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Times-Picayune Editor on Commitment, Accountability Amid Cutbacks

June 13, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
After 175 years, one of the nation's oldest daily newspapers -- The Times-Picayune -- announced Tuesday that 200 staff members would lose their jobs this fall. Judy Woodruff, Times-Picayune Editor Jim Amoss and The New York Times' David Carr discuss how New Orleans just became the largest U.S. metro without a daily.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, newspapers are shrinking staffs and making major changes to cope with the shrinking revenues of the digital age. The latest papers to take a hit are in the South.

One of the nation’s oldest daily newspapers is now the latest to fall prey to sweeping cuts in the digital era. The New Orleans Times-Picayune announced Tuesday that 200 staff members would lose their jobs this fall. After 175 years, the paper is shifting to focus on online news and scaling back to publishing only three days a week.

That means New Orleans will be the largest U.S. metro area without a daily newspaper.

Editor Jim Amoss acknowledged Tuesday the change would be hard in a video posted on NOLA.com, the paper’s website.

JIM AMOSS, editor, The New Orleans Times-Picayune: Many readers can’t imagine a morning without our newspaper in their hands. I understand that. I’m a print guy. I grew up in this business.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Times-Picayune’s parent company, Advance Publications, also announced layoffs at three Alabama newspapers: The Birmingham News, The Press-Register in Mobile, and The Huntsville Times. Together, they will lose 400 employees.

We're talking about the loss of a kind of civic common in each of these communities.David Carr, The New York Times

The cuts and the changes are all a far cry from 2005, when Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans. The Times-Picayune became a lifeline to those trying to recover and rebuild. Seven months later, Loyola University communications professor Larry Lorenz underscored that vital role in a conversation with the NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown.

LARRY LORENZ, Loyola University: In the Civil War era, Oliver Wendell Holmes, the father of the later Supreme Court justice, wrote an essay called “Bread and the Newspaper.” And in it, he said, bread and the newspapers, we must have.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you have got to eat and people need information?

LARRY LORENZ: You bet. The information that’s in the newspaper feeds us as much as the bread feeds us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But now, like a growing number of newspapers nationwide, The Times-Picayune faces a fight for survival.

For a closer look at the impact of these changes and the reasons behind it, we’re joined by Jim Amoss, whom you just saw, the editor of The Times-Picayune. He’ll continue to oversee content at NOLA.com. And David Carr, who writes about the media business for The New York Times.

And we thank you both for being with us.

Jim Amoss, first to you. What is the reaction there in the newsroom and in the New Orleans community?

JIM AMOSS: Well, the reaction to radical change, especially in a community that’s as devoted to its rituals as New Orleans is, is strong, and I understand the passion that’s behind it.

But I think New Orleanians also want their daily news report in a way that we will promise to deliver it. I know those are words now, and people will have to see it to believe it. But that’s our commitment to them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you think, Jim Amoss, this is going to mean? Can you deliver the same quality news with, what, half the people?

JIM AMOSS: Oh, that’s a misleading figure.

We had severances, layoffs yesterday. And we are losing somewhere in the 40 percent-plus realm, but we also will be rehiring, so that when all is said and done, we will have a news operation that overall is about 14 percent to 15 percent smaller than now.

That still has an impact, although we will be saving a lot in going from — on the production side, from seven days a week to three days a week. But we are very much focused on having reporting strength in the field. We think that that is that is what drives our readers and our audience to the website.

And that’s a commitment that, that and the commitment to serious journalism, to investigative journalism, which has been our hallmark, is something that will be undiminished.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Carr, why is Advance Publications, the parent company, why are they doing this?

DAVID CARR, The New York Times: I think that regional papers, ones of the size that the one Jim runs and others are run are hit especially hard by sort of secular broader changes in the newspaper industry that have been going on for five to 10 years.

There’s been a steady decline, to the point where the newspaper industry as a whole in revenue terms is about half again as big as it was in 2005. And so people are getting shoved up against walls and having to come up with, you know, very breathtaking answers to tough questions, including laying off almost half their staff.

