How Changes at a Newspaper Are Unifying a City  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2012

How Changes at a Newspaper Are Unifying a City   

New Orleanians rally to keep the Times-Picayune publishing seven days a week and to support staffers who are losing their jobs. Fri., June 22, 2012.

By Michaelle Bond
Michaelle Bond (mbond@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     


Many New Orleanians credit the Times-Picayune with uniting the city in the aftermath of 2005's devastating Hurricane Katrina. And now, the paper is showing its unifying power again in the wake of another upheaval.

Journalists and non-journalists, lifelong residents and residents-at-heart have come together to protest changes to the city's beloved newspaper, which will no longer publish seven days a week come fall and will become a more digitally focused product.

City residents wasted little time in making their displeasure known. Hundreds of people attended a rally soon after the announcement to support the paper and its staff, about a third of which will be let go.

Since the brouhaha began, readers have bought "The Some-Times Picayune" and "Save The Picayune: Don't Let Bylines be Bygones" protest T-shirts, hung support banners on fences, posted "Wanted" signs for new Publisher Ricky Mathews and bought Times-Picayune stud pins in support of the paper's employees.

In addition to emotional support, readers, angered at the deep staff cuts, are also raising money to help those who are losing their jobs at the paper.

Despite the public outrage, the Newhouse family's Advance Publications, which owns the paper, has not wavered from its plans to build what it calls a company that can grow in the digital age. Those plans include reducing the frequency of print publication to three days a week in New Orleans and at its three Alabama newspapers.

"Not evolving was not going to be a winning strategy," Randy Siegel, Advance's president of local digital strategy, told AJR earlier this month. "And we've watched very closely in all our markets how our readers and advertisers are using digital products and services to get their news and information."

Here are some of the people who are protesting the company's new approach and rallying to support its staff:

Rebecca Theim, who worked at the Times-Picayune from 1988 to 1994, had kept in touch with a small group of staffers, and she has reconnected with many others as the heartbreak at the paper has unfolded.

"That's probably the only good thing that's come out of this," Theim says. "It's such a sad thing otherwise."

Theim finds "disgraceful" the way Advance Publications has handled the situation and treated the staffers. She says the company "owes a lot of people a heartfelt apology." Like the public, staffers learned about the unsettling changes when the New York Times broke the story the night of May 23. The paper hurriedly put together an official announcement that ran in the Times-Picayune the following day.


Rebecca Theim

The following week, Theim, who now lives in Las Vegas and works as a writer for the marketing firm behind "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas," began a petition on Change.org that has gathered more than 8,600 signatures. The petition asks people to show their support by signing to "implore Advance and the Newhouses to maintain the publishing frequency and proud legacy of The Times-Picayune and its other newspapers."

Signers include "Doonesbury" cartoonist Garry Trudeau, actor Ed Asner (whose Lou Grant character has been used in protest of the paper's changes), author Anne Rice, Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor James Carville and musicians Branford Marsalis and Marcia Ball.

"This started out as me being a frustrated alum" living almost 2,000 miles away from New Orleans "and not feeling like I could do much to help," Theim says. "It's the one great thing I think I could do. It's just an opportunity to have one more concrete manifestation of the kind of support that this paper and these people have, not just in New Orleans but across the country, both from alums and the people who came to love [the paper] over the years, and certainly in the aftermath of Katrina."

Theim has also contacted the publicist for comedian and TV host Ellen DeGeneres, who was born in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, and the assistant to Hoda Kotb, co-host of the fourth hour of NBC's "Today" show, who worked for a CBS affiliate in New Orleans from 1992 to 1998. As of June 22, Theim was still waiting on their responses to her request to sign the petition.

"The outcry has been amazing," Theim says. "This city embraced that paper in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, because everyone at that paper went to heroic efforts to keep that community and the world informed."

Theim runs a Facebook page and Twitter account to share the latest news about the Times-Picayune and its employees.

She also helped start dashThirtydash, a fund set up to financially aid staffers who are let go or demoted. The name comes from the "-30-" symbol formerly used to indicate the end of a news story. A reporter from the Huntsville Times, a Newhouse paper in Alabama going through similar changes, contacted Theim for help in creating such a fund for affected staffers.

"I've lost my job three times in the corporate world, and I know how devastating it can be emotionally and financially," Theim says.

The dashThirtydash fund was modeled after The Friends of the Times-Picayune Relief Fund, started after Katrina to help staffers who had lost their homes in the storm. Donors from both in the city and out of town have contacted Theim about donating in support of the paper.

Bruce Nolan, a 41-year Times-Picayune veteran who has not been asked to stay with the paper, contributed $1,000 to the fund. New Orleans resident Julius Cain, a BBC Worldwide Americas vice president, has also donated $1,000.

Keeping up with the Twitter and Facebook accounts and running the dashThirtydash fund takes a lot of time and energy, but Theim is passionate about helping her Times-Picayune family.

"My husband's ready to divorce me," she jokes. "When I'm not at my day job, I'm doing that: Trying to rally the troops."

The Times-Picayune is such a great partner to the community and has such a strong relationship with its readers that "for us it's like a divorce abruptly has occurred," says Anne Milling, a longtime member of the Times-Picayune advisory board that meets monthly to discuss community issues. Milling, a native New Orleanian, and her family have always read the Times-Picayune, she says. "The community has been very loyal to this paper, and it's part of my family."

