The New Orleans Times-Picayune survived Hurricane Katrina. Now it is making its play to stay alive during the digital revolution, stopping the presses for good on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays this fall. Where some see that as another nail in the coffin of dedicated journalism, others view it as a business evolution necessary to keep such journalism alive.
"The Times-Picayune stayed in the water with people when the cops and government left," said Rusty Coats, a longtime newspaper executive who is now a media consultant. "They have a special relationship with the community. But anyone understands that you have to renegotiate your relationship when circumstances change."
And circumstances have changed. In the broader newspaper industry, ad revenue has plunged more than 50% since 2005, while paper, printing and delivery costs rose.
While the change seems radical for the Advance Publication title, it shouldn't leave its ad revenue any worse off. That's because The Times-Picayune will still publish print editions on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, when marketers were already concentrating their promotional fire to pitch new movies or weekend sales.
"If there were demand for advertising on Monday, they'd still have Monday papers," said Alan Mutter, the newspaper veteran who became a Silicon Alley entrepreneur and newspaper-industry blogger.
The risk is that taking four days off the table could further accelerate readers' shift away from print -- even on the days that advertisers still want it. When advertisers buy print, they pay higher ad rates than they would for the web. That's partly why The Times-Picayune collected $64.7 million in print ad revenue last year but only $5.7 million on its website, according to Kantar Media estimates.
But print is only as compelling as its audience. So a lot ultimately will ride on how The Times-Picayune -- like its three Advance siblings in Alabama that are also cutting print to three days a week -- deploys its savings. New Orleans' broader interest in capable, robust news coverage is also at stake.
In Seattle, where Hearst converted the Post-Intelligencer to an all-digital operation with a vastly reduced newsroom in 2009, residents get at least as much news as ever, both from SeattlePI.com and recent online upstarts. The question is the quality.
"In the wake of the PI retreating to some degree, other things have moved in and grown," said Mike Lewis, a former reporter and columnist for the Post-Intelligencer who bought a bar with his severance pay when his job disappeared with the print edition. He has also become regional editor for Patch.com sites in Washington state. "In aggregate, is the city not covered as well as it used to be? I think it's covered more voluminously but not as deeply.
"It's not always trees that grow back," Mr. Lewis added. "It's a lot of scrub."
Advance Publications disputes the idea that cutting four costly days of print will do anything but help the business and the newsroom. "For people to equate not delivering a print publication seven days a week with somehow lessening our commitment to trusted, credible content is flat-out wrong," said Randy Siegel, president for local digital strategy at Advance Publications.
"This is about doing more journalism on more platforms," he added, "not clinging to this rigorous orthodoxy that the only way to serve a community is to print a newspaper seven days a week."
Expect others to follow. The Times-Picayune and the Alabama papers are actually only following the lead of papers in Detroit and elsewhere in Michigan. "It's not at all surprising that Detroit and New Orleans are in the vanguard of this, because those markets have had some fairly catastrophic problems," Mr. Mutter said. "You'll see this happen in markets that are economically less robust, where publishers don't want to fight the headwinds of print and want to just get ahead of the migration to digital."