And Jim may rehire back to somewhere near the strength he has, but he’s losing a lot of institutional memory, a lot of reporters who have relationships out into the community. It’s not just print that is disappearing. It’s expertise.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, David Carr, what about in Alabama, where I guess across the state in three of the largest four cities, they’re losing 400 newspeople?

DAVID CARR: Again, Judy, I think it goes to the issue of capacity, of horsepower in the newsroom. People are very focused on the fact that the print product is going away four days a week.

But there is a lot of muscle, muscle memory being lost. And in New Orleans, there’s — there are some other ways that people might be able to piece together their news diet. In some of the town in Alabama that are losing, as you point out, 400 journalists, there aren’t these alternative source of news.

And I just don’t think the people in those communities are going to be as aware of, as in touch with what is going on. We’re talking about the loss of a kind of civic common in each of these communities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jim Amoss, what about that, losing a civic common or memory muscle, as David Carr just put it?

JIM AMOSS: Well, David is absolutely right that newspapers in the United States, outside of The New York Times especially, are all wrestling with this problem.

And, yes, we would all love to be back in 2001 and have twice the circulation we have now and twice the ad revenue we have now. And so everybody is confronting the same problem. And everybody is trying to come up with something other than idly watching us dwindle and watching our own demise.

But I strongly disagree with his contention that we will — that we will lose the kind of civic common that we have, that we will lose the institutional context that we bring to the news report. And if I believed that, I wouldn’t be sitting here. And everything that I will be focused on will be geared toward preserving that and ensuring that our readers don’t have to look elsewhere to piece together that kind of understanding of their community and the context we bring to it.

We will, after all, have the — we will continue to have by far the most complete and the most formidable news-gathering muscle in this community, and readers will just have to hold us accountable to that promise that I’m making.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, David Carr, why won’t that, if not suffice, at least work as a quality substitute for what’s now?

DAVID CARR: Well, let’s begin with the fact that there’s a lot of people in New Orleans that don’t have Internet access.

As a community, they have had a special relationship, which Jim and I have talked about, in the past with their daily paper. You can still go there in the coffee shops and in the rescues, and seeing the paper handed back and forth, it warms the heart of a newsman like me.

So that’s one issue is the issue of access. The other issue is, some of these cuts, you have a sports columnist that’s been there for 45 years that’s going to part-time, two women that put together an eight-part series on prisons in Louisiana that have been demoted, a restaurant person that has won awards far and wide out of a job.

You can’t lose those kind of assets. And I’m sure Jim — Jim is a great newsman and he’s proven that over the length of time. But you cannot take less and do more. You cannot — I think part of what’s gone on is, historically, Advance Publications, and Jim in particular, very good at putting out a daily paper.

I and others find their website a lot less impressive. And maybe some of these hires are going to help him turn it around, but it isn’t really what they’re good at. And so I — not in economic terms, but in terms of their skills, I think they’re pivoting from their strength to their weakness.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jim Amoss, you want to respond to that, to all that?

JIM AMOSS: Yes.

And I do appreciate David’s compliments. And he’s written some very nice things about us. I don’t know when he was last in the coffee shop that he wrote about, but if he went there tomorrow morning, he would see an awful lot of tablets and laptops where, a mere three years ago, there were printed Times-Picayunes being held in people’s hands.

But as to the contention about the various diminishments, his factual basis is just a little off. And I realize it is based on some of the reports that were circulating yesterday.

But several of those people he mentioned are continuing with us, are continuing undiminished with us. Yes, they will be digitally focused as well. The sports columnist, for example, will be writing for us with the same frequency with which he writes for us now, albeit on a correspondent, freelance basis.

So, I just don’t accept these — I mean, it fits into a nice storyline, a neat narrative about the sudden weakening. And the changes are indeed dramatic, but the overall intention — and we will follow through with it — is that we will be a strong and accepted deep news report that has both immediacy and depth to it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, gentlemen, I know this is a subject we’re going to be coming back to. We’re going to leave it here for now.

But we thank you both, Jim Amoss, David Carr.

DAVID CARR: Pleasure to be with you.

JIM AMOSS: Nice being with you. Thanks.