Milling, a lifelong community volunteer and activist, is one of the founders of the Times-Picayune Citizens' Group, a "coming together of many organizations who felt New Orleans deserved a daily paper," which formed the afternoon of the Newhouse announcement to discuss what was happening and what to do.

"It was a very spontaneous reaction to the news," she says. "Everyone was in such shock."

She adds, "It was just a reaction from my heart. The morning it happened, I assumed everyone would feel as I did."

That day, Milling and her husband bought the domain name "SaveThePicayune.com," which directs people to the Facebook page that more than 3,500 users "like." The Twitter account supporting the paper, @SaveThePicayune, has more than 2,000 followers.

"I love the city and I, along with thousands of others, give the paper so much credit for rebuilding our city," Milling says. "They empowered the civic organizations and the grassroots organizations. They encouraged civic engagement. The Times-Picayune was our partner."

Less than two weeks after the new game plan for the Picayune was made public, several major advertisers in the city joined the Times-Picayune Citizens' Group in calling for the preservation of daily print publication of the paper.

One of these advertisers was the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group, which owns five New Orleans restaurants, including Red Fish Grill, Ralph's on the Park and café b. Since June 8, these restaurants have offered special cocktails, such as "Black & White and Read all Over," "Stick to 7 (Days)" and "Picayune Punch." Twenty percent of the cocktail sales go to the dashThirtydash fund. The drinks have brought in almost $1,000 for the fund so far.

"We're just trying to raise awareness to tell people that we're losing a significant asset," says Ralph Brennan, president of the company, who reads the paper every day.

Brennan says he's concerned about the gap that is sure to be left by the changes at the Times-Picayune. "I wish I knew something about the publishing business," he says.

Polly Watts, owner of The Avenue Pub, says that although she doesn't have the money to run a newspaper, she, too, is doing what she can to help. Her bar and two restaurants also on St. Charles Avenue are participating in a June 28 pub crawl to benefit the dashThirtydash fund. The Avenue Pub will donate 100 percent of its liquor, beer and wine sales between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. that night.

"As individuals, we can't do a lot to affect Newhouses' decision," she says. "But together, as a community, maybe we have a shot of doing something."

She says that while the national media eventually lost interest in the city's post-Katrina recovery, "it was the local reporters that cared, because they were going through the same things we were." Watts, who had evacuated the day of the storm, constantly called her father, who stayed with the pub, with news updates from the paper's Web site, NOLA.com.

She, too, credits the Times-Picayune staff for all it did to advocate for and rebuild the city, which is why fundraising is important to her. "What I want to do is to raise some money for them to help them the way they've helped us," Watts says. "And I want to raise awareness of what a big deal this is."

The National Association of Black Journalists, which is currently holding its annual convention in New Orleans, announced last week that it would offer passes to its career fair to journalists―regardless of membership or race―who lost their jobs at Newhouse's New Orleans and Alabama papers.

"We feel that since the convention is in New Orleans, it's an appropriate gesture to show the industry that we support all journalists," says NABJ president Gregory Lee Jr., a New Orleans native who worked at the Times-Picayune from 1993 to 1999. "Since we're a journalism organization coming to town, we had to do something."

The Times-Picayune is particularly dear to him. "It's the paper I grew up reading. It's where I developed my love of sports, reading the great Peter Finney," says Lee, senior assistant sports editor at the Boston Globe. Finney, who has worked at the paper for more than 60 years, learned via NOLA.com that he was being let go. Finney has been offered the opportunity to write a sports column on a freelance basis.

So now that Newhouse is going ahead with its plans, what do Times-Picayune supporters want to see happen?

Maybe the community could come up with a Web site to give the Times-Picayune some competition or convince Newhouse to sell the paper, Milling says. Newhouse insists it is keeping the paper, but "you can't just assume there isn't a price."

Maybe this is an opportunity for someone else to come in and fill the void, Brennan says.

Maybe the Advocate, the daily newspaper in Baton Rouge about 80 miles away, could come in to help cover the news, Watts says.

There are two main camps emerging with different approaches as to what should take place next, Theim says. One has the "print daily or sell" slogan that is aimed squarely at the Newhouses. These people want a daily paper and have no room for compromise, she says.

"There's another camp that understands this business has changed a lot and continues to change and there's no denying a lot of people are getting their information from the Internet," she says. Theim leans toward this way of thinking.

"I can definitely see why a city as unique as New Orleans needs a daily paper, but I don't necessary think it'd be a bad compromise to have a great paper and a great Web site," Theim says. "But it's not a great Web site." She joins other voices in criticizing the state of the paper's online component, saying finding stories on the site is difficult and that Newhouse needs to improve the site, "which is in no way among the better newspaper sites out there."

She says that although a lot of people would love for the paper to go back to "normal," few think this will happen.

"At this point, I guess I really would hope they would, first off, listen to the community and realize this is a very different place than most of country and that New Orleans has a much different relationship with its paper than in any other Newhouse market," she says. (For example, New Orleans has a lower rate of high-speed access than the country as a whole.)  She wishes Newhouse would acknowledge this special connection "instead of shoving this down people's throats."

Theim says she and others are planning a September 28 get-together for Times-Picayune staffers and alumni who are coming to town to support each other and reminisce. The next day will feature a dashThirtydash fundraiser. The paper's staff cuts are set to go into effect September 30.

Area restaurants and donors continue to call Theim to offer their assistance, and the Save The Picayune petition grows daily. Theim calls the outpouring of support "incredible." And although she is aware of how strongly the city feels about its newspaper, "I didn't expect this in a million years."

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