Newspapers vs. Newspeak: Five Key Points About the Most Recent Round of NOLA.com Layoffs

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Published  October 2015

In September 2015, NOLA.com fired 28 more full-time staffers (more than a fifth of NOLA.com’s remaining newsroom) and nine part-timers. These layoffs follow earlier firings of hundreds of longtime local employees, the end of daily Times-Picayune delivery, and the announcement that the Times-Pic will be printed in Alabama. Here are some facts about the situation.

1. These firings are not an inevitability tied to the decline of newspaper reading or changes in technology.

When the Newhouses, the New Jersey family who own the corporation that owns the Times-Picayune, ended that paper’s daily delivery in 2012, the Times-Pic was profitable. Its 2011 revenues were $100 million, and it had the highest penetration in the United States of any metro daily its size or larger. These days, its circulation isn’t even the highest in the state. Since the New Orleans “digital experiment” began, helmed by the heinous Ricky Mathews—a gormless hybrid of court jester and executioner—the bottom has fallen out of the paper’s circulation and print revenue. Advertising revenues from NOLA.com have failed to fill the gap.

These recent firings are a desperate cost-cutting decision handed down by executives entirely disconnected from the values held by anyone who works for them or the communities affected. The miscalculations and misguided arrogance of those in charge of NOLA.com are why more people are getting fired. The “digital experiment” for which our city served as unwilling laboratory has been a failure. Part of the reason is that New Orleans is not like other places in which such experiments have been conducted, but none of the real decision-makers have any knowledge of or interest in New Orleans. These moguls of business (and their lickspittle local apologists) try to spin their ugly choices as wise, necessary, proactive moves made amid shifting big-picture media tectonics, as the only possible outcome of changing circumstances over which no one has control… but that’s because they are cowards unwilling to speak plainly or own their mistakes. To name just a few: the end of daily delivery, the TP Street, and the stillborn Baton Rouge bureau were disastrous fiduciary pratfalls that would be funny if they hadn’t harmed so many Louisiana families.

Powerful people always strive to cloak their misdeeds and the human toll of their profiteering in the language of inevitability. This allows them to assert that profitable disasters and tragedies—mass layoffs, mass incarceration, mass displacement of anyone not super-rich—are not the direct result of systemic sociopathic greed, abetted by government policies the wealthy crafted, but rather the natural order of things, an expression of larger forces in which all of us poor fucks are somehow mystically complicit.

2. There is only one systemic force driving these layoffs: global capitalism.

NOLA.com and its occasional print supplement are lately components of a new “Southeast Regional Media Group,” combining resources with the similarly Newhouse-destroyed remnants of three former Alabama dailies. The decision to consolidate all of these papers, a measurable disservice to the communities they once served, is a facet of 21st-century capitalism’s accelerative nature. Even if a company makes a profit, that’s not enough. It must promise exponential, ongoing gains and growth. Everything must continually become more profitable, via consolidation, automation (made possible by technological development), and deeper exploitation of the remaining workers.

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It’s inefficient to pay humans to report news where they live. It can be profitable, as the Times-Picayune was, and as John Georges’ Advocate is, but it’s not profitable enough for the puppetmasters pulling the strings of Ricky Mathews and Jim Amoss. Global capitalism’s endless drive to efficientize means services and amenities, including information, cluster in more affluent city cores. The poor are pushed out into suburban hinterlands where, with the exception of murders, their lives and experiences are ignored. 

For example, it’s hard to think of a more news-rich region than the crucial oil-industry parishes of St. Bernard and Plaquemines, just downriver of New Orleans. I can’t imagine a news consumer who wouldn’t want to read with prurient interest of St. Bernard President Dave Peralta, recently revealed as a BDSM freak who abused his wife in a sex dungeon. The most powerful man in the Parish is accused of sexually assaulting his ex-wife, stalking multiple women, punitively firing whistleblowers, seeking “emergency powers” over a rebelling Parish Council, illegally gambling his campaign money at casinos all over the Gulf Coast, and lying to a grand jury about it. He’s been indicted on 22 criminal counts, and more are pending. It’s rich journalistic fodder, even if just for its sensationalism.

