that seven-day-a-week product.”
Asked why the NOLA Media Group didn’t jettison the print version of The Times-Picayune entirely, O’Byrne said, “There’s tens of millions of dollars still being spent on print. … Advertisers covet the reach we still have. They just don’t covet it seven days a week.”
“We’re extraordinarily committed to print,” Mathews emphasized. “We’re keeping the three days advertisers have told us they want. It’s going to be like getting three Sunday newspapers a week.”
The theme of the meeting, at least at the start, was the state of the newspaper industry; both O’Byrne and Mathews stressed that the current model for American newspapers was unsustainable -- “completely obliterated,” in O’Byrne’s words. But NOLA.com, the men insisted, was going strong, with millions of visits per month.
“About 20 percent of adults in this market don’t get their news and information from our website,” Mathews told the crowd. “Everybody else does. Number One website in New Orleans. Number One news and information site in the state of Louisiana.”
“Editorially speaking, people ask the question: will you still going to be able to do serious journalism?,” O’Byrne said. “Absolutely committed to doing serious journalism … There is nobody [else] that has near the number of assets covering the city of New Orleans.”
Local protests over the paper’s plans to cut back its print product have shown no sign of abating any time soon, but it was clear Mathews and O’Byrne thought the New Orleans tech community would be open to seeing the wisdom in moving to the digital future sooner rather than later -- a journalism future augmented with new office space in downtown New Orleans and augmented with the latest electronic whizbangery.
“We’re going to create a Google-Nike kind-of-vibe work environment,” Mathews told the group. “It’s our goal to create a world-class digital work environment for the journalists who are going to work for us, because we can attract the best and brightest from around the country. They’re going to want to come to New Orleans when the real story starts to get told. … We’re going to be a cutting-edge new media company with a print component that is still extraordinarily powerful. That’s our goal. So that narrative’s not been fully told yet; it will get told. You don’t tell it by being defensive, you do it by doing it.”
Mathews also addressed the issue of broadband access, which is not as widespread in New Orleans as other cities and has raised concerns over who will be able to get the new digitally focused paper. “New Orleans is quite a wired community, but there are certain parts of the community that are not wired,” he said. “So we’re going to invest money working with the Knight Foundation to begin to make a dent in it.”
After Mathews and O’Byrne made their case, they opened up the floor to questions. “What are your main concerns about the website [NOLA.com]?” O’Byrne asked.
“The venomous nature of the comments that follow articles,” a woman replied immediately. “It’s really sort of hateful at times.”
“It’s terrible,” said another man.
“We’re trying to moderate that,” O’Byrne told them. “Certainly it’s been venomous against us,” he added, jokingly.
“It’s not just you,” the woman told him. “It’s any article that’s out there.”
Another man spoke up. “I will not go to your website -- and I won’t send anybody there -- because the comments section is so vitriolic, and there’s so much thinly veiled racism --”
“That’s not their fault,” someone pointed out.
Others criticized the recent redesign of NOLA.com, which doesn’t have the look of a traditional newspaper website, but more closely resembles a scrolling, Facebook-like stream of stories. The template, by San Francisco-based Mule Design, is being rolled out across Advance Publications’ chain of newspapers. The tech crowd was, to a person, not impressed.
“The UI [user interface] -- it’s one of the worst websites I use every day. By a lot,” said one man. “If you load a page on NOLA.com, less than 15 percent of it is content. The rest of it is ads, and links to more content, and if you mouse down to get to it, there’s a giant menu that covers whatever scrap of content that remains.”
Asked what newspaper sites they liked, the crowd had plenty of answers: The New York Times, Bloomberg, the Los Angeles Times.
Cummings urged the crowd to think excellence rather than to be wed to a particular news model. “These guys get beat up pretty good,” he said. “And some of it’s deserved. The Times-Picayune hasn’t been, like, this beacon of the best in the world or the best in the nation in anything. And I hope I don’t offend these guys [Mathews and O’Byrne] by saying that, but I think that people in this community would agree with that.
“What can we be best at?” Cummings asked, rhetorically. “Not just in this relatively small city, but in a nationally consequential way. Because, like, being good for New Orleans -- that’s really not good enough. We’re better than paddlewheel boats and beignet doughnuts and heavy cream sauces.”
Some in the crowd had specific suggestions for the website’s interface, and one man suggested a contest in which various companies in the local tech sector would compete to come up with improvements. Still, the major concern of the tech crowd seemed to be not the bits and bytes behind NOLA.com, but the quality of the reporting -- or, as it’s increasingly been called, “content.”
It was the final comment, by an audience member, that seemed to sum up much of the crowd’s feelings. “I just think we all want to see you have a website which is not the website you have,” said one man, “that is worthy of the kind of journalism that came out after [Hurricane] Katrina, the [Louisiana INCarcerated] prison system series, all that. It’s not there, and I’m sure some of your journalists are waiting to see it as well.
"And that’s what it comes down to: The website just has to be worthy of the people who write for it.”