The Embattled Editor  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2012

The Embattled Editor   

Jim Amoss, who has spent his life in the city and his career at the paper, has been a target of much criticism over the changes planned for New Orleans’ Times-Picayune. He says he understands the concern, but he says the digitally focused, three-day-a-week print future is critical if the paper is to survive and flourish. Wed., July 18, 2012.

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


Jim Amoss, editor of New Orleans' Times-Picayune, has done something unusual in the newspaper business. He has stayed at one paper for practically a lifetime.

Amoss was a reporter, suburban bureau editor, city editor, metro editor and associate editor at the paper before taking the helm in 1990. The only exception was his early time at the city's afternoon paper, the States-Item, which merged with the Times-Picayune in 1980.

It's led to "a very linear, not very fat résumé," says Amoss, 64. And, even more unusual, Amoss' career has been rooted in his hometown.

Jed Horne, who retired in 2007 after writing and editing at the Times-Picayune for nearly 20 years, says that kind of loyalty is unique.

"In terms of management of the paper, he is uniquely devoted to a particular product – the Times-Picayune," says Horne, now news editor at TheLens, a New Orleans investigative Web site. "Unlike many journalists – and we are a nomadic bunch – he has been at the same paper for his entire career."

Horne adds, "I think he draws an equation between the city and the paper itself. And perhaps it made the changes that much more painful for him."

It's been nearly two months since the Newhouse family's Advance Publications, the Times-Picayune's owner, announced – after David Carr broke the news in the New York Times – that the daily would cut print publication to three times a week and focus more heavily on its digital arm, NOLA.com. But for a city so entrenched in tradition, it seems so much longer.

Since then, an online petition asking the paper's owners to keep printing daily and to maintain the "proud legacy" of the Times-Picayune has collected more than 9,300 signatures. Some local advertisers and celebrities have expressed their frustration through letters to the Times-Picayune's owners and management.

Nearly one-third of the paper's staff has been cut (although management says it will make some new hires). Some talented journalists the paper wanted to keep have left. A fund for laid off employees, dashThirtydash, has been established. Times-Picayune reporter Kari Dequine Harden (colorfully) wrote about the difficulty of continuing to work for the paper in an angry e-mail sent to Amoss and others in management. New Orleanians have come together to raise money by buying cocktails, pins, shirts and food to protest the disruption of their daily newsprint fix in the fall.

The paper is "in very many ways the glue that binds this community," Amoss said in a telephone interview. "And I have a deep love for New Orleans. I feel rooted here and connected in a profound way. And New Orleans and this newspaper have gone through so many powerful and shattering experiences together that in many ways were synonymous. I think there is a deep understanding between the community and its newspaper – unusually so in today's news world."

Many believe the paper has become a far more valuable force in New Orleans during Amoss' reign. Asked whether he anticipated the community's angry reaction to the new plan for the paper, Amoss hesitates, then sighs.

"I know what a strong bond we've forged because I see it in my daily life," he says, adding that his parents are both avid newspaper readers who, like many New Orleanians, are very much in the seven-day newspaper habit. "I'm not surprised it's a wrenching change for all of them."

But, he adds, "We all face fundamental, radical change in the media world, and I would say to them that nobody in the paper business can pretend that continuing as we  all have would allow us to support a newspaper business structure unchanged." To pretend that newspapers can continue to operate the way they are without alterations is "to gradually wither away."

"Despite our strong standing in this community, we are not immune to these national trends. And we have to face them," he says.

Papers everywhere are dealing with a steady decline of print advertising revenue and print circulation. And although New Orleans is behind most other major U.S. cities in the share of residents with high-speed Internet access at home, Amoss says the paper is "seeing our audience for digital journalism grow."

Although no paper the size of the Times-Picayune has been through this kind of convulsion recently, there's no denying that the whole industry is in turmoil, Horne says. And someone "desperately needs to find the right business model."

"There are those who think Advance, the Newhouse brain trust, has been reckless and insensitive in pursuing the solutions they've announced," Horne says. "I think all of us have to hope that if they are reckless, they are also shrewd enough to succeed. Nobody knows for sure how this will play out, David Carr included."

