In May, as the New Orleans Times-Picayune put to bed an epic, eight-part investigation into Louisiana’s prison system, its editors began to disappear. First, Mark Lorando, the features editor, was nowhere to be found. Then the chairs of the online editor, Lynn Cunningham, and the sports editor, Doug Tatum, were empty. So was that of the city editor, Gordon Russell. Newsroom wags called it The Rapture.
Conspicuously left behind: Peter Kovacs and Dan Shea, managing editors for news, whose subordinates, sworn to secrecy, hadn’t told them what was up. As Kovacs, Shea, and a team of 20 put final touches on the series, “Louisiana Incarcerated,” the chosen editors—including Jim Amoss, the top editor—were two miles away in the Place St. Charles tower, implementing a plan that would make a story like that series far more difficult to pull off in the future.
The secret meetings in May led to a bloodletting in June. Advance Publications laid off nearly half the paper’s newsroom, halted daily publication of the Picayune, and implemented a business and news model that shifts the focus of the operation to its free news website, NOLA.com.
Ten months later, a battle still rages for the soul of the Times-Picayune, and over the meaning of what happened. Much of the media coverage of the changes in New Orleans, while critical of Advance and the paper’s leaders, has focused on the decision to cut publication to three days a week and, to a lesser extent, on the layoffs, which were devastating even by today’s standards. Those are, of course, important storylines.
Less examined: the radical change in how journalism is done at the 176-year-old Times-Picayune and what that means for the future of news coverage. And even less examined are the strange finances of the move, which help explain what to many appears inexplicable, from either a journalistic or a business point of view.