We Publish — Come Hell and High Water" was the slogan on T-shirts proudly worn by employees of The Times-Picayune after Hurricane Katrina. Many staffers there lost their homes and possessions in the federal floods that accompanied the storm, yet they never stopped working, bringing the story of our tragedy to the world and giving their fellow New Orleanians the news they desperately needed. In the painful months after Katrina, every issue of The Times-Picayune was a little piece of connective tissue binding a badly frayed city. For its efforts during and after Hurricane Katrina, several staffers won a 2006 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting; equally important, the paper itself won a Pulitzer for public service that same year. Nothing, it seemed, could destroy the paper or its spirit. This year, the T-P celebrated its 175th anniversary.
What Hurricane Katrina couldn't do, the Newhouse family — which owns the paper — has now done. The Times-Picayune has completed its "digital transition," moving the bulk of its resources online and putting out print editions three times a week. This past weekend marked the final days for many at the T-P, from the newsroom to the bureaus, from the support offices to the pressroom.
The transition has been wrenching, for both the city and the employees — the vast majority of whom didn't learn the paper's fate from their bosses, but from a story on The New York Times' website in May. Since then, senior management at the T-P has produced a lot in the way of hot air and corporatespeak about the "robust" new enterprise, but very little information for either their employees or their loyal readers and advertisers — ironic, given that their business is communication.
"If you were to come to our paper, you would see how much thoughtfulness" has gone into the changes, editor Jim Amoss said last week on WWL-TV. Few working for Amoss agree. Starting this week, we'll see how much thought the new "digital media" company has put into the three-times-weekly print edition — but "thoughtfulness" is hardly the word that comes to mind regarding the 200 employees who lost their jobs. Many of them were thoroughly and unnecessarily disrespected in the process of being terminated, a claim that was confirmed by many of those who were offered jobs at the newly formed NOLA Media Group.
When more retained employees than the company expected sought — and found — employment elsewhere (a testament to the paper's talent pool), the company was forced to reverse course, "un-firing" some of those they'd initially regarded as dispensable. Management's callousness continued to the last week, when a sign was hung in the newsroom directing people to the pre-press area "for those who may need boxes in the next few days." This is simply not the way we treat each other in New Orleans. Most of management's missteps (and that's a charitable description) can be laid at the feet of new publisher Ricky Mathews, who comes to the paper from Alabama. It speaks volumes about his leadership and style going forward.
Were the firings necessary? Only the Newhouse family can answer that, but the ill will created by this debacle resonates across a city that rightfully feels betrayed by out-of-town decisionmakers who have cold-heartedly and ham-handedly torn apart a cherished institution.
Paradoxically, the T-P's decision to print less often could mean more news options for New Orleanians. The Advocate, Baton Rouge's longtime daily newspaper, began distributing free samples of its new New Orleans edition last week. The Advocate's foray into New Orleans came in response to a local outcry over losing the T-P, publisher David Manship told Gambit. At a time when newspapers around the country are contracting, The Advocate's expansion into our city is a bold move, and the Manship family should be applauded for giving New Orleanians the chance to continue their habit of a daily newspaper.
There are other silver linings for local news lovers. WWL-TV snapped up two of the paper's most talented reporters, David Hammer and Brendan McCarthy, who will continue to serve as local watchdogs. Local online news operations have formed new alliances or expanded their roles. And the people who are staying behind at The Times-Picayune stress that their commitment to hard-hitting independent journalism hasn't changed, no matter the priorities of the new management there.
The death of The Times-Picayune may be inevitable, but it didn't have to happen this way. By disrespecting the people who worked so hard and so long to give New Orleans a daily paper of which it could be proud, the T-P's owners and management disrespected the city itself.