Given Amoss' loyalty to the paper and the city, some people have questioned his decision to stay to oversee such wrenching change at the paper he has worked at and led for so long. Many current staffers – and some past ones – refused to talk about Amoss on the record for this piece. Inside and outside the Times-Picayune newsroom, there are reporters who worked with Amoss for years who feel that he has betrayed them and should have retired rather than participate in the restructuring.

"I think he stayed in place with hopes that he could mitigate some of the worst repercussions in bloodshed and pain," Horne says. "Somebody who assumes that role always runs the risk of enabling what they hope to avoid."

"It'll be the wisdom of hindsight as to whether he softened the blow or rolled over and let hatchet men inflict the pain and bring down the paper."

Dean Baquet, who met Amoss as a 19-year-old States-Item intern and has been close friends with him ever since, says that he doesn't understand the argument that Amoss should have stepped aside.

"What would have been accomplished by him retiring?" asks Baquet, the New York Times' managing editor for news. Retirement would have been easier for Amoss, but it wouldn't have been good for anyone else as the paper makes this painful transition, he says. Since Newhouse decided that cuts had to be made, "I think the greater act of leadership is to do it yourself."

Susan Feeney, a reporter at the Times-Picayune from 1983 to 1989 and current partner at a communications firm, says, "I think the people who are at the paper are much better served by having a leader who knows them – the city, their abilities – than the alternative. I think it benefits the people at the paper and it benefits the community to have Jim there leading them."

Given his close ties to the city and that his career is the Times-Picayune, maybe it's no wonder that Amoss says he has no intention of going anywhere anytime soon.

"I think of myself as somebody who loves this city and loves the journalistic team that we've assembled here," he says, "and as long as I can effectively lead it, I'd like to do that."

Although Amoss would not disclose the paper's finances (Advance Publications is a private company), he acknowledges that it is still profitable, which is why he says the owners thought the time was right for bold action.

"When you look at what's happened to the newspaper industry, you can make choices," he says. For the Times-Picayune, "you accept that you can't stay in the business of daily print delivered newspapers and continuing digital operations – that doing both is not sustainable at the level we're doing it in the long term. The question is: Should you stay the course in the short term? And I think the answer that our owners have given is it behooves us to act while we're in a position of relative strength and while we have the resources to do so."

Many critics of the Newhouse plan for the Times-Picayune don't dispute the notion that the digital era has changed the world of newspapers irrevocably and that adjustments are inevitable. But they do fault the way Newhouse has carried out its plans, including the fact that many staff members first heard about the transformation from the New York Times.

"This process has rolled over some people," says Bruce Nolan, a religion reporter who has not been asked to stay with the newly-formed NOLA Media Group, which means his 41-year career with the Times-Picayune will end in the fall. He calls the changes "dreadfully executed."

"This process has really been cruel in some ways – inexplicably, unnecessarily cruel," he says.

"That's just not right," Nolan adds. "And that's what I told [Amoss]," referring to a meeting at which Nolan spoke of his disappointment with the way management handled the changes. In the audio of the meeting posted on nytimes.com, Nolan objected to the lack of respect shown to staffers and to management failing to tell them earlier about the upcoming changes. 

Asked about the company's missteps, Amoss would only say, "Anytime you're engaged in a change of this scale, you'll make some good decisions and some not so good decisions."

Critics have said one of those "not so good decisions" has been relying too heavily on a Web site that many consider to be unwieldy and ugly and that sometimes buries important stories. Amoss calls the site "successful," but acknowledges that the paper has to ramp it up. "It will evolve and I think it will evolve in ways the community will welcome," he says.

He adds, "The conversation in New Orleans, understandably, is so focused on loss and what it means to go from seven to three print publications that what's missing from the conversation is that there's an extraordinary team of journalists at this point going forward that will both enrich the content of the Web site and in many ways reinvent what it means to be a printed newspaper."

He points out that readers are not the only ones who are used to the daily printed news habit. "Daily publication is also a journalist habit that everyone in this business has," he says. "It's very hard to move out of those habits, those routines, and the culture that has developed in the rhythm of news journalism –excruciatingly difficult. Which is why I think papers have resisted it for so long, despite the trends we've been talking about."

