Monday, December 17, 2012


Join us this New Year’s Eve for a noise demonstration in front of Orleans Parish Prison. This ongoing tradition is part of the international call-out to bring in the New Year with noise demos against prisons, jails, and detention centers.

Bring banners, loud noise-makers, pots and pans, brass instruments, sound systems, and whatever else you need to bring the ruckus. Please send this announcement to listserves and invite your friends.

Noise demonstrations are meant to break the loneliness and isolation of prison by breaching the walls with the sounds of solidarity. This small gesture reminds those on the inside that they are not alone, indeed that there are many of us on the outside fighting for a world without prisons or the police that keep them filled.

Noise demos also tell the jailers and police that no matter how many consent decrees they sign these coercive institutions will never become legitimate in our eyes; that something so inherently oppressive as a prison cannot be reformed short of being reduced to a pile of rubble.

This year a special shout-out goes to the imprisoned Matthew Duran and Kteeo Olejnik, as well as Maddy Pfeiffer who has been ordered to turn themselves in, for refusing to cooperate with a secret federal Grand Jury investigation targeting anarchists in the Pacific Northwest. Through acts of solidarity and mutual aid we wish to tear down every prison wall, brick by brick.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Donate to the Raging Pelican newspaper!

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Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Murder of the Times-Picayune: Part Six

the future of the journalist


Heard of this "Bounce Music?" It came out of our city's predominantly African-American housing projects. It's been around a couple decades, so it's clearly more than a fad. Regardless of my own feelings towards the genre, there's no denying lots of people love it.

In the twenty-first century, the Times-Picayune's music writer Keith Spera has published four articles about bounce musicians. In 2003, he profiled a West Bank web developer named Rami Sharkey who makes joke bounce songs under the name "Ballzack." You decide how much it matters that Ballzack isn't black-- I don't care enough about him to even have opinions. In 2004, Spera wrote about Juvenile. Then, in 2005 and 2008, Spera wrote two more articles about Ballzack.

This isn't just a Keith Spera problem-- besides a few profiles in the mid-'90s, you can find almost no Times-Pic mentions of bounce musicians before 2009, except those in obituaries and crime stories ("victim was rap singer, in-demand at 'bounce' parties"). The dismissive tenor of the '90s bounce reportage is summed up by (the also white) Scott Aiges' 1994 piece titled "THE SOUND AND THE FURY: NOT EVERYONE LOVES NEW ORLEANS BOUNCE."

Not everyone. Let's take a look at the Times-Pic's Entertainment and Living writers in January 2009. Two dozen writers, just before the rescinding of the Pledge and the first big wave of layoffs. Click the image on the right to open a larger version, but please adjust your monitor's brightness setting before doing so; I don't want you burning your retinas.

They're all white.

A lot of these people are and were superb at their jobs, but does this panoply of honkies really look to you like New Orleans entertainment and living? Don't get me wrong-- some of my best friends are white. I'm not attacking these individual writers for the color of their skin; I'm attacking the Times-Picayune for having an entirely white staff covering "Entertainment and Living" in this historically black city. It's inexcusable.

If you look at the team NOLA Media Group has covering Entertainment & Living these days, you see nothing has changed percentage-wise. Fewer faces, still all white. The Times-Picayune did finally begin covering bounce music beyond Ballzack; in '09 they brought on Alison Fensterstock, a good writer who's built a career documenting African-American music. Still a white person, of course, but she at least diversified the paper's interview subjects.

In June 2012, the racial composition of the already overwhelmingly white Times-Picayune changed again. According to Poynter, those fired in the Times-Picayune's demise were disproportionately African-American, leaving the organization even whiter, if such a thing seems possible... nor does Poynter take into account the entirely white editorial team.

Onwards and upwards soars the NOLA Media Group into a new, brighter, whiter, higher-tech new New Orleans. Perhaps it's only fitting for a city with a white Mayor, white Police Chief, white D.A. and majority-white City Council. Let's make sure white Kristen Palmer signs off on giving lily-white @MichaelTMartin and his white staff another $275,000 to "culturally revitalize" the historically black St. Roch.

It's just progress. As Ricky Mathews said, the NOLA Media Group is now positioned to "attract the best and brightest from around the country." Bright people from elsewhere, not like the boring old non-bright, dingy staff they've sloughed off. Bright, shining, iridescent people from elsewhere to come down here and tell us the stories of New Orleans.

Ricky Mathews and Steve Newhouse know best. They know what New Orleans deserves and needs.


"I signed my non-disparagement agreement."
When you kill as many jobs as the new NOLA Media Group has, a few will inevitably be messy. The mass-generated automated digital pink slips sometimes get mixed up in the Advance LLC Human Resources e-mail outbox-- the bolt gun sometimes jams, merely stunning the steer. Strive as you might to cleanly automate the slaughterhouse, the annoying unpredictability of living creatures means the process is never as tidy in practice as it looked on the actuary's spreadsheet.

In one notably gruesome clusterfuck, the NOLA Media Group fired the Times-Pic's revered restaurant critic Brett Anderson, only to then retract the firing and deny it happened. Jim Amoss, the editor, posted a revisionist non-retraction in which he says he hopes Anderson will accept a position with the NOLA Media Group.

