Mass layoffs or ‘job notifications’? Advance’s attempt to spin its Deep South newspaper guttings

Six hundred employees at four Deep South newspapers lost their jobs Tuesday, as Advance Publications continues its transition to primarily digital news. The cuts hit newsrooms surprisingly hard, especially in the wake of Advance’s earlier commitment to “significantly increase online news-gathering efforts” and offer “richer” “deeper” “robust” “enhanced printed newspapers on a scheduled of three days a week.”

In May, Advance announced limited print schedules and a revamped online approach for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the Birmingham News, the Mobile Press-Register, and the Huntsville Times.

[RELATED: Times-Picayune, part of New Orleans culture, scaling back; Alabama papers hit, too]

The Times-Picayune lost 49% of its news staff on Tuesday. The Birmingham News purged 60% of their journalists. In moves that cut roughly one-third of each newspaper’s overall staffing, it would seem that the actual news gatherers were hit disproportionately hard.

Advance promises that a portion of these positions will be refilled, no doubt by less experienced, more affordable reporters. Still, fulfilling the watchdog role of the press is awful tough work when there aren’t capable bodies there to do the groundwork.

And if yesterday’s events were any indication, the NOLA and AL media groups are going to have a lot of trouble covering their respective cities. Just look at how poorly they covered themselves…

NOLA.com posted a video of Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss announcing the “changes” late Tuesday morning. In the three-minute clip, a noticeably uncomfortable Amoss says that the paper “had to let go of some wonderful employees.”

That was the extent of the information NOLA.com provided its readers. No transcript, much less  a story, accompanied the video, which suffered from an already agitating media player and apparently did not work on mobile devices.

Instead, word of the specific firings was left for other media sources to uncover. Most of the work was done by the Gambit, a New Orleans alternative print weekly that stands to gain advertising dollars from the T-P’s cutbacks but has championed the city’s protests nevertheless.

As the New York Times’ Southern correspondent Campbell Robertson described it:

“The hope is that a hybrid product of print and digital offerings will be economically viable in the long term. But on Tuesday there was only the short term, and the Twitter account of The Gambit, the city’s alternative weekly, which The Times-Picayune staff members followed to see who had been invited back and who was laid off.”

NOLA.com began to release some of the more notable names that were laid off by Tuesday afternoon. The Gambit reported that at least one of those names, sports columnist Peter Finney, was at home writing a column when the news was published. Nobody had told him he was among the casualties.

The print newspapers brought readers up to speed Wednesday morning. Poynter Director Julie Moos compared the presentations of the news, complete with images of each paper’s front page. The Times-Picayune coverage was upfront and uncomfortable. In other words, just what it should have been.

Courtesy the Newseum (newseum.org).

The headline, “Paper lays off 200 employees,” is prominent and gets straight to the point. The story includes large, color pictures from inside the newsroom and a wealth of department-by-department information. NOLA.com featured the headline in a banner in between the site’s navigation and the “front page” story.

If the Times-Picayune was upfront and uncomfortable, the Alabama newspapers were deceptive and aloof. Each of the three papers placed a small headline and blurb on the bottom third of the front page, all spinning the layoffs:

  • Birmingham News: Papers, al.com notify workers about job status
  • Huntsville Times: Times begins job notifications
  • Mobile Press-Register: Newspapers, al.com notify employees of job status (This from the paper that announced their decreased print schedule with the front-page headline: “Exciting changes for our readers.”)
Courtesy the Newseum (newseum.org).

Each paper ran the same “staff”-attributed article. AL.com did not have the article anywhere on its homepage Wednesday morning. In fact, I only found it through the website’s search function. Turns out, the only posting is a blog post inside the business subsection of the “Inside Alabama” section written Tuesday morning and not subsequently updated. It’s headline may be the most egregious of all:

Job offers? How splendid!

In fact, the New York Times also reported that many of the retained employees have been removed from their longtime roles and given ambiguous titles, like columnist John Archibald, who will now be the “local buzz reporter,” and Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer Joey Kennedy, now a “community engagement specialist” – titles that sound as puffed up as calling mass layoffs “job offers.”

We knew the pain was coming. We knew the layoffs would be huge. Economically, they had to be. The connection between the Times-Picayune and its readers – they weathered Katrina together – demanded honest coverage. By and large, that community received it. But in Alabama, where the backlash has not been as severe, Advance Publications showed the world exactly how they envision the new age of newspapers to operate… transparency buried deep within a convoluted, ineffective website, muted by headlines that reassure us everything is okay.

If a media group can’t effectively and honestly cover itself, what faith should the citizens have in their watchdog?

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