"It involves profound cultural changes," he says. "And I don't care how innovative you are at heart. That kind of change is wrenching. But I think ultimately necessary."

However, he adds, "I mourn the loss of seven days of print. It's in my DNA to satisfy that appetite. My journalistic career was formed at this newspaper and with the knowledge that you produce a printed product at the end of every day."


Jim Amoss. Courtesy of Times-Picayune.

Amoss was born in New Orleans. His parents were born in New Orleans. His grandparents were born in New Orleans. He raised his son and daughter, now 31 and 27, in the city.

Growing up, Amoss and his five brothers spent time in Germany and Belgium for their father's job. When Amoss came back to New Orleans to finish high school, he could speak German and French. After graduating from Yale University in 1969, he studied European literature as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. His Yale senior thesis was on German novelist Thomas Mann, "a great springboard for daily journalism," he quips.

He's known in the newsroom as being a smart guy.

Amoss started as an intern at the States-Item and became a staff reporter in 1974. Charles Ferguson, Amoss' predecessor as editor of the Times-Picayune, brought him to the afternoon paper. "What I saw was someone who was very bright and had a talent for writing," he says. "Jim was a very good reporter and an excellent writer."

Jack Davis, a former reporter and editor at the States-Item who left the Times-Picayune in 1983, collaborated on some stories with Amoss, whom he calls "quick and perceptive" and a "terrific reporter."

He remembers the "exciting" night they found out that a suburban contractor had deliberately damaged sewer lines in order to repair them.

When Davis met Amoss in the '70s, he says the city was discovering and embracing its character and heritage – food, music, architecture – and was in the midst of dramatic racial change, making the decade "a real exciting time to be here."

"And Jim was part of this group of journalists in New Orleans that helped that along and was part of those changes and was excited about it," Davis says.

He, too, considers Amoss a "gifted writer – lucid and direct."

The strength of Amoss' writing is a point of agreement even among those who can't see why Amoss is going along with the plans for the Times-Picayune.

Amoss put his writing skills to use in a June 13 piece for the paper, in which he used vivid memories of reporters' performances during Hurricane Katrina to try to help explain the thinking behind the changes at the paper.

But it's his leadership skills, not his writing touch, that will be crucial in helping steer the Times-Picayune into a new era.

During his years with the paper, Amoss rose quickly through the editing ranks. The States-Item merged with the Times-Picayune in 1980. Two years later, after a brief stint as St. Bernard Parish bureau chief, he became city editor. The title of metro editor came next the following year. He became an associate editor in 1988.

Two years later, he was running the show.

In the spring of 1990, Amoss was offered the editorship of the Times-Picayune. He had already accepted a prestigious Nieman Fellowship at Harvard and was two weeks away from moving his family to Cambridge, Massachusetts. The choice was painful, he says, but the chance to lead his hometown paper was "too good to pass up."

Amoss' predecessor Ferguson, editor of the Times-Picayune for 10 years, says Amoss was the clear choice to succeed him. "He was intimately familiar with the news operation," he says. "He was a native of the community and knew it well. And I think those were very important attributes."

Amoss was named Editor of the Year by the National Press Foundation in 1997 and by Editor & Publisher magazine in 2006. That same year, what is now the American Society of News Editors gave him an award for editorial leadership.

Staffers past and present give a range of descriptions of Amoss' management style. Ferguson describes him as "quietly competent."

"I would say that Jim is a very soft-spoken person and, based on my experience with him during the time we worked closely together, I would say that he had a very low-key management style," Ferguson says. "I think he was a calm presence in the newsroom."

Jed Horne says Amoss had a somewhat "aloof" style in the years he spent at the paper. "He was closely attentive to everything going on, but usually reserved judgment and worked through his chain of command," Horne says. "He would authorize his lieutenants, me among them, to guide the paper as best we saw fit, and he would intervene, I think, only in the event that he saw problems."

Horne also calls Amoss "sphinx-like," saying he was not always forthcoming in conversations and needed time to digest and assess what he'd heard.

