John Paton, CEO of Digital First Media, has come to the defense of the embattled Newhouses, under attack for cutting back their Times-Picayune in New Orleans to a three day a week publication. And, boy, do they need friends.
The Newhouses have been roundly pummeled both by New Orleanians and media critics across the country over their plan to make the Times-Picayune as well as their Alabama papers digitally focused news operations with sharply reduced print presences.
Paton, whose company manages the MediaNews and Journal Register newspapers, is widely known as a champion of the digital first approach as the key to salvaging the reeling news business (the name of the company is a clue).
Paton makes the case that Newhouse's Advance Publications is smartly moving to protect the future of its declining businesses. He concedes the company has made mistakes in New Orleans. Among them: not having their new "product line" (i.e. NOLA.com, the paper's Web site) anywhere near ready for prime time; doing a ham-fisted job of telling readers and staffers about the radical new approach; and failing to make sure that it kept the top talent it will desperately need for the adventure ahead.
Nevertheless, Paton emphasizes that in his view the Newhouses are doing the right thing.
"Importantly, they remain committed to their core business and mission with what resources they have," he writes. "So I support them because their industry is my industry and it will not survive without dramatic, difficult and bloody change."
He's no doubt right about the latter. As is hardly a secret, the digital revolution has greatly weakened the once high-flying newspaper industry. The continuing and severe decline of newspaper advertising has led to a dramatic diminution of print products nationwide. Profits, staffs and newsholes continue to shrink. The new enthusiasm for charging for content may help, but it doesn't seem like a game-changer for most papers.
Under such conditions, there's no way the status quo can continue forever. And one of the obvious answers is to stop publishing on days when advertising revenue is scarce.
Longtime newspaper executive Phil Meyer, one of the smartest people I know, predicted the end of the daily in a piece he wrote for AJR in 2008 called "The Elite Newspaper of the Future."
"The newspapers that survive," Meyer wrote, "will probably do so with some kind of hybrid content: analysis, interpretation and investigative reporting in a print product that appears less than daily [emphasis mine], combined with constant updating and reader interaction on the Web."
Newhouse first took the plunge in 2009 when it adopted a digital-first approach for its Ann Arbor News in Michigan and reduced print to thrice weekly. Just this week, the Anniston Star in Alabama, long one of the nation's most highly regarded independent small dailies, announced it was scrapping its Monday edition starting in October.
So why all the fear and loathing over New Orleans? There has been nothing remotely similar in the three Alabama cities where Newhouse is making similar moves.
One reason is the fact that it's New Orleans, iconic New Orleans. The city is still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and the Times-Picayune has been a vital lifeline for the community. Also, New Orleans lags behind the rest of the country when it comes to digital connectivity. The print paper has a very high penetration rate. And by all accounts it's still profitable, although far less so than in the past. (Newhouse is a private company and won't disclose profit information.)
Second, there's the communication issue cited by Paton. New Orleans learned about the plan not via a well-thought-out presentation by Newhouse executives but from David Carr of the New York Times. And while the company had been plotting these changes for quite awhile, with incoming Publisher Ricky Matthews talking to staffers in off-site meetings, it was woefully unprepared to respond when the news leaked, as news does. Its clumsy response has fanned the flames rather than extinguishing them.
And then there's the recently revamped NOLA.com. As many have noticed and noted, it's truly a very poor Web site, an ugly, retro (not in a good way) mashup of sports and crime and, yes, some public service news, tossed together mindlessly and charmlessly. Not at all something that gives you any confidence that this is the way to save the news.
And so I can't be nearly as supportive as Paton in embracing the Newhouses. Yes, you can give the company credit for taking bold actions in an effort to preserve the paper. But when you are doing something that's this important to the community and the industry, you've got to have your act together. By doing such a terrible job of talking the talk and walking the walk, Newhouse has managed to alienate an entire community and undercut the cause of transforming the news business for the digital future.