August 29 marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, one of the worst natural-and-engineering disasters in U.S. history. Among the more celebrated heroes to emerge from the storm’s aftermath was the staff of the region’s then-168-year-old newspaper, The Times-Picayune, which won virtually every major journalism award for its Katrina coverage, including two Pulitzer Prizes But today, the New Orleans newspaper is a far different—and many in the industry and community say, diminished—institution. Although the storm fueled the news organization’s journalistic zenith, it also became the tipping point that sent its financial performance into dramatic decline. That, in turn, prompted the newspaper’s owners to embark on a radical business strategy that led to a sizable reduction of its experienced newsroom, outraged a swath of readers and advertisers, and paved the way for an unlikely development in contemporary U.S. journalism: the emergence of a second major newspaper in a metropolitan area.
“We Publish Come Hell and High Water”
The valor and passion of The Times-Picayune’s reporters and photographers during Katrina and its aftermath have been chronicled by news media around the world. After the city’s levees failed, “you realize that 80 percent of the city was underwater,” former staff writer Trymaine Lee told the journal Callaloo. “People are drowning, and people are trapped in attics.”
As I detailed in my 2013 book, Hell and High Water: The Battle to Save the Daily New Orleans Times-Picayune, the storm’s aftermath was the largest residential disaster in U.S. history. The final death toll was 1,836, including 1,577 in Louisiana. (In contrast, 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, which struck far more populous communities in 24 East Coast states, claimed just over 125 American lives.) Katrina displaced more than 1 million Gulf Coast residents, and in New Orleans alone, 70 percent of all occupied residences suffered storm and/or flood damage. The newspaper estimated that one-third of its employees’ homes were seriously damaged or destroyed.
“In our case, we were in the crisis ourselves,” Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss told Andrea Miller, Shearon Roberts, and Victoria LaPoe for their book, Oil and Water: Media Lessons from Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon Disaster. “And everything that was happening in our readers’ lives was happening in our own lives individually. And we were going to see people who had lost everything … our own houses were gone.”
Although Internet-only, general-interest news sites are common today, they were rare in 2005. But with an epically flooded region and a subscriber base largely in exile, The Times-Picayune had no choice but to publish primarily online. For three days after the city flooded, the newspaper consisted of constantly updated blog posts and a PDF version of the newspaper available for download from its website. When a print edition returned September 2, it was 16 pages with no advertising. Some 50,000 copies were printed on contract with the newspaper in Houma, Louisiana, 60 miles away. In contrast, the newspaper’s pre-Katrina daily average circulation was about 260,000.
Page views of The Times-Picayune’s website soared from a typical 600,000 or 700,000 per day to 30 million on the Friday after Katrina’s landfall—an astonishing Internet metric in 2005. “We’ve been checking the NOLA.com blog religiously,” evacuee James Lien told the Online Journalism Review (OJR). “This was the first storm I’ve ever weathered where New Orleans people were obsessed with looking at satellite photos online. Looking for a tiny speck of your house to find out if that tree in the yard fell down, or counting the number of front steps you could see on the church down the block to guess how high the water got over the curb.” OJR called the ability of the paper’s website to quickly post information and photos and its role as an emergency response-and-rescue tool “a watershed moment in journalism.”
While chronicling the tragedy for the world, Times-Picayune journalists paid a steep emotional price. Veteran photographer Ted Jackson shared the anguish of being unable to rescue residents from their flooded homes, and of seeing his first body as he navigated the city with rescuers and spotted a hole hacked through a roof. “We … peered in,” he told DigitalJournalist.org. “The old man had laid down on the rafters in the attic, crossed his hands across his chest and died in the intense heat. His crippled sister had drowned in her wheelchair below.”
Several staffers endured well-publicized battles with mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath, and dozens quickly left New Orleans for good after recounting the death and destruction. “People dealt with it in various ways,” Lee recounted in Oil and Water. “Some people, during the initial days of the crisis, just had this adrenaline rush, you had your blinders on, just get the story … and as time has gone on, we saw people crumble emotionally. Some people had breakdowns, some people have had to do whatever, medicate themselves.”
As Miller, Roberts, and LaPoe noted the newspaper’s corporate owners, Advance Publications, controlled by the billionaire Newhouse media family, stood by the newspaper after the storm. Advance continued to pay employees through mid-October, regardless of whether they had returned to work, and provided health insurance coverage, emergency grants, and no-interest loans.
“The reality was that we lost major advertisers,” veteran reporter Mark Schleifstein told me. “The department stores disappeared, and the grocery stores were a mess, but [the Newhouses] made a conscious decision that this newspaper was not going to die. What I saw was a newspaper that was hurt dramatically, that was being underwritten by the parent company.”
If Advance was good to The Times-Picayune in the aftermath of Katrina, the newspaper had been good to the Newhouses in the 43 years the family owned it before the storm.