Bridget O'Brian, who spent 1981 to 1988 at the paper and currently works at Columbia University, remembers Amoss as an editor who was open to suggestions from reporters and was ambitious, sending them on stories that would take days to report to produce journalism that covered "more than the daily grind."

"I think it was clear he thought big and thought the paper was capable of going to the next level, even in the early - to mid-'80s," she says.

Lynn Cunningham, the Times-Picayune's online editor, describes Amoss' style as "collaborative" and "inclusive."

"Jim has a great deal of respect for the editor-reporter relationship," she says. "He has a way of coaxing the best and most from his staff. He has a non-threatening style that focuses on people's strengths, not their weaknesses."

She says he is a thoughtful editor and a good listener.

Jack Davis, who was publisher of the Hartford Courant until 2006, says, "An indicator of the results of his management abilities is the high quality of the newspaper. And the fact that it got so much better and won so much deserved recognition in the years that he's been editor."

For decades, the Times-Picayune, like many of Newhouse's other papers, was known as a journalistic underachiever. The paper, again like many of the company's dailies, improved sharply beginning in the 1990s. During Amoss' tenure, the paper has won four Pulitzer Prizes: the 1997 prizes in public service and editorial cartooning, and the 2006 prizes in public service and breaking news reporting for its Hurricane Katrina coverage.

"I remember when we won the Pulitzer prizes [for Katrina coverage] and he gave a speech and at the end, he said, 'Let's keep doing what we're doing and love this city back to life,' " Nolan says. "And he meant it. And it was the right thing to say."

Nolan graduated from New Orleans' Jesuit High School the same year as Amoss, who now serves on the Pulitzer Prize Board. When Amoss was named the school's 2006 alumnus of the year, he called fellow grads Nolan and then-Times-Picayune reporter Walt Philbin "heroes in the storm" who should be sharing the honor with him.

Nolan describes Amoss as warm and open. Nolan tries to keep up with Amoss' kids; Amoss asks about Nolan's kids. "He's a very likable, personable, intelligent guy." Illustrating his point, Nolan says, "His senior thesis was about Thomas Mann, and he also enjoys a good beer."

But Amoss also has a reputation as someone who is not exactly a pop culture expert. One piece of newsroom lore is about the time some Times-Picayune staffers were discussing the Rambo movies. Amoss walked in and asked what they were talking about. Someone said, "Rambo." Amoss said, "Oh, the French poet?" referring to Arthur Rimbaud. The story is told with a certain amount of affection and bemusement.

Amoss is known for being sophisticated. But Davis says he also can be shy at times and has a "low-key sense of humor." Davis says he's an "understated" person who doesn't show off his accomplishments, like being multilingual, a classical pianist and a good cook.

"I'm married to a very good cook," Amoss says. "I'm a pretty decent sous-chef."

Dean Baquet, who is the godfather of Amoss' son, says he and Amoss hit it off from the beginning, and he was a frequent dinner guest at the Amoss house when he lived in the city, also becoming friends with Amoss' wife, recently retired architect Nancy Monroe. Baquet's favorite dish Amoss made for him? Lamb, which Baquet tried for the first time at his house.

"I consider him one of my best friends in the world, dating back to when I was in my early 20s," Baquet says. The pair worked on several major investigations together as reporters.

"Dean knows me probably too well," Amoss says, laughing.

"There's only a handful of people I see when I come to New Orleans besides my family, and he's one of them," Baquet says.

Baquet happened to be in New Orleans when the story about the shake-up at the Times-Picayune broke, courtesy of his paper. He says he got an e-mail from David Carr telling him what he was going to report and asking if Baquet knew anything about it, since the story was about his hometown paper.

Baquet told Carr that it was the first he'd heard of it, "But it sounds like a good story."

When Baquet let Amoss know that Carr was looking for comment, he did so as a journalist. "We may be close friends, but I'm also a competing newspaperman."

Baquet says his only regret for Amoss is that Newhouse has not been more forthcoming about why the controversial changes are needed. "I sometimes wish they would articulate more for people the reasons they're doing it."

But he says people should give Amoss the benefit of the doubt.

