In its third major restructuring in as many years, The Times-Picayune laid off 37 journalists Thursday in its latest push to cut costs three years after its controversial move to end daily home delivery.
Previous announced layoffs have claimed more than 300 workers.
The move Thursday trimmed the remaining news staff by a fifth, according to an announcement by NOLA Media Group President Ricky Mathews, and leaves 118 full-time journalists on staff.
Reporters at the paper said some who were spared the ax instead took a pay cut.
In a major retrenchment in Baton Rouge, The Times-Picayune laid off or transferred its journalists covering that city, with the exception of those reporting on state government and LSU athletics.
The company said that its changes are “designed to focus on topics that are important to readers and have driven the substantial readership growth of nola.com.”
NOLA Media Group was formed in 2012 to oversee news gathering at nola.com and the 178-year-old Times-Picayune as it embraced a digital strategy and reduced the number of days it produces a print newspaper.
The move to end daily publication sparked community-wide outrage and was unanimously condemned by the Louisiana Legislature. It also prompted The Advocate to launch a New Orleans daily newspaper, which has been growing for three years.
Editor Peter Kovacs said The New Orleans Advocate is expanding its staff and hopes to speak with Times-Picayune journalists looking to switch over.
Industry observers noted that The Times-Picayune’s owner, New York’s Advance Publications, had sent signals in recent months that despite some savings from production and distribution costs through cutting its home delivery schedule to three days a week, gains in digital ad revenue had been slower than expected.
The approach has its challenges. The Pew Research Center, for example, reported this year that digital ad revenue grew 18 percent in 2014 from 2013, to more than $50 billion, but noted that technology companies like Facebook hauled in half that total.
Rick Edmonds, a researcher with the Poynter Institute who studies journalism-related business issues, described the size of The Times-Picayune’s cuts as “very substantial,” but noted that he wasn’t surprised that the company felt it was necessary to take the step.
“I can’t say that I’m startled they laid off more people in the newsroom, because that’s been very common in American newsrooms this year,” he said. “It’s unfortunately sort of obvious: As long as advertising revenues fall as quickly as they continue to fall, and efforts to build new revenues are a little slower than hoped, then that’s true in many places, (which) really have to get some costs out.”
In May 2013, months after The Times-Picayune reduced its print frequency, New Orleans businessman John Georges purchased The Advocate. The paper then hired many of The Times-Picayune’s top journalists to create a competitive local daily.
That added competition for ad revenue is likely to have had an effect, Edmonds noted, by “having a competitor come in and be persistent and certainly pick up some of the audience, that even they would concede was disgruntled by the change in frequency,” he said.
Advocate Publisher Dan Shea, who formerly worked as a managing editor at The Times-Picayune alongside Kovacs, said the latest cuts there showed that the paper’s digital-focus “is not working.”
Shea and Kovacs were managing editors of The Times-Picayune when the newspaper won four Pulitzer Prizes in a nine-year span. Both were laid off by the company in 2012.
“The Picayune is trying to force a change that its readers and advertisers don’t want,” Shea said in a statement. “We believe there is still strong demand for a seven-day local newspaper in New Orleans, and for a website focused on local news. “
According to the latest quarterly filings with the Alliance for Audited Media, The Times-Picayune’s print circulation was 88,400 for its two weekday papers, Shea said.
For the same period, The Advocate’s weekday circulation was 91,506, Shea said, noting that more than a third of that is in the seven-parish area of New Orleans.
Thursday’s Times-Picayune layoff included 28 full-time journalists and nine part-timers, Mathews said.
Paul Purpura, a New Orleans native who worked at the paper for 16 years, said he got a call from an editor early Thursday asking that he meet at a conference room on a lower floor of the paper’s offices about an hour later.
“I was at home getting ready to go to Tulane and Broad to continue to cover a double-murder trial and instead I ended up on the eighth floor of One Canal Place getting severed,” he said.
Purpura, 50, said he was told that the cuts were about trimming expenses. “It wasn’t a punitive firing. I never got that sense at all,” he said. “They said it was economics, essentially.”
James Varney, a former foreign correspondent and conservative columnist who recently reported on St. Tammany Parish, was also among those who were let go.
“I’m very disappointed,” said Varney, 53. “It’s not the way you envision your career ending after almost 26 years, but it was a great ride.”
On Twitter and elsewhere on social media, some longtime reporters confirmed Thursday that they were laid off.
“It’s a difficult day for us and our colleagues who are losing their jobs,” Mathews said. “We wish them the very best. Aligning our costs with the business realities faced by media organizations around the country is a tough challenge.”
Times-Picayune Editor Mark Lorando, who was tapped this month to succeed the paper’s longtime editor, Jim Amoss, did not return an email seeking comment.
In 2012, more than 200 employees were laid off as part of the paper’s new digital-first strategy. Many positions were later created or otherwise filled through new hires as the company reduced its home delivery to three days a week.
In early 2013, The Times-Picayune moved much of its operations downtown to the top two floors of One Canal Place, leaving a relatively small staff behind at its Howard Avenue plant, which had been the paper’s home for almost half a century.
And late last year, the paper said it will lay off 100 workers and outsource its printing operations to Alabama. That move is expected to take place early next year, meaning that the paper will be printed almost 150 miles away at the facility in Mobile, Alabama, that now prints The Press-Register, another newspaper owned by the privately held Advance and its owners, the Newhouse family.
Last month, The Times-Picayune announced that its former East Jefferson bureau in Metairie would be used to house a new design studio that will produce its newspaper pages as well as those of four Newhouse-owned newspapers in Alabama and Mississippi.
The studio, billed as the Print Lab, is expected to have a staff of 26. As a result of the change, three employees lost their jobs, the company said.