Then there’s Plaquemines, the rapidly submerging front lines of environmental racism, where corrupt politicos tied to construction firms go behind the backs of communities of color to cut deals placing toxic refineries and coal terminals in towns with majority Black populations. You can’t tell me that if anyone who knew or cared about our region was involved in these layoffs, they’d have done what the brain trust of the “Southeast Regional Media Group” did, firing the sole reporter assigned to these two parishes.

How about music? New Orleans seems like a town that should have dedicated music reporters, doesn’t it? Nope, both positions cut. Local music magazine OffBeat, in line with the commendable candor of its editor, Jan Ramsey, responded with a piece titled “Times-Picayune Abandons Music Journalism.”

These firings, and the gutting of NOLA.com’s previously prioritized high-school sports department, don’t seem sensible if your goal is to be a South Louisiana news organization, or even, as Jim Amoss described the vision for NOLA.com a couple years ago, a “website emphasizing sports and entertainment.”

But reporting is merely what the staff wanted to do, not something the owners care about. You don’t need reporters to steal news from other organizations, as NOLA.com routinely does, running the bulk and substance of someone else’s reportage with a desultory backlink to the source. You don’t need reporters to post press releases from Idea Village and Propeller, unvetted and unread advertorial hand-jobs for a tech industry that barely exists. Since NOLA.com pays to be associated with nonsense like “Entrepreneur Week,” it’s hardly shocking the techies get a critical pass on their other endeavors. Having witnessed NOLA.com’s approach to Will Donaldson and his lackey Barre Tanguis’ St. Roch Market swindle, one can but imagine the encomiums that will be ladled atop whatever disruptive entrepreneurial innovation replaces the Mid-City branch library.

All this is efficiency. New Orleans was spared many of the depredations of 20th-century capitalism. We were backwards. We were poor and exploited—I’m not trying to romanticize our massive wealth disparities—but we weren’t modern. After the failure of the federal levees, 21st-century capitalism moved in: into our schools, our media, our real-estate, and (with lesser success) our government. Our experience of being brutally wrenched from a staid, decaying quasi-mercantile economy into the atomized, alienated nightmare of 21st-century techno-capitalism is an unfolding story. But as with other stories of local import, I wouldn’t search for it on NOLA.com, unless it’s aggregated there from somewhere else.

 

3. This tragedy occurs because our local resources are not under local control.

The international oil industry makes billions—billions!—from our state’s natural resources, destroying our coast in the process, and we who live in Louisiana see nary a dime of that profit beyond the paychecks given to workers. Of course, since the oil industry and industrialized fishing have made traditional, semi-independent Louisiana jobs like shrimping no longer viable, the oil industry can set its wages as it likes. New Orleans has tourism; the rest of the state’s economy is oil. Our state government exists to serve the oil industry, and the last governor who asked an oil company to give a few pennies of its profits back to the state coffers was assassinated in 1935.

Louisiana’s oil, a rich local resource, is not under local control. Neither is the Times-Picayune.

In 1962, after buying the Times-Pic and the States-Item (the city’s only other remaining daily), the Newhouse family didn’t exert much direct editorial influence. They were content to sit back and let the money roll in, eventually folding the papers into one. The monopoly ran smoothly, representing Uptown and big oil interests. The Newhouses left coverage decisions to the local Comus and Rex types to whom the paper pandered.

When the Newhouses killed the daily paper in 2012, our city’s ossified elite angrily demanded  the Newhouses sell the Times-Picayune to someone who cared about it, someone local. The Newhouses just laughed. It’s been an ugly awakening for our town’s penny-ante one percenters. Their absolute impotence, after complacent decades directing the paper’s editorial focus, luxuriating like narcissistic imbeciles in its breathless coverage of their society soirees, highlights the “global” in the term global capitalism. Tulane thinks it’s Harvard, our Archbishop thinks he’s the Pope, and the tin-crowned tyrants of Rex think they’re titans of industry. They’re not. To those with real money and power—BP, Dutch Shell, the Newhouses—our small-town bluebloods are nothing.

