Thursday, June 14, 2012

The message is clear

(Inspired by this)

In the early morning hours of Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina churned toward the coast of Louisiana. Our presses had stopped, it was dark, a few people were doing all the work and what little information we could compile was sent out in brief, bloggy bursts.

For our efforts, we won two Pulitzer Prizes. And that’s when we realized the value of cheap, online, on-the-fly journalism. And we figured, why not just do it that way all the time?

Beginning this fall, we will become a news operation focused on digital journalism. Again. But this time, the Katrina that will shut down our daily press is us.

After all, online is where the clicks are in the 21st century. In the aftermath of Katrina, our page views went from 800,000 a day to 30 million. Those three digital days have inspired our new business plan, wherein we hope for a new disaster every three days.

The reality we face today is that newspapers have experienced 22 consecutive quarterly declines in national ad revenue, dating back to 2006. I’m not sure how that stat relates to our specific revenue figures, but it sure sounds bad, doesn’t it?

In its salad days, The Picayune set itself apart with its entrepreneurial boldness. It put out a quality product with efficiency and profitability. But change and innovation are also in our blood. And these days, the innovation is in creating a corporate model that involves a firearm and a foot. Or a hara kiri blade. Anything other than the traditional, outmoded model that made the Picayune so popular.

Our response in the past to shrinking revenue and increasing demand for immediacy has been to reduce pages and payroll, and to ask more of our leftover staff. We've whittled away at our business, and we all know it. But it’s clear that those efforts staved off a day of reckoning. And now we’ve created our own day of reckoning. See? It happened!

Our news organization has decided not to sit idly by as passive witnesses to our own decline; we choose to be active participants in our decline. This week, we announced that we will reduce the size of our staff through layoffs that will cause us to lose many talented colleagues. It was a deeply painful decision. But we made it in order to preserve and grow the journalism we and our community value. No, really.

The response to that last bit of news has been passionate. At least, that’s the rumor. We no longer have the resources — or the interest — to verify that.

Readers no longer want today's news tomorrow. They want it now, no matter how little information is available or whether or not it’s been vetted. They certainly don’t want the verified, in-depth pieces that are a hallmark of print media. Which is good, because our new online model ensures that overworked journalists won’t be able to pull themselves away from the pressure of generating constant online updates to devote the time necessary for a deeper story.

We are listening to your concerns and suggestions for the website and acting on them. (The paper itself, not so much.) It should be a site that feels familiar and gives an overview of the important stories, as well as the constantly updating stream of news in no particular order of relevance.

We want to be as much a part of your daily news habit and the glue that binds our community as The Times-Picayune is. Such a reputation takes decades to build, we know, but we’re asking for it now.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we proved that great, essential journalism does not require newsprint and a printing press. What it does require is great journalists, people who know our city and have a sense of mission about keeping readers informed and engaged, no matter the obstacles. Our commitment to that mission is undiminished.

Except for all the veteran reporters we fired remotely from New York. They were obstacles.

Hey, we’re a business. And business is expensive. Especially when all you’ve got is online revenue. When you look at it like that, this all makes sense.

The message is clear: adapt, or fade away. We will.

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