In the latest news from the dismantling of One of the Great American Newspapers: A Times-Picayune reporter writes a (justifiably angry) letter to the paper's publishers; Several of the paper's renowned, award-winning reporters decline offers from the newly configured NOLA Media Group.
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"Sometimes I just want to scream about what is happening around me," Kari Dequine Harden, a reporter for (what remains of) The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, wrote to Jim Romenesko on Sunday. "Those of us laid off still have jobs to do until the 30th of Sept, but it’s going from bad to worse...I desperately want my job until October because I love it. But I also can’t just keep my mouth shut and pretend everything is okay, or that it doesn’t matter."
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Harden sent a letter to top brass at NOLA Media Group detailing her grievances, which Romenesko published in full. A highlight:
[C]ompared to other news outlets, our website is a joke. We break news – but no one would know because of the worst news website known to man and the priority setting – whoever is doing it, is totally fucked...And yet we are focused on digital now?...Who is buying this crap?
(Seriously, read the whole letter.)
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Only hours apart from Romenesko's post, The New York Times published David Carr's media column, which predicted that more newspaper companies are likely to declare bankruptcy in order to deal with pension obligations. It also confirmed what were mostly rumors a week ago: several well-respected and award-winning journalists at The Times-Picayune, those who "survived" the massive layoffs, have rejected offers from what Carr called "the newly reconfigured enterprise," otherwise known as NOLA Media Group.
David Hammer, who played a large role in The Times-Picayune’s coverage of the rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, took a job with the New Orleans CBS affiliate, WWL-TV, doing investigative work...
While at The Times-Picayune, Hammer uncovered corruption in former Mayor Ray Nagin's office, and extensively covered housing recovery after Hurricane Katrina, revealing fraud and waste in state-run grant programs. He also covered the Deepwater Horizon disaster and its logistical aftermath. For these investigations, Hammer won first prize for the nation's best beat reporting of 2010 from the Society of Environmental Journalists and the AP regional award for investigative reporting.
...he will be joined by Brendan McCarthy, one of the newspaper’s young stars.
According to WWL-TV's hiring announcement:
For 5 1/2 years, McCarthy has covered the inner workings of the local criminal justice system and his watchdog journalism has exposed numerous cases of misconduct and abuse.
He was part of a team that uncovered previously unreported police killings in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, leading to the indictments and convictions of several officers.
...As a beat reporter, McCarthy has exposed rampant abuses of police overtime pay, highlighted problems within the department’s off-duty detail system, and brought to light the case of a high-ranking police official who knew about the police killing of civilian Henry Glover but never investigated it.
...McCarthy has also produced pieces of award-winning long-form, narrative journalism for the newspaper. His eight-part series, “Homicide 37,” looked at violence, policing and the city’s criminal justice system through the prism of the unsolved murder of a local teen.
...McCarthy’s other honors include the Mike Berger Award, a national prize conferred by Columbia University for in-depth, human-interest reporting...
You would almost expect McCarthy to get scooped up by, say, The New York Times. But New Orleans is in serious need of some solid reporting, so good for him, and Hammer, and WWL-TV.
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According to Carr's column:
Stephanie Grace, a former statewide columnist, declined a job as a reporter, and Bill Barrow, a longtime reporter who covered health care, is going to work for The Associated Press. Bob Marshall, a Pulitzer Prize winner and the newspaper’s outdoors editor, took a pass as well.
So how are those in power reacting to all this? According to New Orleans' alternative paper, The Gambit:
The number of veteran personnel turning down the new company's offer — particularly long-time metro reporters — is said to have taken those in the executive suite aback.
"Frankly, they're shitting bricks," said one person with knowledge of the meetings. A second person with knowledge of the talks told Gambit, "I'd say that's accurate."
In addition to the lack of morale that follows watching your comrades lose their jobs, top guns at the paper may be turning down their offers because they want to report news that the people of New Orleans can actually read. And it is really difficult to locate where the New-Orleans-relevant news is on Nola.com, as Harden illustrated in her angry letter. Additionally, unlike the dead-tree edition of the paper, many residents don't have access to the web at all. According to Poynter:
New Orleans lags behind the rest of the U.S. when it comes to broadband Internet service connections, according to an investigative report produced by the nonprofit journalism organization The Lens in conjunction with the Center for Public Integrity and the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University. About half of Louisianans subscribe to broadband services while the national average is 60 percent. Those who do subscribe to broadband Internet service tend to be white and in higher income brackets, the report shows.
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Like Harden, Carr couldn't find many kind words to say about Nola.com, the website that the publisher's "digital strategy" is resting on. (And, really, if anyone can find some nice words to say about Nola.com, we're all ears, though we will probably recommend comparing it to some news sites that don't look like a cross between a dusty phonebook and The Internets circa 1999.)
Advance’s regional Web sites have generated traffic and have active forums, but they are a miserable place to consume news. Balky and ugly, with a digital revenue base below much of the rest of the industry, they seem like a shaky platform on which to build a business. Some recent traffic trends are not encouraging. According to Nielsen, The Times-Picayune’s site, Nola.com, had 639,000 unique visitors in May, compared with over a million in that month a year ago.
As The Times-Picayune loses many of the people that made it a great paper, for a digital strategy connected to a website that fails on so many levels, it's hard to understand what Advance Publications was thinking when they initiated these changes.
Carr cuts them a sliver of slack, based on the state of the rest of the newspaper industry:
The diminution of The Times-Picayune is a profound loss and a bet on some very wobbly assets. Still, who is to say that the Newhouse family is any more misguided than the rest of an industry that is scrambling for safe ground?
A quick scan of Nola.com seems to tell us that the Newhouse family is, in fact, more misguided than the rest of an industry that is scrambling for safe ground. But since we aren't in the soothsaying business, we don't have any answers. We don't know if there is any safe ground.
To put it simply: This really sucks.
Before I end this post, a note of disclosure is probably necessary: At this time last year, I was sitting at Lost Love Lounge in New Orleans, drinking bourbon and feeling lucky as hell. I was lucky as hell. For the length of that hot, hot, summer, I was given the opportunity to work as an intern reporter at The Times-Picayune. I shared a newsroom with courageous and talented reporters and editors pulling three times their weight to get the real news to the people of New Orleans. I learned important lessons just from overhearing these journalists' phone calls.
What I'm saying is that I'm biased. Obviously. When I learned, the same way that many of my former colleagues and mentors learned, that the paper's publisher, Advance Publications, was cutting its print frequency to three times a week, laying off seasoned reporters and extending (from what I've gathered) insulting offers to many others, I couldn't even summon anger. I was too heartbroken.
But as many of the aforementioned reporters have demonstrated, it's probably the right time to get angry.