Disruption: The new Crescent City newspaper war
May 14, 2013 7:50 AM   Subscribe

Just under a year ago the company that owns the Times-Picayune (Advance Publications, a Newhouse family operation) newspaper of New Orleans, stunned the city and journalists nationwide with the announcement that it would be cutting its print edition to three days a week, while focusing more intensely on its online operations. But now more print (and digital, for that matter) options are available in the Crescent City than last June.

Recently, in the face of increased competition from a post-TP-cutbacks, localized version of the Baton Rouge-based Advocate, the Times-Pic announced that it would unveiling a new tabloid print edition, called TP Street, on other days and releasing early Sunday editions on Saturday and .... something something. This followed the Advocate's being bought out by billionaire businessman and perennial self-funded higher office (governor, mayor) candidate John Georges of New Orleans, and the Advocate's hiring of former stop staff at the New Orleans standby. (The Advocate notes in an article on the hiring that the staff are "Pulitzer-winning.")

It should be noted in all of this that the Times-Pic's website, NOLA.com, has continued to be the source of constant reader complaints for design and placement of stories. Meanwhile, online or micro-news operations have expanded in the city over the past few years, at least somewhat, via other sources. And the Advocate has yet to develop a strong online or social media presence, locally, although it presumably just getting cranked up.

Weighing in on the developments: The New York Times and The Columbia Journalism Review.
posted by raysmj (20 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Yeah, it's a pretty sad state of affairs. Thank goodness for NolaDefender, at least. The new TP Street is... already a joke, so I hope that maybe it'll be really decent and surprise everyone.

Nola.com is yucky. Terrible, terrible website. It's laughable that they wanted to put so much energy and time into the site that they had to gut the actual newspaper, and THIS is the resulting site?? Gross.

When we do get a paper (and it's not three set days per week, it can be pretty random...) it is a sad little rag that is mostly classifieds and ad inserts.
posted by polly_dactyl at 8:05 AM on May 14, 2013

Ex-TP writer Chris Rose (you may know him from his frank discussion of his own depression after Katrina or his book, 1 Dead in Attic) weighed in on this last year with a scathing piece called New South Journalism: The Sometimes-Picayune.

I live in New Orleans. The T-P was a great paper. Now it's a shitty paper. We've switched to the Advocate, but it's not as good as the T-P in its prime. There was a lot of agitation for Tom Benson, the owner of the New Orleans Saints, to step in, and he offered to buy the paper. Advance Publications refused to sell. It's a pretty crappy situation.
posted by Corinth at 8:07 AM on May 14, 2013

All I know is that Advance has been pulling the same shenanigans here and I can't see the same thing happening. Judging from friends' and colleagues' past experience doing micro- news-type sites and related ventures, the support isn't there. I'd love to be proven wrong but I don't think I will.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 8:07 AM on May 14, 2013

As bitter-girl.com notes, Advance has cut newspapers back to three days elsewhere as well — in fact, they've done so at about half their newspapers, in Syracuse NY, Cleveland, Harrisburg, PA, Birmingham, Huntsville, and Mobile, Ala., and at its eight Booth newspapers in Michigan including Grand Rapids and Flint. At the end of last year I went out on a limb with a prediction that we will see many more newspaper print frequency reductions over the next few years. I'm seeing no slowdown in the ongoing, demographically-driven shift from print to digital news reading, and no improvement in the business model for seven-day printed newspapers. The big avalanche of frequency reductions hasn't begun yet, outside of Advance, but there's a pretty strong acknowledgment within the industry that the days of daily print are numbered.
posted by beagle at 8:29 AM on May 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Is the issue with nola.com content, navigation, video/ad saturation, design, or other? A cursory load and lookieloo didn't turn up anything egregious although I did so with a full complement of browser plugins that block ads, scripts, and flash. It was a somewhat spartan look but I kind of liked the lack of clutter.

I'm definitely not saying it's great and I think the justification for cutting to three days per week to focus on web delivery is pretty transparent. On the face of it, however, the web site is not all that bad insofar as newspaper websites go. It puts my locally facaded presentation of $REGIONAL_NEWSPAPER_OF_RECORD to shame and gives $REGIONAL_NEWSPAPER_OF_RECORD a run for its money.

