Poynter’s Rick Edmonds has a solid analysis of Newhouse’s Times-Picayune strategy that’s well worth reading.
As I’ve said before, I acknowledge that the move makes a certain amount of (ruthless) sense given today’s digital landscape. There’s a petition urging Newhouse to retreat from its plan to cut the print paper to three days a week. I’m glad it’s out there and that it’s attracted more than 8,500 signatures, but I haven’t signed it. Why not? It’s not because I’m dismissive of the savage job cuts, which include people who were my friends and mentors when I was young and hopelessly green. It’s not because I’m blithe about how New Orleanians on the wrong side of the digital divide will have access to the news — that’s troubling for any of us who see news organizations as a vital part of our communities.
I haven’t signed it because I know the print business is doomed, vanishing at an actuarial rate, to be replaced by the outcome of digital experiments that still need to be run. And those digital experiments, even if they succeed, will in all likelihood still only support smaller new operations. I wish neither of these things were true, but wishing won’t make it so. Newhouse has treated good people horribly, but broadly speaking they aren’t wrong.
On the details, though, I think they’re very wrong. In fact, I think they’re tragically wrong — and Edmonds’ analysis only makes me more certain about this. Here are the two things I don’t understand:
1. Why is New Orleans the place to try this kind of radical reinvention? The Times-Picayune’s current profitability and the demographics of New Orleans would argue for a different approach, a glide path from print to digital. This is jumping out of a plane without a parachute and hoping you land on a stack of mattresses.
2. Newhouse’s websites are awful — New Orleans may be America’s most vibrant city, but it’s stuck with one of journalism’s most generic websites. As Edmonds notes, Newhouse’s plan hinges on strong growth for digital ad revenues, or some other stacking of digital dimes that don’t currently exist. Unless Newhouse has experienced some Come to Jesus digital moment and is readying an overhaul of NOLA.com into a site people would actually want to spend time on, I don’t see how any of this is going to work. And draconian cuts eliminating big chunks of the Picayune’s institutional memory sure won’t help.