Two days after executives at NOLA Media Group, publisher of NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune, announced the company would be merging with the Alabama Media Group to form a new "Southeast Regional Media Group," managers at the media company's offices in One Canal Place met with reporters to announce the newsroom would shrink - again.
"They're being pretty upfront about the fact there will be layoffs," said one newsroom staffer. Another joked grimly that it may be "2012 redux" - referring to the firings of some 200 Times-Picayune employees in 2012, a move which riled the city for months and made national news, complete with a report on 60 Minutes.
Director of State and Metro Content Mark Lorando spent part of today and yesterday meeting with small groups within the paper, several people told Gambit. Lorando described layoffs as "deep" to one employee.
The restructuring is scheduled to take place in the latter half of 2015 and be complete by early 2016, said sources with knowledge of the plan.
[jump] Unlike the last major round of cuts, the sources said, sports, arts and feature reporters also are at risk in this round of cuts; in 2012, many of the firings came on the news side. What's unclear is whether duplicate positions in New Orleans and Alabama, like copy editors, would be combined in the new Southeast Regional Media Group. Also unclear when it comes to firings: how much weight will be placed on each writer's "clicks" - the number of times online readers click on a story - which are closely tracked within NOLA Media Group.
Writers in the newsroom say they fear a further diminution of the newsgathering organization's traditional beat structure, which resulted in many reporters covering the same topics for years. After the 2012 move, many news beats were de-emphasized, with writers moved around to "plug holes" as necessary - with the exception of a few of the company's marquee names, like Pulitzer Prize-winning environmental reporter Mark Schleifstein. In a smaller newsroom, sources say, the approach would be less beat reporting than "flooding the zone" - moving a significant number of reporters to cover an important (or click-driving) issue, posting a blitz of many stories on a single topic quickly.
(The term "flood the zone," as used journalistically, is sometimes ascribed to former New York Times Executive Editor Howell Raines - father of Jeff Raines of the funk band Galactic - but Raines told the Boston Phoenix in 2003 that it actually was coined by the NYT's Deputy Managing Editor John Geddes.)
Last October, the company announced The Times-Picayune's printing operations would move to Mobile, Alabama in "late 2015 or early 2016," resulting in the loss of 100 jobs in New Orleans and the likely shuttering of the old Times-Picayune building on Howard Avenue. At the time, management said that the building, when empty, likely would be donated to a New Orleans nonprofit organization.
NOLA.com Publisher Ricky Mathews will lead the new Southeast Regional Media Group, and David Francis, Executive Vice President and Associate Publisher of NOLA Media Group, will become the new publisher of NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. (Most staffers at NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune expect the new Southeast Regional Media Group will be located in Mobile, rather than New Orleans; the company's announcement was vague about the location, but the New Orleans paper soon will be printed there, Mathews has a long history on the Gulf Coast and operational expenses are expected to be cheaper.)
Francis is a native New Orleanian who has been with the company for 30 years, and he will be the paper's first African-American publisher in its 178-year history. He is a more popular figure in the newsroom than Mathews, who has failed to ingratiate himself among the rank and file since he was moved from the Mobile Press-Register to assume the publishership in New Orleans in 2012.
When speaking before civic groups and other organizations, Mathews continually has touted the company's digital success under his leadership. At a March appearance at the Loyola School of Mass Communication with NOLA Media Group VP of Content Jim Amoss and VP of Innovation James O'Byrne, Mathews said NOLA.com saw an 87 percent increase in hits between January 2014 and January 2015.
Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for the Poynter Institute, said Monday that "whatever detractors say about the print-to-digital swing in New Orleans, the company [Advance Publications] is happy with the job Ricky Mathews has done there."
An AL.com press release announcing the merger quoted Tom Bates, president of Alabama Media Group, as saying, "Their respective newsrooms will share best practices and work together on occasional enterprise projects, but will continue to operate separately and independently from each other." Later in the press release, Bates was quoted as saying, "Our plan is to work together to find operational efficiencies while also investing in growth opportunities."
What wasn't immediately clear was whether those "operational efficiencies" might encompass the company's middle management as well as newsroom staffers.
Francis and Lorando have not returned emails from Gambit.