Then again, I do have to admit the search box and geegaws that float on the right side of the header make some assumptions about the length of the section title text that don't always hold true. That does look pretty amateur hour.
posted by Fezboy! at 8:32 AM on May 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure about other locations, but in Syracuse they still print every day. Home delivery was cut back to three days a week. The version of the paper that comes out on days of no home delivery is pretty skimpy and has limited availability. A lot of good reporters were laid off when that change happened.
posted by maurice at 8:32 AM on May 14, 2013

Mark this down as the first time I've decided to start crafting an FPP and found myself beaten to the punch. After yesterday's (today's?) news that The Advocate ganked James Gill away from The Times-Pic I thought, "Okay, this is getting entertaining." I've been absolutely disgusted with the way Advance handled every aspect of the T-P remodel and I couldn't be happier that they're flailing and being shot full of holes.

Well, in a perfect world it would never have happened and we'd still have our old Times-Picayune available.

Anyway, as of late the majority of my interaction with the T-P had been through the RSS feed for NOLA.com and I recently went through and replaced that with feeds from The Advocate, The Lens, NOLA Defender, and Mid-City Messenger. As for real-time news, all of those (plus my number-one Twitter favorite The Gambit) top NOLA.com's coverage in terms of being just as fast and twice as personable.

I consider myself to be the type of news consumer that Advance/NOLA.com thought they were aiming for: I want my news online not in print two days later, I want it available through my medium of choice at that moment (their site, RSS feeds, Twitter, etc.), I want it clean and easy to navigate. Even when they were eviscerating their original staff and carving up the business they were claiming that they'd transform themselves into the kind of news that I wanted, and I had at least a shred of optimism about it. Whatever goodwill they had with me has been squandered and I'm more than happy to give my attention to their competition.
posted by komara at 8:34 AM on May 14, 2013 [4 favorites]

Fezboy!: "Is the issue with nola.com content, navigation, video/ad saturation, design, or other?"

That's a difficult thing to boil down to an easy answer. It's a frustrating site to try to use for everyday news. I've had times where I have heard about a crime incident that happened literally the day before and I know I saw it in my feed reader and I want to go back and re-read it or check for updates, but their site's search function chooses to prioritize irrelevant articles. When I limit it to a date range (widened by a few days on either side of the incident) nothing comes up. Again, this is searching for an article that I have seen on their site.

During major events they will frequently publish multiple articles instead of updating a single main article, making it all but impossible to determine which one to read for the newest information. Can't just leave that tab open and refresh later, gotta go check their main page for a newer version. Maybe. Can't be sure until you do.

I have read their RSS feed on my phone, chosen to pass through to an article, and received a message that, "A mobile version of this page is not available." In this day and age there is zero reason that a page shouldn't have a mobile version considering it is nothing but a change in CSS that should be site-wide for all articles. This is especially embarrassing for a company that claims to be in the business of producing news tailored for digital audiences.

They have also done horrible link-bait shit such as articles with headlines like "When is Super Bowl 2013?" with nothing but the thinnest of content inside ... during a year in which the city of New Orleans was hosting the Super Bowl. Gotta get those clicks! That's the important part!

For the longest time the front page of NOLA.com was just articles bubbling up. Advance said, "Our reporters won't have hours, they'll just file things as soon as they come in!" and the front page reflected that. It apparently had no editorial staff organizing it, just some sort of chronological-ish stew of news. I remember this specifically a year ago when someone was shot and killed near my house (and within sight of a major festival) and that article was pushed off the front page within hours by every little weather update, "City council goes to vote", "How was your weekend at the [festival]? Share your experiences and pictures here!", traffic report, etc. See above for gripe re: finding articles once they're not immediately visible. See also gripe re: updates appearing across multiple articles.

Those examples are just a few. I'll try to be nice and give Advance a little bit of credit - the site has improved from just a few months ago. It's still a train wreck overall.
posted by komara at 8:59 AM on May 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

Is the issue with nola.com content, navigation, video/ad saturation, design, or other?

