Lay this media drama at feet of Newhouse family

By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary

The fiat in May 2012 by the Newhouse family – or, more accurately, by the Newhouse kids – to make New Orleans a three-day-a-week newspaper town was a litmus test for greed, arrogance and willful disenfranchisement.

By any calculus – journalistic or economic – The Times-Picayune was not just another corner store. As a private business, of course, it had the absolute freedom to roll the dice, and it hatched a risk-reward strategy that, in the short term, crushed a lot of people and, in the end, fueled its own demise.

In essence, what the Newhouse kids were telling New Orleans newspaper readers in 2012 was to just move on.  Take your medicine. Like it or lump it.

Before its decision to deliver a newspaper three days a week was breathlessly announced, there had been no reader input. There had been no advertiser input. God forbid, there had been no staff input.

In one afternoon, 175 years of goodwill built up by the daily presence of The Times-Picayune in our community  had vanished. No matter that the newspaper, which was a beacon of truth and reassurance in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, was still printing money, though nowhere near the 25-30% return on investment that had existed during the print product’s zenith.

Anyone who can fog a mirror understands the news business is changing at warp speed, and, as a result, the method of delivering that news has to accommodate that revolution. But The  New­house Family’s solution was akin to amputating first and doing the blood test in a couple of weeks.

The backlash was withering. The Newhouses either failed to consider or simply disregarded the impact that their scorched-earth “reinvention” of news delivery would mean – beefing up its “digital” delivery of information in a town where one third of the population had limited or no access to the internet.

The human carnage – 200 staff members, one-third of the company’s payroll, jettisoned from their jobs in the following four months – was enormous. These were men and women of modest means with mortgages, car notes and tuition to pay, and their value to an informed society, like that of teachers, is disproportionate to their pay grade.

Another round of staff cuts in 2015 cost another three dozen editing and reporting jobs. Over the years, the cuts in employment slashed a staff of 900 to 161.

Despite outcries from the community – from readers, advertisers, business executives, university presidents – The Family remained intransigent. They would not sell. They knew their approach would work. New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson tried to buy the paper but was  summarily rebuffed.

Into this self-created vacuum came The Advocate, with the promise from owner John Georges to publish and deliver a seven-day-a-week newspaper in New Orleans. He gambled that he was right and the Newhouse kids were wrong. He did that and began making inroads.

And then, early last week, Georges announced his purchase of The Times-Picayune and its nola.com website for an undisclosed amount. All 161 staff members of The Times-Picayune and nola.com have been laid off, according to a WARN (Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification) Act notice filed with the Louisiana Workforce Commission.

Among those facing unemployment are 65 staff writers and editors.

Georges has promised to hire as many of those staffers as possible for his seven-day-a-week, 24/7 newspaper and website – remember, this is a “both-and” approach of delivering news – but it’s obvious not all will land on their feet with the new company.

Some have suggested Georges is to blame for cutting more jobs. That would be shortsighted. If there is ultimate blame, it lies with the Newhouses, who took a long walk on a short pier in 2012 and told the city of New Orleans to just get over it.

Over seven years, the New­house family steadily dismantled The Times-Picayune  and wrung every penny out of it that they could. They sold off the presses. They sold off the main building. They sold off every piece of suburban property, save one. They steadily reduced the size of the staff.

After seven years, when the enterprise was nothing but a dry husk, they sold off the last asset that had any value – their own name. Then they fired the entire staff, turned out the lights and left town. Shouldn’t be any confusion about that.

Good, quality, truthful journalism is a foundation for democracy. People with bylines who cover the Kenner City Council or the St. James Parish School Board are vital in their roles as watchdogs of publicly elected officials.

They deserve our financial support, because when a daily newspaper cannot find a workable business model to pay for its bread-and-butter newsgathering, we are left with Vinnie sitting on his sofa, with a laptop, commenting anonymously on the state of the City Council.

Thank you, Times-Picayune staffers. You are the true heroes of this sad saga.

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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