The fatal step in print-news contraction

Lots of people have been complaining about the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s conversion to a mostly-web operation, with print editions on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. I agree that it’s a ruinous move, but for somewhat different reasoning that is typically put forth.

The most recent piece that I have read is by John McQuaid in The Atlantic.

Most observers are proclaiming that New Orleans no longer has a daily newspaper. That’s not true. The Times-Pic will continue publishing every day, but four days a week it will be web only. As always, this type of conversion disappoints many readers. However, the move simply reflects the overwhelming trend of reader preference toward reading on screens.

It’s true that if the Saints win the Super Bowl again, folks won’t have a Monday-morning poster front page to frame. But for every cellulose reader who would be disappointed, there will be many more who will go to the photo galleries and enjoy.

If the conversion involved no more than this, then the paper could successfully provide the news in formats that readers expect. Except for three things:

1) Apparently the website sucks. However, that would not be fatal to the conversion. If the site were awkward and crummy, it could be improved by an infusion of smarter techies.

2) If the site were a click-centric, marketing-oriented quagmire, it could be improved by greater assertiveness on the part of editors — or an infusion of more assertive editors. But those outcomes are less likely in this age of contraction, so I suppose the venture could be doomed by this factor.

3) In addition to the conversion, the paper’s corporate administrators are also laying off hundreds of news employees at the same time. I could see how a handful of production people would no longer be needed due to the reduced print schedule, but the severity of the layoffs guarantees that reporters are being purged in large numbers. This decision is the fatal step. Regardless of the format, reporters are essential. Reducing their numbers will lead to ruin.

I don’t understand why the critics don’t start with Item 3.

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