The New Orleans Times-Picayune will undergo some radical and painful changes an in attempt to save its life, but if the history of its sibling newspapers is any guide, the cuts will only delay the inevitable. The paper announced today that it will be cutting its publication schedule back to three days a week -- Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays -- and is expected to significantly reduce its staff. The Times-Picayune is owned by Advance Publications, the media empire run by the powerful Newhouse family. (They also own Condé Nast, the magazine family that includes Vogue, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker.) Three other Newhouse papers in Alabama -- The Birmingham News, the Press-Register of Mobile, The Huntsville Times -- made similar announcements on Thursday.
According to reports about the cutbacks, Advance is "working off a blueprint" that was used three years ago to downsize another one of its newspapers, the Ann Arbor News. In 2009, the struggling Ann Arbor paper was spun off in to a new company and the paper that had been published continually since before the Civil War was scaled back to two days a week. It wasn't long before it stopped printing a paper altogether. The remaining staff were folded into a new website AnnArbor.com operated by Advance, which actually then started its own paper edition on Thursdays and Sundays, but it's also called AnnArbor.com. The Ann Arbor News simply doesn't exist anymore.
In fact, it's been claimed that Ann Arbor was the first city in the country to lose its one and only daily newspaper. Residents can still get their local news at MLive.com and the nearby Detroit News and Detroit Free Press provide the rest. But losing the daily paper was a huge blow to the city, and not just in raw economic terms. One resident explains it this way:
The disappearance of the Ann Arbor News is a void that for many of us will never be filled, especially those of us whose births were printed in the paper. The loss is even bigger for less web-savvy residents like my mom, who complains that she and her friends now don’t hear someone has died until after the funeral.
New Orleans has no other alternatives, sadly. That lack of competition will give the reconfigured Times-Picayune a fighting chance, but will also make a future failure that much more tragic. And it's hard to see how the fate of the New Orleans paper will be any different than that of Ann Arbor's.
Layoffs and other cost cuts may slow the bleeding, but are unlikely to heal the wounds. If you're going to own printing presses and buy paper and ink and employ hundreds of plant and delivery workers, it usually makes more sense to keep them busy seven days a week rather than three. The marginal cost of cutting production for a few extra days (while also losing the advertising) won't suddenly make the operation flush with cash.
Even if the financial situation improves, it's unlikely the paper will ever go back to a seven-day a week schedule. The company recognizes that the future is on the web — but on the web the Times-Picayune doesn't really exist. All its content is served at NOLA.com. It's not the best organized or best looking website, but that's the new home base for the paper's remaining staff. The experience of other Advance newspapers suggest the loyalty readers feel for their paper just doesn't carry over to their web presence.
Advanced Publications owns papers all over the country, including such well-known stalwarts as The Cleveland Plain Dealer, New Jersey's Star-Ledger, The Oregonian, and The Harrisburg Patriot-News (which just won a Pulitzer for its coverage of the Penn State scandal.) You may have noticed that all these papers' websites share a similar design and format, but one that barely acknowledges the physical publication where their stories come originate. With uninspiring names like NOLA.com, NJ.com, Syracuse.com, AL.com, OregonLive.com, the idea that there was ever a thriving newspaper behind all those stories becomes an afterthought.
The move also looks very similar to the one made by The Daily Emerald, the student newspaper at the University of Oregon. They too are phasing out their print edition, but in a manner that looks much more promising as an alternative model for a print/digital partnership. The financial situation there is much different, however, mainly because the bulk of the Emerald's staff will continue to be student employees. The pressures of cost cutting and corporate ownership are burdens the Emerald won't have to bear. In both situations however, as time goes on and people get used to not having the physical paper around every day, eliminating it altogether will become the next logical move.
That's why the Times-Picayune staff was so devastated over the news. The writing was on the wall. Of course, there's the possibility that any of them could lose their jobs right away, but it also seems like it's only a matter of time before they all lose their jobs. Even if they survive, what will their job even be? Who will they be writing for and where will those old readers — especially those with limited access to the Internet — get the information they need? If Advance is going to follow Ann Arbor's example, the new plan seems more like blueprint for destruction.