Will Brett Anderson accept this sweet new gig as Food Blogger? If you care, you're proving yourself a dinosaur. Perhaps you haven't heard: the sun has set on "gatekeepers" like Brett Anderson, and on any of us who'd foolishly posit Anderson's few prize-winning decades of food writing make his opinions somehow more valuable than a dashed-off Yelp review from some random tourist's iPhone.

In the comment stream beneath Amoss' walkback of the firing, someone using the name Maurepas (also the name-- coincidentally, I'm sure *-- of a new fancy-pants restaurant in the Bywater ) shared this insight:
"I've always loved restaurant reviews... but the days of a Gene Bourg or Tom Fitzmorris or Richard Collin having tremendous influence on the local restaurant scene are no longer because of social media and the ability of restaurants to promote themselves directly to clients. What is needed from the Picayune is more restaurant industry news - chef changes, menu changes, new restaurants, and more short reviews."
Multiple staffers who've otherwise been silent throughout this brutal transition used the comment software's new "Like" feature to "Like" that comment... and the very next story to be published in's food/dining section-- coincidentally, I'm sure-- was a perfect example of what commenter "Maurepas" was asking for: a tiny four-graph press release about the restaurant Maurepas' new Greek wine selections.

Remarkable synergy!

Speaking to the New York Times, the fired editorial columnist Stephanie Grace characterized the Times-Picayune staff losses as "People who know where the bodies are buried, people who know who had what fight with which person 30 years ago... the stuff you need to know in New Orleans."

This obsolete regionalism-- supposing someone in New Orleans might know more about New Orleans than someone elsewhere-- is part of the elitist attitude characteristic of old media. What's needed at the new NOLA Media Group isn't knowledge, or expertise, or experience, or anything else costing money. What's needed is content, as much of it as possible.


As discussed in part five, on the new front page all content from all blogs and all departments goes into one front-page column, mingling undifferentiated like so much hog-farm runoff flowing into the lower Mississippi. In a comment below that piece of the series, Rodger Kamenetz asks, "[I]s there any business logic to such a crappy site?"

"There's news in there somewhere...
just don't get any comments on ya."
There is, and it goes far beyond removing the expense of human editorial oversight. Dumping everything into a single front-page column creates the best possible rate of what sites like Gawker and the Huffington Post call Churn.

"Churn," in this case, means a high volume of new content crossing the front page. It's a new-media model in which the appearance of vigor, freshness and liveliness is more important than accuracy, usefulness or any specific virtues of the churned content itself.

The consultants have reached consensus: in an alienated online existence, in our individualized high-tech isolation, the rapid flow of information across the site will draw us to it. Just as moths mistake a porch light for the sun, we will come and batter our virtual bodies against the warm glow of the Churn, absorbing countless advertiser-impressions as we do so. We may flutter away, yet we shall return to the churn time and again because its carefully staged endless waterfall of McNuggetized content evokes the cheerful vibrance of group interaction-- the sort of interpersonal communion we isolated digital consumers crave, the itch we seek to scratch online since we've all become too fragmented, agoraphobic and obese to interact with one another in the real world.

In the foamy pools and eddies below this churning content, down in the notorious comment sections, our avatars-- preferably our Facebook identities, a meticulously curated version of self built on a foundation of brand-names and media tastes-- will argue and inveigh endlessly, creating mini-waterfalls of churn below each article, an exponential, fractally multifarious outward spiral of content and debate: what advertisers like to call "community."


From a post on the excellent Media of Birmingham blog titled "Insiders detail Birmingham News’ lurch toward digital future," we get a sense of life inside the new Advance media churn.
For the past few months, early shift reporters have been instructed to post just about anything every 15 minutes from 7 to 9 a.m. to to drive traffic. Often, the posts would be based primarily on media releases.
Posting press releases as news sucks, but the big sacrifice journalism makes for speed is accuracy. We see this in giant news outlets misreporting historic Supreme Court decisions; we see this in high-profile print publications using scammers as "sources", and we'll see ever more of it on the "churn-driven"

Paula Devlin, a Times-Picayune copy editor for 25 years, was moved to the Online News Desk created to oversee postings on the redesigned website. In remarks I was first made aware of by a comment below a Gambit blog post, Devlin spoke to the National Conference of the American Copy Editors Society in April 2012 about how copy editing suffers in the online news environment-- though her characterization of these changes was very positive, as behooves someone working in the field. "Mistakes = opportunities for engagement," the published version of her notes says. "Readers really enjoy pointing out our errors."

Shouldn't reliability and accuracy be hallmarks of the journalistic mission? One of the major differences between the reporting of a reputable news outlet and a rumor from Facebook or a screed on is the level of trust readers feel towards the source. To whatever degree readers trusted the Times-Picayune, it was because we knew its individual journalists to be fundamentally ethical. They considered truth-telling part of their mission, and the hard work of editors like Ms. Devlin kept the newspaper mostly free of factual or typographical errors-- free enough that exceptions were noteworthy. On, mistakes are the rule; they're considered inevitable. Inaccuracy is policy.

