It’s hard to imagine downtown musician Alex MacMurray and Uptown Women of the Storm founder Anne Milling ever moving in the same social circle, but both of them were front and center early Monday evening at the “Save the Picayune” rally held in the parking lot of Rock ‘n’ Bowl in Mid-City. About 300 people gathered to protest Advance Publications’ plans for The Times-Picayune, which include shifting much of the reporting muscle to the digital side, firing an unspecified number of people and cutting back print publication to three days a week.
“I’ve been reading The Times-Picayune so long I still refer to it as the ‘morning paper,’” said Mary LaCoste, who was among the subscribers who showed up to protest the new publication schedule. Many were elderly. Cartwright Eustis IV, 71, recalled his days as a delivery boy for the old States-Item paper, and said he still subscribes to the T-P — the last daily paper in a city that used to have several.
The rally was organized by Anne Rolfes and writer Michael Tisserand (a former editor of Gambit), and featured entertainment by local musicians, including MacMurray, Allen Toussaint, Kermit Ruffins, Armand St. Martin, Margie Perez, Bob Andrews and others. At the piano, Andrews performed a song directed to Advance Publications: “I Knew It Was Wrong, But I Did It Anyway.”
Asked about the curtailed publication schedule, Ruffins said, “It would have a huge impact on thousands of musicians and club owners. A lot of elderly, and just people who love to read the paper.
“Nobody’s going to know what the hell is going on,” he concluded.
The rally came on the heels of the release of an open letter addressed to Advance Publications and the paper’s new publisher, Ricky Mathews. The letter, which was organized by Milling and GNO Inc. president Michael Hecht, among others, it was signed by more than 70 civic, business and philanthropic leaders — from Archbishop Gregory Aymond to the presidents of Xavier, Tulane, Loyola and Dillard Universities and a who’s who of the New Orleans business and tourism communities.
The signatories, who call themselves The Times-Picayune Citizens Group, said the group wanted “to clearly state its desire for The Times-Picayune to remain a daily newspaper, and that any possible future change be conducted in a more effective and considerate transition than what was announced to take effect beginning in September.”
One question at the rally: How many current T-P employees would show up? Last weekend, several employees expressed hesitation about being seen doing anything that might be interpreted as publicly taking on the paper’s new management. Advance is said to have been vexed by continued leaks from inside the building, which have included at least two internal memos and a recording of editor Jim Amoss addressing his staff.
Others weren’t certain whether attending the rally would violate the paper’s internal ethics rules, which prohibit newsroom employees from publicly supporting various causes. (“What the hell are they going to do to me [for attending the rally]?” one newsroom employee said. “This whole thing is so, so out of our hands.”)
At the rally’s start, most of the T-P faces were retirees or others who had taken one of the paper’s buyout and early retirement programs in recent years. But as the rally wore on, more and more current employees began to show up, accepting beers and condolences from old friends and newspaper readers.
Nerves were still raw among many, who had found out Advance Publications’ plans not from the company, but from a May 23 blog entry by David Carr in The New York Times — the new digital future scooped by the current digital reality. Since then, there’s been little word from the paper’s new publisher, Mathews, or higher-ups at Advance, as to specific plans. Individual meetings to discuss layoffs were originally set to begin today, but were abruptly cancelled last Friday afternoon.
“Just tell us. Just tell us and get it over with so we can plan,” said one reporter, nursing a large cup of beer.
Others were more angry than fatalistic. One employee talked about having formed an “exit strategy,” saying, “I can’t work for those people after this.” Another employee talked about having drafted a letter of resignation, and debated releasing it on the spot, saying, “I don’t care any more. I don’t care.”
One skirmish illustrated the tension among the ranks. A former employee who walked into the Rock ‘n’ Bowl parking lot had a beer thrown on him and his hat dashed to the ground by an angry man who challenged him to a fight on the spot. While the reason for the confrontation wasn’t clear, the beer-splashed employee had made online remarks some saw as unsupportive of his colleagues. He left the Rock ‘n’ Bowl parking lot quickly.
Local politicians, who often show up to trumpet good jobs news, were nowhere in evidence — the sole exception being former New Orleans CIty Councilwoman Peggy Wilson. In typical New Orleans style, however, several people showed up in costume, with pages from The Times-Picayune fashioned into paper hats and one laminated purse. A woman dressed as Joan of Arc drifted through the crowd. Two women showed up with a a life-sized cutout of Queen Elizabeth with the slogan, “I can’t take my tea without the T-P.”
John Blancher, owner of Rock ‘n’ Bowl, danced with the crowd, but grew serious when asked about the newspaper. “I don’t know if I’d be in business without The Times-Picayune,” he said. “Back when I opened in 1988, the most games I had on a weekend was 60. In January 1989, the paper did a story — it came out on a Tuesday — and that following weekend, I had 600 games. I keep hearing about all the new New Orleans entrepreneurs coming to town — and there’s no daily newspaper for them?”
Former columnist Lolis Eric Elie, now a staff writer on HBO’s Treme, addressed the crowd. Longtime columnist Angus Lind, who worked for the paper for 39 years, didn’t speak from the stage, but cited a quote he’d heard: “This isn’t the death of newspapers. This is a drive-by shooting.”
“I think the whole thing was completely premature,” Lind added. “It sends a message that [Advance] doesn’t care about the city. People here don’t like change. How do you have a Monday without a daily newspaper?” he asked, referring to the city’s ritual of reliving Sunday New Orleans Saints games with the T-P sports section.
As the rally wound down, Rolfes — who wore a T-shirt labeled PRINT OR SELL — talked of possible future actions, including putting up WANTED posters with an image of Newhouse executive Steven Newhouse around New York. “This is the start of a long hot summer for Steven Newhouse,” she told the crowd. (In another sign the contretemps isn’t cooling down soon, the hometown T-shirt wars are ramping up. Manufacturers Fleurty Girl and Dirty Coast have both created T-P-centric shirts; Fleurty Girl’s says “Save the Picayune: Don’t Let Bylines Be Bygones,” while Dirty Coast’s reads “The Some-Times Picayune.”)
While the rally was going on, however, WWL-TV and WDSU-TV both broadcast snippets of interviews with Mathews, who reiterated Advance’s dedication to thrice-weekly publishing. Mathews told WWL-TV he “shares the same goal as folks now fighting to save The Times-Picayune,” but added, “A three-day publishing model puts the paper in the best position to survive and serve the public.”
Sources within The Times-Picayune have told Gambit that Advance meetings with employees, which were cancelled abruptly last Friday, remain unscheduled as of now.