Advance is the most private of privately held companies and does not publicly release financial data, but newspaper analysts long assessed it as one of the most profitable chains in the country. The Times-Picayune was widely regarded as a cash cow in an industry that regularly generated profit margins of 25 percent or more.
That changed after Katrina. As the population of the New Orleans metropolitan area plummeted by more than half in the year after the storm, The Times-Picayune’s circulation also plunged. It fell nearly 30 percent in the 27 months after Katrina, according to figures it filed with the industry group Alliance for Audited Media, while newspaper circulation nationally fell by less than 5 percent. By 2012, The Times-Picayune’s circulation dropped another 25 percent. Even as the city’s population rebounded—it regained more than three-quarters of its 2000 population by mid-2012—the newspaper’s circulation continued to plummet. While the paper’s owners and executives acknowledged that it remained profitable, they also admitted profit margins were declining swiftly and dramatically.
But why end the analysis at 2012? Because that was the year in which Advance implemented a business strategy that led to, in the words of Schleifstein, “Katrina without the water.”
“Katrina Without the Water”
In May 2012, New Orleanians and employees of The Times-Picayune learned via The New York Times that a small circle of Picayune senior editors and managers were plotting a dramatic new course for the newspaper. Advance would put the publication at the center of a bold experiment in U.S. journalism: New Orleans would become the largest American city without a daily newspaper. The daily Times-Picayune would be replaced with a three-day-a-week publication and an expanded NOLA.com, the newspaper’s website that was routinely criticized as mediocre. The changes would involve deep staff cuts at an organization that had never instituted an involuntary layoff. Additional savings would result from reduced printing and delivery costs.
Almost immediately, the community went berserk. A grassroots campaign included dedicated Facebook pages and Twitter accounts with thousands of followers, an online petition that eventually garnered close to 10,000 signatures, 1,500 yard signs supporting a daily newspaper, and public protests. A New Orleans philanthropist recruited a who’s who of city business and civic leaders to lobby against the changes, while the owner of the city’s NFL and NBA franchises publicly pursued acquiring the newspaper.
The specter of Katrina fueled the campaign. As Miller, Roberts, and LaPoe noted in Oil and Water, “… the protest underscored the significance and essence of local news, a relationship solidified by Katrina.”
Despite a valiant community effort, more than 200 employees, including one-half of the newsroom, got their pink slips. Mounting anxiety and uncertainty over future employment then prompted a rash of defections to other media outlets locally and across the country that continued well into the next year. In response, The Times-Picayune rescinded the terminations of at least 10 employees, but “digital first” and its reduced publication schedule went into effect October 1, 2012.
A Two-Newspaper Town
Amid the stops and starts, reversals and confusion, an unintended consequence of Advance’s bungled move was a development previously regarded as almost impossible in contemporary U.S. journalism: a new newspaper war.
New Orleans businessman John Georges bought the Baton Rouge Advocate in the spring of 2013. The New Orleans edition of the paper was initially staffed exclusively by a handful of former Times-Picayune reporters, editors, and photographers who lost their jobs in the mass layoff. That number grew to three dozen over the next several months as The Advocate poached Times-Picayune talent that had been badly shaken by the “digital first” debacle.
Although Times-Picayune executives denied it was in response to The Advocate, the Picayune restored Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday editions in June 2013, followed by resumption of Saturday editions in September 2014.
In what appeared to be another retrenchment, the company in October 2014 announced it would abandon its longtime New Orleans headquarters and printing presses in favor of printing the newspaper at the Mobile, Alabama, operations of its sister newspaper and trucking it to New Orleans, 145 miles away. The move is expected to eliminate another 100 jobs later this year or in early 2016.
Citing figures supplied to AAM, The Advocate in January 2015 announced that it had, by a hair, surpassed The Times-Picayune as Louisiana’s largest newspaper. That distinction may not matter to the Picayune and its new parent company, NOLA Media Group, which is focused on digital growth.
“We’re a completely different product now,” Schleifstein said earlier this month. “We’ve gone from being a newspaper that posted some of our content online to being an online operation whose material is put into print.”
However, The Times-Picayune must grapple with the same predicament newspapers across the country face: dominant print advertising revenue that is declining far faster than fledgling online ad revenue is growing. “New Orleans is such a traditional community that I think we’ll probably have a print newspaper a hundred years from now, but the goodwill that was lost in the community will never come back,” said a NOLA Media Group staffer who requested anonymity for fear of retribution for talking candidly about the situation. It’s frustrating because if things had been handled better, maybe we’d still have those print ad revenues to support us as we make the digital transition.”
But without those revenues, more cutbacks are expected. New Orleans alternative weekly Gambit reported in June that additional layoffs will occur later this year or in early 2016, which several employees confirmed for me. Also in June, Advance announced that its five Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama newspapers would be consolidated into a new entity, the Southeast Regional Media Group, which is expected to be headquartered in Mobile, ending New Orleans’s reign as Advance’s longtime top Southern market.