By CAIN BURDEAU, Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The Times-Picayune, one of the nation's oldest newspapers, will no longer offer print editions seven days a week and instead plans to offer three printed issues a week starting in the fall. The change means New Orleans would become the largest metro area in the nation without a daily newspaper in the digital age.
The changes announced Thursday were combined with similar moves at three major Alabama daily newspapers also owned by the Newhouse family group's Advance Publications. The Birmingham News, the Press-Register in Mobile and The Huntsville Times will switch to publishing three days a week as part of a new focus on online news. At all four papers, there will be unspecified staff cuts. All four papers will continue to publish continuously on their websites, and online access will remain free.
Newspapers have struggled in recent years as consumers increasingly get their news online. Print advertising declined as the economy went into recession, and newspapers have yet to learn how to make online advertising as profitable as its printed counterpart.
"For us, this isn't about print versus digital, this is about creating a very successful multi-platform media company that addresses the ever-changing needs of our readers, our online users and our advertisers," said Advance Publications' president of local digital strategy, Randy Siegel, in an interview with The Associated Press. "This change is not easy, but it's essential for us to remain relevant."
Siegel didn't say how much money the reduced print runs in Louisiana and Alabama would save, nor how many staff members would be laid off or hired in the new online units.
"To get good quality information is not cheap," said Jennifer Greer, chair of the journalism department at the University of Alabama. "What you are seeing is people trying to figure out a business model that works in a digital age."
The decision was met with sadness by some residents in New Orleans, where The Times-Picayune won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Staffers continued reporting despite being forced out of the newspaper's offices amid widespread flooding and power outages.
The storm drove away thousands of residents, some of whom never came back. The city — and its newspaper — struggled to recover in the years since.
The paper was a lifeline for the Southern, working-class city, providing government announcements, obituaries, Carnival and scoops on local corruption, said Cheron Brylski, a 53-year-old New Orleans-based political consultant. Not having the paper every day is like losing a sports team, she said.
"Where is New Orleans headed since Katrina? This is not something that helps our recovery," she said.
The papers in Alabama also have long histories. The Mobile paper has roots to 1813 with the founding of the Mobile Gazette and became a daily in 1832, according to a history of the publication on al.com. And in 2007, the Birmingham News won a Pulitzer Prize for a series on corruption in Alabama's two-year college system.
Birmingham News employees were told during morning meetings that longtime Editor Tom Scarritt will retire this fall when the new companies are created, according to two reporters who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the changes for the company.
In New Orleans, a new company, the NOLA Media Group, would be created to oversee both The Times-Picayune and its affiliated website, NOLA.com.
The announcements mirror changes Advance Publications made in Michigan. In 2009, the company shut the Ann Arbor News but created AnnArbor.com, a news website that still publishes print editions on Thursday and Sunday.
In February, it launched the MLive Media Group, which runs MLive.com, to focus its efforts in Michigan digitally. Meanwhile, all of its eight other newspapers in the state offer three days of home delivery with newsstand sales from three to seven days a week.
Newspaper analyst Ken Doctor, who writes the Newsonomics blog, said the company is trying to hold on to declining print ad revenue for a few more years, and expects Advance to eventually cut print runs at its other newspapers in New Jersey, Oregon, Ohio and elsewhere. The company owns The Oregonian in Portland, Ore.; The Plain Dealer in Cleveland; and The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.