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Times-Picayune Plans to Cut Staff and Publication Days

I had thoughts on the twilight of American Idol based on Ann Powers’ excellent analysis, but the news about changes at The Times-Picayune jumps in front. According to Gambit, The New York Times broke the story that the T-P is going to shift its thrust to Nola.com, cut the print edition to three days a week, and reduce staff size and costs.

According to David Carr at The New York Times:

Times-Picayune Cover After Hurricane KatrinaNewhouse Newspapers, which owns the Times-Picayune, will apparently be working off a blueprint the company used in Ann Arbor, Mich., where it reduced the frequency of the Ann Arbor News, emphasized the Web site as a primary distributor of news and in the process instituted wholesale layoffs to cut costs.

According to Kevin Allman at Gambit, many staffers found out about these plans through the Times story:

The level of disrespect for T-P employees by upper management was the main topic of conversation tonight. All employees with whom Gambit spoke — even longtime senior writers and editors — said they learned of their fates from The New York Times report.

“My supervisor didn’t even fucking know,” said one reporter. “My supervisor.”

“I had to find this out by Twitter,” said another. “Do I go in to the office tomorrow? Do I even have a job to go in to tomorrow? I don’t know. No one has called me. No one has said anything.”

Allman reports that the plan is to reduce staff by a third and cut salaries of the remaining staffers, who’ll blog regularly for Nola.com.

A piece at Nola.com authored by the “The Times-Picayune” doesn’t mention any specific plans for the staff:

“We did not make this decision lightly,” said [Ricky] Mathews [president of the newly created NOLA Media Group]. “It’s the toughest part of transitioning from a print-centric to a digitally-focused company. Our employees make us the company we are today, and we will work hard during this transition to treat all of them with the utmost respect for the hard work and dedication they’ve shown over the years.”

Starting in the fall, the paper will be published on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday because these are the days most in-demand for advertisers.

It’s easy to wisecrack as friends and I have this morning—What about the debs? How will I ever keep track of poor Luann’s love life? Will Steve Kelley be funnier if he doesn’t have to draw so often?—but this news is disturbing at a number of levels, starting with the possibility that 100 to 150 talented people will be out of a job in this economy. We won’t know the details until it happens, but it certainly sounds like those who stay will be asked to do more for less money. If that’s true, this is a shameful betrayal of those who helped get the paper back to life after Hurricane Katrina and an inhumane way to reward those who opted not to take the buyouts that were offered in 2009. (This also gives us a reason to pause when we think about Republicans’ emphasis on freeing businesses up to be “job creators,” but that’s a digression.)

As a journalist, I’m also saddened to see good, professional writers face the choice of accepting harsh pay cuts or being out of a job. That’s not the sort of choice that a community-oriented organization offers its best and most loyal people.

The story at Nola.com assures us that we will continue to get a week’s worth of society coverage, comics and puzzles, as well as “a richer and deeper news, sports and entertainment report.” That seems hard to imagine if writers are being focused on regular online blogging. Not impossible, obviously, but it’s hard to imagine that we’ll see meaningful, multi-part journalism like the recent look at the prison business.

One staffer I spoke to referred to the Huffington Post as a model for what’s to come, which suggests that the new Nola.com could be more varied in its approach, but much of what’s there—and across the blogosphere—is written in response to the hard reporting that mainstream journalists have done. In this new climate, will someone like David Hammer have the time, resources, support and will to cover the investigation into the BP oil spill as thoroughly as he did?

These days, we need journalists holding government and industry’s feet to the fire, and it’s not clear that a web-first approach will make that happen. I don’t know if I would have clicked on a story on the now-withdrawn hospitality zone proposal, but I discovered the plans to fill its board with unelected members when flipping through the pages. I wonder if such a plan will encounter the outcry it received if it is proposed next year.

A recent study showed how the places we get our news affects our grasp of current events. I won’t make an issue of which news outlet makes you know less than people who don’t read or watch the news, but one thing that was consistent regardless of your favored news source is that we have a poor grasp of international affairs. When those stories become part of a menu that have to be clicked on and not something you run across in the process of reading, it’s likely that they’ll be passed over and we’ll be even less informed.

I assume the NOLA Media Group anticipates election coverage and the return of football to help drive people to the site. After all, since there will be no Monday or Tuesday paper, there will be no print coverage after Saints games. Right now, it’s easy to fear that the sky is falling (and for the people working there, it is), but I hope that professionals will continue to do a professional job of gathering and reporting the news. I’d like to think that this doesn’t represent the abdication of journalism in New Orleans, but it’s hard to be optimistic that the NOLA Media Group has the city’s interests in mind and that its priorities are journalistic.