You know - it's something I couldn't quite articulate before, but I think I just figured it out: in addition to looking "pretty amateur hour" as you say, I think most of the problem is layout and navigation. Take a look at the NYT.com and then look at Nola.com. One of them looks like "the online presence of a major paper" and one of them looks like a photo blog run by high school students.

Not every newspaper site has to look like the NYT, but jeez. New Orleans is a major city with significant stories happening on a daily basis (Mother's Day Shootout, anyone? Talk about being blindsided by a crime, wow) and given that the paper itself *was* pretty decent, you'd think they could do better than the site they've given us.

On preview - yes to everything komara just said!
posted by polly_dactyl at 9:10 AM on May 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Is the issue with nola.com content, navigation, video/ad saturation, design, or other?

All of the above. On the technological level, the site's absolutely impenetrable navigation/information design is the most glaring failure for a supposed replacement for a daily newspaper; it's virtually impossible to follow an ongoing story, find more articles on a given topic, or read anything but the ten or so most recently posted articles, which usually seem to be high-school sports recaps. On the level of content, the site and what remains of the newspaper are so incompetently, illiterately written and full of execrable fluff that it's hard to believe there's a once-good newspaper behind it. (And honestly as far as I can tell when people say the T-P used to be a good newspaper, they're thinking mostly of the features staff and their occasional, often excellent, big investigative stories; the daily beat reporting seems to have only declined from merely bad to comically inept.)
posted by RogerB at 9:12 AM on May 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. [Link to Columbia Journalism Review, re: T-P post-Katrina accolades]
posted by spacely_sprocket at 9:28 AM on May 14, 2013

Oh, man, RogerB's link to that fluff piece is right on the money. It's been my observation that "articles" like that are popping up more and more frequently.

I figured I'd give a quick example of my search and update woes above. I was thinking of the shooting that happened near Bayou Boogaloo last year, so I typed "bayou boogaloo shooting" into the search box on the site. I will give them credit - this time most of the relevant articles were near the top. Here are the results, listed in order of the time they were published:

- the original article
- a link to a photo gallery about the shooting that is not embedded in the original article nor does it have a link back to it. At the bottom, outside of the article's main area, are "related articles" - I don't know if those are human-generated links or "suggested".
- a second link to the gallery but to a different image.
- a quick article about the perpetrator's arrest. Please note at the bottom it says "Stay with NOLA.com as this story develops" but this article was never updated, nor are links provided to:
- the final wrap-up article with links back to the original articles, which I don't understand as by this point they're all rendered irrelevant. Seems backwards, like you'd want the old ones to link to the new.

[bonus: the very first article which doesn't show up in search because it doesn't have the words 'bayou boogaloo' in it]

Since the four articles and one photo gallery were written up and posted by five different reporters you'd need something like an editor to go back and tidy everything up, and apparently no one has time for that. So this is their approach - just shoot out articles and updates as fast as possible, never aim for a coherent whole. It hasn't gotten any better since last year.
posted by komara at 9:37 AM on May 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Thanks for the info. Perhaps it's because I hold my own regional daily and locally facaded version to such a low standard that I was kind of non-plussed over the outrage after my quick tour.

It is kind of interesting that some of the biggest peeves presented is that stories do not [always/often] continue at the same URL and that text-based searching isn't great. Neither of these things are features of print media. In a way, you're still getting [often crappy] news in somewhat the same way, but the issue is in the value-add that online news sites can provide.

Like I said, the whole thing is an immodest coverup for downsizing a major city's newspaper and completely contempt-worthy in that regard. On the other hand, the New Orleans metro is pretty comparable to the Omaha metro in terms of population and market and the Old Weird Harold shares most of the same issues. Then again, the OWH does publish seven days a week even though its editorial slant keeps me from reading it that often. It also has crap like this featured on the news page daily.
posted by Fezboy! at 9:51 AM on May 14, 2013

"It is kind of interesting that some of the biggest peeves presented is that stories do not [always/often] continue at the same URL and that text-based searching isn't great. Neither of these things are features of print media."