"I get that he's taken a lot of heat in New Orleans," Baquet says. "I don't know anything about the finances of the Times-Picayune, but I think when you got a guy who really loves the paper and the city, if he becomes involved in something as significant as these cuts, you have to believe they have to do something like this."

He adds, "He's not some corporate guy that would just do what they told him to do."

Horne calls Amoss a realist.

"I think he saw the need for disruptive change whether or not it was ordered by the corporate brass," Horne says. "The disruptions may prove to have done harm to good journalism. Again, that will be a judgment made in hindsight after we see whether the new paradigm is sustainable."

Nolan says, "He's given every sign of being a good and loyal editor with respect to his owners, and he's going to do his best to make this happen."

But Nolan says that in the community and in the newsroom, "I think there's an enormous amount of disappointment about the changes going on in the Times-Picayune, and disappointment that Jim has thrown in with it."

Nolan says he's always liked Amoss, so he's in a difficult position.

"It's like if you've ever been friendly with both sides of a couple who have divorced, and they force you to pick sides," Nolan says. "It's just dreadful. People have been picking sides all over the newsroom. And I'm not picking sides. It's a personal tragedy for so many people on so many levels."

Even with the cuts and the defections, Amoss is "very confident" that the paper can continue doing the enterprise reporting that has been its hallmark. "We have reporters going forward who have the desire and the skills to do that kind of reporting. It's what makes several of us, including me, tick in this business," he says. "And I think that's essential to the promise we make to this community – that investigative journalism and watchdog journalism and just enterprise journalism in general will be important, as it has been."

The reporters Amoss mentions may be willing to do these types of big-budget stories, but the question is: Will there be enough resources to do them?

"I don't see how the Times-Picayune can sustain anything like its previous quality of journalism with its staff so sharply reduced," Horne says. "There has been a tremendous defection of talent from the Times-Picayune. I hope they are able to recoup and rebuild the institutional memory that is walking out the door."

Departing Times-Picayune journalists include a Pulitzer Prize winner, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, veteran City Hall reporters and investigative reporters.

The paper's recent eight-part series "Louisiana INCarcerated" about the state's prison system and high incarceration rate, won last month's Sidney Award for socially conscious journalism. But reporter Cindy Chang, who led the investigation, is among those leaving.

As the news editor of TheLens, Horne says the investigative news site "aspires to take up some slack in investigative journalism as much bigger operations cut back on it." He says TheLens already has seen a spike in readership since the Times-Picayune announced its overhaul.

So what will the fallout be for Amoss? Will he be, as some angry readers suggest, a pariah in the community?

"I think a lot of the toxicity of the present situation will drain away rather quickly," Horne says. "It then will remain to be seen whether these changes secure a future for the Times-Picayune or hasten its demise. Jim has been a very private person throughout his career. He's very well regarded by the power elite in New Orleans. Disenfranchised journalists gathering in the city's watering holes have nasty things to say about Jim right now, but he's quite well insulated against that kind of noise."

He says Amoss is more of a big-picture type of guy.

"Jim himself personally doesn't attract controversy," Ferguson says. "And I can't imagine people holding any animus towards him. I think to the extent that there is any animus directed towards Jim, it's a result of a misunderstanding of what's going on in the newspaper industry in general and not simply what's happening in New Orleans."

Nolan says, "I'm given to understand by some people that it could have been worse. That Jim fought. That sounds like the guy that I know." But the idea that the changes could have been harsher is "hard to believe."

Asked whether he thinks the turmoil at the paper has affected Amoss as well, Nolan says, "Oh, god, yes. I mean, he's losing weight."

Amoss knows the changes have been hard on everyone involved.

 "Everybody on my team has had to make incredibly difficult decisions, especially decisions with how to go forward with a smaller team and the people we weren't able to bring along," he says. "And they take a toll on everybody."

But Amoss is convinced the new approach is essential to secure the future.

"I would say continuing with seven days of print and therefore gradually cutting off limb after journalism limb for the sake of dailyness – that is a descent that I wouldn't relish," he says. "And I think, honestly, most metropolitan dailies face something of that choice."

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