June 14, 2012

Nieman Foundation giveth, Times-Picayune taketh away


David Carr of the New York Times ticked off an intriguing tweet yesterday concerning Brett Anderson, a journalist at the New Orleans Times-Picayune:

Turns out Anderson, a restaurant critic, got the old pink slip shortly after his paper announced, proudly, that he’d also been selected for the Nieman Foundation Fellows Class of 2013.

Times-Picayune restaurant critic Brett Anderson has been selected as a member of the Nieman Foundation Fellows Class for 2013. He is one of 24 journalists chosen, the Nieman Foundation announced Friday.

The Nieman Foundation administers the prestigious fellowship program, which allows accomplished and promising journalists a year of study at Harvard, with time to pursue individual areas of interest, along with integrated class work to enhance their expertise.

This news comes in the wake of last month’s announcement that the paper was scaling back print production to three days a week and focusing its energy on developing a stronger, more profitable Web presence. What’s more, when the paper explained how it would move forward from an editorial standpoint in light of these changes, it made a point of stressing that plans were underway to “enhance its award-winning food and dining coverage.”

The newspaper plans to continue its highly successful Picayune community news sections, covering neighborhood news in Jefferson, Orleans, St. Tammany, St. John, St. Charles and St. Bernard parishes, [content boss Jim] Amoss said. There are also plans to enhance the paper’s award-winning food and dining coverage, and to continue to offer both the Lagniappe entertainment tab and the Inside/Out home and garden tab each Friday.

Every month or so it seems another venerable newspaper announces cutbacks and for a moment or two readers and reporters throw up their arms in protest, et cetera, but the fire of this particular story is especially hot, and promises to burn for days.

Indeed, as Bloomberg Businessweek reported yesterday:

The paper said 84 of the newsroom’s 173 employees were cut at the 175-year-old paper. Advertising, circulation and other departments also were affected. The change means New Orleans will become the largest metro area in the nation without a daily newspaper in the digital age …

Peter Finney, a sports writer for the paper since 1945, is being laid off but has been asked to write a freelance column, the paper said. Managing editors Peter Kovacs and Dan Shea, among the newsroom leaders during the paper’s Pulitzer Prize winning coverage of Hurricane Katrina‘s aftermath, have not been asked to stay. Brett Anderson, the current restaurant critic for the food-obsessed city, is leaving for a fellowship.

That Anderson is “leaving” contradicts what Erik Wemple, writing in the Washington Post, filed Wednesday:

As an apparent prelude to its stepped-up food coverage, the Times-Picayune has laid off highly regarded food-and-dining expert Brett Anderson. Just how does that work?

Perhaps Anderson himself was given a full and complete explanation of all the logic behind the move. And then, perhaps not. Anderson on this question:

“My meeting lasted less than five minutes, and I didn’t really say anything. I was told I’m being let go because I’m taking a Nieman Fellowship.”

Seems even during the employee termination process newspapers really wrangle over word choice.

But this story is bigger than Brett Anderson, of course, as many of his former colleagues are now without jobs and do not have the Nieman Foundation to fall back on. Sure, it’s no mystery that print newspapers are in decline and that such cutbacks will continue to wrench the life out of the industry until a healthier business model develops. And sure, cutbacks are cutbacks and that means people lose jobs, regardless of their laurels. But the really striking detail in all of this — even more than the bitter irony — is how bemused the paper’s management appears. One simply does not sugarcoat news of a major production scale-back with the caveat of renewed focus on food and dining and then oust the very award-winning reporter whose skills, I don’t know, might help achieve that focus.

But business focus, or personal sympathy, at least on the part of Nola Media Group, which owns the Times-Picayune, apparently was in short supply on Wednesday. According to the New Orleans Gambit,

No one from Advance Publications or Newhouse, the parent companies of The Times-Picayune, was on hand to deliver the news — leaving the job to the paper’s editors in brief individual meetings with those whom they supervised. The paper’s new publisher, Ricky Mathews, was not seen in the building.

Richard Thompson, a business writer, brought a bottle of Crown Royal to his individual meeting. He ended up splitting it with business editor Kim Quillen. Both were fired.

Here’s hoping they land on their feet.


Kevin Murphy is the digital media marketing manager of Melville House.