It's worse than that. Advance said, "We're going to take away your print newspaper but we'll make it better! We'll put it all online and it will be so slick and shiny that you'll just absolutely love it!" and instead they took away the print newspaper and gave us the same articles but split into separate parts with no cohesive structure. That shooting, depending on press times, would have been one article or possibly two, not four plus a floating dissociated gallery. It's not even as good as print and they swore it'd be better.

The best part is they fired a third of their editorial staff to bring us this nonsense. When you look at their decision to fire Brett Anderson, one of the most renowned food critics out there, and then re-hire him after the backlash, but not learn any lessons from that ...

I mean it's no wonder that there's been a slow leak of employees over to The Lens and The Advocate. Advance cut great people to produce an inferior product.
posted by komara at 10:06 AM on May 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

In a way, you're still getting [often crappy] news in somewhat the same way

Just to second komara: the problem is that this isn't at all the case. In a daily newspaper you can easily discern the day's important news, and follow ongoing stories, by examining the layout and scanning the headlines; and then, since each of its articles is written in a conventional inverted-pyramid format, you'll be easily able to get up to speed with the latest developments in a story or catch up on the general story's broad background. The NOLA.com approach — a spew of little unconnected mini-posts in undetermined relation to one another, none of which necessarily contains any summary of the story background at all — makes both of these core news-reading goals a hit-or-miss proposition. It's like reading the first draft of a bunch of newspaper articles cut up into shreds selected at random.
posted by RogerB at 10:14 AM on May 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Wait, what am I going to eat my Monday, Tuesday and Thursday crawfish on now?!?
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 11:30 AM on May 14, 2013

TP=Toilet Paper

<nelson>ha ha</nelson>
posted by blue_beetle at 11:47 AM on May 14, 2013

There's always a lot of upset about newspapers cutting their delivery times, and I used to join in, until I realized that I hadn't gotten an actual newspaper delivered myself since 2007. And I cancelled at that point because I wasn't reading it; it was just a lot of extra paper piling up in my apartment before going to the recycling.

Newspaper companies know how to produce newspapers reasonably well, but people increasingly do not want newspapers. They don't look in newspapers to buy their cars (formerly a big source of ad revenue at least where I live), they don't pay for classified ads, they don't look to them for news, if they're under about 60. They look on the web. But the newspaper companies are not web startups. They knew how to do certain things very well, and that was not one of them.

A few that had decent amounts of money have done great things anyway, but none of the papers in my area have websites that I would call 'good'. They all look like they were developed by the lowest bidder to specifications provided by someone who'd never actually used a website to get news. Even the NYT struggles--they had to do the paywall to keep money coming in, and the only reason they really could do the paywall was that they are the NYT. This is not the NYT.

I miss what newspapers were. But within 10-20 years, I don't think we're going to see many with a print version at all, much less daily, absent some kind of government subsidy.
posted by Sequence at 3:29 PM on May 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Times-Pic had high exposure in New Orleans, among the highest if not the highest in America, I remember reading. (That does not mean it had more subscribers per capita. It means people read it at coffee shops and restaurants, at work, and also at home.) I don't think print will be dominant in 20 years either, exactly, but it will likely be around in some vastly lower-circulation capacity in order to grant exposure for advertisers.

Advance, which has the resources to hire people who really understand the Internet, presumed it could stick the Crescent City with anything, because it had a monopoly.

I was aiming for some bit of irony wrapped in irony in using the word "disruption" here. Like a few airlines that wanted deregulation so badly in the '70s and then went under after it finally came, some pushing for dramatic business change--primarily so they can cut costs and put out a cheap product--are going to be disrupted themselves.
posted by raysmj at 6:54 PM on May 14, 2013

I think what Advance somehow didn't truly take into account is the percentage of the T-P readers that don't have any sort of regular internet access. There's a reason that locals like to throw around the phrase "New Orleans: Third World and Proud Of It" - we're not exactly high-income and high-tech here. A physical newspaper is still a valuable commodity to many.
posted by komara at 7:03 PM on May 14, 2013

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