4. This tragedy is harder to fight because our media is not unionized.

Lately, writers at major digital media outlets including Gawker and VICE have unionized. Great writers (and world-class photographers) staffed the Times-Pic and NOLA.com, but there was never a union, due in part to worker apathy, in part to a self-defeating exceptionalist machismo endemic to “old-school” newspapering, and in part to the sop of a non-binding Newhouse agreement known colloquially as The Pledge:

No full-time, non-represented employee will be laid off or otherwise lose his or her job due to technological change or economic conditions, as long as our newspaper continues to publish daily in its current newsprint form.

In 2009, The Newhouses opted to rescind The Pledge, and employees learned what the promises of bosses are worth. Successive accelerating and enlarging rounds of firings began at the 35 Newhouse-owned daily papers nationwide. The biggest hit in New Orleans arrived in 2012, coinciding with the decision to kill the daily Times-Pic and merge its staff with that of the paper’s notoriously clunky website, NOLA.com.

Among the fired was then Times-Pic Managing Editor Dan Shea, who eight years back had spoken of solidarity between management and publishers. The occasion of those remarks had been Shea taking bonus money to cross the picket line and scab for the owners of the Youngstown, Ohio Vindicator while its unionized employees were on strike, an arrangement brokered by the Newhouses.

I tell this sorry tale because when you’re management, you have power over workers. It’s not hard to delude yourself into thinking your interests are congruent with those of the owners; it may even be necessary for effective management. That delusion makes management super-duper useful to owners, right up until a given manager ceases to be useful and is discarded like the pawn she or he was.

In the wake of the 2012 bloodbath, John Georges, a Baton Rouge businessman whose fortune came largely from “fruit machine” gambling devices, bought the bloodlessly right-wing Baton Rouge Advocate. He opened a New Orleans bureau, launching a New Orleans daily edition staffed in part with those laid off from the Times-Pic. He’s since begun a Lafayette edition as well. While The New Orleans Advocate is a good daily—far better than what most of the country gets by with—John Georges as savior of the daily newspaper is not a narrative I’d urge anyone to take up. He’s a billionaire, like the Newhouses, and I don’t believe The Advocate has any more worker protections in place than did the Times-Picayune.

5. Blaming those that remain at NOLA.com (besides the sell-outs in management) is dangerously misdirected.

The Columbia Journalism Review said NOLA.com’s Baton Rouge bureau, initially run by now “Vice President for Innovation” James O’Byrne, was “widely viewed internally as an embarrassment.” It was opened by Mathews et al. as a wasteful gesture, a petty slap at John Georges, but this sad piece of gamesmanship did employ real human beings who, despite a lack of editorial leadership, tried to do what they thought they were supposed to. Now, two years later, the Baton Rouge bureau’s been closed down as capriciously as it was opened. Some of its young faces are trooping down I-10 to take up (more cheaply) the work left by those fired in New Orleans.

I shouldn’t need to say this, but animosity towards NOLA.com’s surviving journalists—or, as NOLA.com’s press release branded them, “content staffers”—is as misguided as blaming sharecroppers for supporting the wealth of their landlord. Georges’ Advocate and what’s left of the Times-Pic aren’t teams one should root for or against. Their employees aren’t millionaire NFL players. Both our city’s daily paper and the webalized dregs of its former daily paper are commercial media outlets owned by arbitrary billionaires, and both have great reporters and photographers on staff.

If you’ve never lived through a mass layoff, you don’t know how horrific it can be even for those left behind. Besides the soul-crushing insecurity and precarity, there is survivor’s guilt, compounded by lose-lose choices: take a just-fired friend’s job at steeply reduced salary, or go on the unemployment line. The remaining staff at NOLA.com are traumatized and in mourning. They’re not idiots. They know their bosses are scum (though perhaps not worse scum than whoever you work for). The rank-and-file employees don’t have power in this situation, and blaming those without power for the actions of the powerful only serves the interests of the powerful. The reporters and photographers of NOLA.com take their work seriously. They want to do work they believe in, same as anyone. If they were shitheads, they’d be in management by now.

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