The changes announced Thursday were combined with similar moves at three major Alabama daily newspapers also owned by the Newhouse family group’s Advance Publications. The Birmingham News, the Press-Register in Mobile and The Huntsville Times will switch to publishing three days a week as part of a new focus on online news. At all four papers, there will be unspecified staff cuts. All four papers will continue to publish continuously on their Web sites, and online access will remain free.
Newspapers have struggled in recent years as consumers increasingly get their news online. Print advertising declined as the economy went into recession, and newspapers have yet to learn how to make online advertising as profitable as its printed counterpart.
“For us, this isn’t about print versus digital; this is about creating a very successful multiplatform media company that addresses the ever-changing needs of our readers, our online users and our advertisers,” said Advance Publications’ president of local digital strategy, Randy Siegel, in an interview with The Associated Press. “This change is not easy, but it’s essential for us to remain relevant.”
Siegel didn’t say how much money the reduced print runs in Louisiana and Alabama would save, nor how many staff members would be laid off or hired in the new online units.
“To get good quality information is not cheap,” said Jennifer Greer, the chairwoman of the journalism department at the University of Alabama. “What you are seeing is people trying to figure out a business model that works in a digital age.”
The decision was met with sadness by some residents in New Orleans, where The Times-Picayune won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The paper was a lifeline for the Southern, working-class city said Cheron Brylski, a 53-year-old New Orleans-based political consultant. Not having the paper every day is like losing a sports team, she said.
“Where is New Orleans headed since Katrina? This is not something that helps our recovery,” she said.
The papers in Alabama also have long histories. The Mobile paper has published every day for nearly two centuries – the masthead has long billed it as the state’s oldest, in print since 1813. In 2007, the Birmingham News won a Pulitzer Prize for a series on corruption in Alabama’s two-year college system.
Birmingham News employees were told during morning meetings that longtime Editor Tom Scarritt will retire this fall when the new companies are created, according to two reporters who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the changes for the company.
In New Orleans, a new company, the NOLA Media Group, would be created to oversee both The Times-Picayune and its affiliated Web site, NOLA.com.
The announcements mirror changes Advance Publications made in Michigan. In 2009, the company shut the Ann Arbor News but created AnnArbor.com, a news site that still publishes print editions on Thursday and Sunday.
In February, it launched the MLive Media Group, which runs MLive.com, to focus its efforts in Michigan digitally. Meanwhile, all of its eight other newspapers in the state offer three days of home delivery with newsstand sales from three to seven days a week.
Newspaper analyst Ken Doctor, who writes the Newsonomics blog, said the company is trying to hold on to declining print ad revenue for a few more years, and expects Advance to eventually cut print runs at its other newspapers in New Jersey, Oregon, Ohio and elsewhere. The company owns The Oregonian in Portland, Ore.; The Plain Dealer in Cleveland; and The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.
“It’s a big bet to retain profitability and hope that in the shock therapy, there are profits on the other end,” he said.
Print circulation has been dropping steadily over the years at the four newspapers affected by Thursday’s announcement, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. On average, the four papers’ circulation in the half year through March fell about 6 percent from a year ago.
Nonetheless, The Times-Picayune remains one of the nation’s most successful newspapers. Of the top 50 large-sized markets, the newspaper has the highest rate of readership of its daily edition in the U.S., according to Austin, Texas-based Scarborough Research, a firm that tracks the industry.
The Times-Picayune’s average paid circulation was 133,557 in the six months through March, down 49 percent compared to March 2005, a few months before Hurricane Katrina hit.
The Birmingham News’ circulation of 103,729 is down 29 percent from five years ago; the Press-Register’s of 82,088 is down 18 percent; and The Huntsville Times’ of 44,725 is down 15 percent.
Die-hard supporters and even Mayor Mitch Landrieu pledged to make sure the newspaper remained a part of New Orleans culture.
“Through wars and floods, the ’Aints and a Saints Super Bowl victory, the TP has been and remains an integral part of our daily routine and our culture,” Landrieu said.
Anne Milling, a longtime member of the advisory board to The Times-Picayune, said an online-focused model wouldn’t work in New Orleans. She said she and other supporters were exploring bringing in new owners committed to a daily paper, or even starting a new daily publication.
“We always do things differently,” she said. “It’s part of our tradition: You wake up with a cup of chicory coffee and read the newspaper.”