Monday, May 13, 2013
“We are excited about this opportunity to extend our daily reach in print,” an advertising executive at the newspaper said in the announcement.
You don’t say.
This daily newspaper thing may be catching on. Last week,The Philadelphia Inquirer announced that it would begin selling a Saturday edition on newsstands after a nearly two-year hiatus.
The much ballyhooed unmaking of daily newspapering seems to be unmaking itself, and there’s a reason for that. Most newspapers have hung onto the ancient practice of embedding prose on a page and throwing it in people’s yards because that’s where the money and the customers are for the time being.
The industry tried chasing clicks for a while to win back fleeing advertisers, decided it was a fool’s errand and is now turning to customers for revenue. But in order to charge people for news, you have to prosecute journalism.
The belief that historic monopolies will hold together just on the basis of inertia has proved to be wrong. Newspapers that have cut their operations beyond usefulness or quit delivering a daily print presence have suffered. The audience has to be earned every day.
Newspaper publishing will never return to the 30 percent plus margins it once had, but some people believe there is a business model. Warren E. Buffett thinks that a 10 percent return is reasonable, now that sale prices have sunk.
Clearly, commanding a market to change on a dime because it suits your business plan does not mean readers will obey. Just ask Advance Publications, owned by the Newhouse family, which is back to where it started in New Orleans with The Times-Picayune.
Except that the name Times-Picayune, which had stood for quality and civic constancy for decades, does not mean the same thing anymore. The vaunted Web site that was to be the lifeblood of the new enterprise remains a creaky mess, and the newsroom has been denuded of remarkably talented people.
Several of those people, including the two former managing editors of the newspapers, have gone to work for The Advocate, the Baton Rouge daily that has introduced a New Orleans edition. With a new, rich owner, it has taken aim at the market The Times-Picayune once owned.
Advance made its decisions up against some very dark trends in the business, but they were made with the dead-eyed arrogance of a monopolist in a much-changed world. Columbia Journalism Review described The Times-Picayune’s strategy of the last year as a “rolling disaster.”
It’s been a jaw-dropping blunder to watch. Advance misjudged the marketplace — the whole city and state went ballistic when the changes were announced — and failed to execute a modern digital strategy. Now it is in full retreat with new competition.
The company endlessly complicated what had been a simple proposition that has worked since the newspaper’s founding in 1837: deliver a printed bundle of its best efforts every day for a fixed price. The new distribution plan is hard to explain, but I will do my best.
On Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, a broadsheet called The Times-Picayune will be available for home delivery and on the newsstands for 75 cents. On Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, a tabloid called TPStreet will be available only on newsstands for 75 cents.
In addition, a special electronic edition of TPStreet will be available to the three-day subscribers of the home-delivered newspaper. On Saturdays, there will be early print editions of the Sunday Times-Picayune with some breaking news and some Sunday content.
There’s more, but you get the idea — or not. It’s an array of products, frequencies and approaches that is difficult to explain, much less market.
The move was clearly defensive, unveiled the day before John Georges, the new owner of The Advocate, announced that it would expand its incursion into New Orleans. Since early fall, The Advocate has been publishing The New Orleans Advocate, with 20,000 subscribers.
Mr. Georges, a successful businessman who had less success running for governor of Louisiana and mayor of New Orleans, held a news conference on May 1 where he was accompanied by the governor, Bobby Jindal, and the mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu. It was an indication that the home team had chosen sides and the once-beloved Times-Picayune was on the wrong side of the field.
Last July, Senator David Vitter, a Republican from Louisiana, wrote a brutal letter to Steven Newhouse, the chairman of Advance.
“From a pure business perspective, you’re about to get smoked,” Mr. Vitter wrote. “The Advocate and others are moving in to fill the void you are creating. And TP subscribers, including me, will be eager to cheer them on by trading our subscriptions.”
The Advocate has never had the assets or the reputation that The Times-Picayune built up over the years, but the management of The Times-Picayune managed to create the one thing the paper never had before: actual competition.
“The Web site is still mysteriously frustrating for those who are interested in accessing the information we used to get in The Times-Picayune,” said Jed Horne, a former editor at The Times-Picayune who now works at The Lens, an online investigative news site in New Orleans.
“They promised a Tesla and it performs more like an Edsel,” he said. “Our hope is that we will be treated to an invigorating old-time press war between The Advocate and The Times-Picayune, but of course, it could end up being two dinosaurs fighting over the last mud hole on an overheated planet.”
Jim Amoss, the editor of Nola.com-The Times-Picayune, said he is proud of the various products the paper is producing and believed he had the talent and the support from ownership to compete for attention. He suggested that journalists are far more obsessed over the particulars than the audience is.
“I try to take the approach that readers’ habits are changing all of the time,” he said, “and while I share the gut reaction from journalists whose world has been turned upside down, the appetites for news here is as voracious as it has ever been.”
Still, after the deep personnel losses, Mr. Amoss is increasingly the captain of a ghost ship.
That fact was etched with some degree of finality last week when The Advocate raided The Times-Picayune and hired Gordon Russell, former city editor and investigations reporter; Martha Carr (no relation), a veteran of the city desk; and two city reporters, Claire Galofaro and Andrew Vanacore. Collectively, the departures represented what the Gambit, a local weekly, called a “shock-and-awe hiring.”
“I hate to see when talent walks out the door,” Mr. Amoss said. “But as I told the people here on the day that happened, I am incredibly proud of the people we have and the job we are doing.” (Nola.com’s excellent coverage of a mass shooting on Sunday that injured about 17 people at a parade in the city demonstrated that the site still plays an important local role.)
Nevertheless, the raid served as a reminder that The Times-Picayune’s former monopoly over talent was a thing of the past.
That doesn’t mean that The Advocate will have anywhere near the impact on New Orleans that The Times-Picayune once did, or that it will magically defy the laws of contemporary publishing economics.
But it does suggest that Advance’s belief that it had New Orleans to itself and could do as it wished was deeply mistaken.
Posted by Robert Daraio at 10:59 AM