One of my pet peeves is New Orleans journalists incorrectly identifying the city's different neighborhoods and regions. Most of our local news sources have been guilty of this. Reporters are human, and some of the designations and boundaries are so arcane that even the most fanatical 5th-generation geographers can't agree on 'em. Usually these geographical misreportings are no more than an indicator that yet another New Orleans media job has just been awarded to an out-of-towner (or in Gambit & the Lens' cases, an out-of-continent-er), but I was struck by one recent example: an article on titled "Suspects arrested in French Quarter murder."

Turns out the murder wasn't in the French Quarter at all, as many (subsequently deleted) comments pointed out, but the headline and opening paragraphs detailing a "French Quarter murder" were posted at 6:30 pm and not updated until after midnight the next day, long enough for the mistake to be tweeted and retweeted, syndicated across the internet, aggregated into various other news services including Google News, and show up in searches for "french quarter murder."

In a city dependent on tourism, why is inventing murders in the French Quarter?

The writer in question, a new hire fresh from college, doesn't deserve to be pilloried for her mistake. We all make mistakes. She isn't the problem; the problem is the dynamic into which she's been hired-- at, it's safe to assume, a salary much lower than those of the recently fired. The problem is that greenhorns without experience or news judgement are, with no oversight or copy editing, publishing stories under the byline of a formerly reputable newspaper. That lack of oversight, that hurry to get something, anything up there and into the conversation, is a reality of the robust new NOLA Media Group's churn-centric model. It's the reality behind all the corner-office horseshit about a sustained post-newspaper commitment to journalism.

If you don't like these kinds of inaccuracies, if you notice disseminating falsehoods, why, you should "join the conversation" via registering to post, so you can point the inaccuracies out via comments. Tweet angrily about it-- be sure and include a link to the article in question, so others can come view the advertisements and give more web-hits. Why should be accurate, when inaccuracy generates so many more clicks and comments?


For those who survive these layoffs, and for those who may be hired down the line, what's a journalism job with NOLA Media Group like? I quote a searing examination of "clicks-driven journalism" by departing Times-Picayune reporter Sarah Carr:
A precedent established at the MLive Media Group in Michigan, the first Advance Publications property to go digital, offers a telling clue: In Michigan, reporters say their bonuses are based on the number of stories they post, the number of times they engage with readers through the comment stream, and the number of pageviews their stories receive
Wade Kwon's post on the Media of Birmingham blog I referenced above tells us that at,
Journalists are also now being instructed to participate in the often unruly comment sections following most stories, a directive that is already meeting resistance.
Comments, clicks, controversy: once we understand the imperatives and priorities of the churn, the bizarre boilerplate in the new jobs posted by the NOLA Media Group begins to make more sense. For everything from their Saints reporter to their entertainment beat, the new NOLA Media Group seeks someone who will be an "authoritative voice" and a "discussion leader on high-value topics." They also want someone who has "the ability to leverage relationships with sources to deliver content."

Once, you were a journalist who produced journalism. Now you are yourself the commodity-- your relationships (to be "leveraged") are part of what you're selling to your employer. You are a personality, a discussion leader. YOU are the attraction; you are now the product.

Once your personality and identity and relationships are the product your employer is profiting from, you're naturally subjected to more rigorous regulation. Jeffrey over at the library chronicles blog pointed out this article: NBC News staffers are now prohibited from tweeting, posting or distributing via other social networking means, ever, in any context, "anything that compromises the integrity and objectivity of you or NBC Universal."

Al Tompkins of the Poynter Media Institute explains, "When you work for a media company, it is different than working for a plumbing supply warehouse. You represent your company in all you say, do and write."

Once, you were a journalist who produced journalism, which people paid money for. Now all "content" you create, on the clock or off, is a part of your brand, which your employer owns. You are permanently, indefinitely answerable and accountable to your employer, in all you do and say... and yet you are paid a salary and benefits based only on an eight-hour day, if that.

In new media you have no right to privacy, neither to a personal life nor to personal opinions. Your identity and your personhood are a thing to be bought and sold by media conglomerates; you're new-media chattel.

Not so long ago a million sad nobodies craved fame, craved the spotlight of reality television or youtube notoriety, but Fortuna's wheel is turning. In this technologically fixated phase of late capitalism, with both the government and advertisers craving and compiling historically unprecedented amounts of personal information, it's privacy that will be invaluable and unaffordable.

Soon only the super-rich-- like the Newhouses-- will have the flex and connections to avoid every detail of their lives being available online. They alone will remain hidden from sight, surrounded by bodyguards and lawyers, occult and unaccountable, protected by laws like the Citizens United ruling that even keep secret the millions of dollars they pour into our broken, corrupt political processes.

They, the wealthy, will set the terms of the debate. You, who were once a journalist, you who are now a "content provider," will keep a steady trickle of content going over the dam.

You will aggregate links from elsewhere, elevate user comments into posts, and generally keep the maximum volume of output flowing by any means necessary, flinging all the spaghetti you can get your digital mitts on against the endlessly scrolling wall, hoping to attract controversy and lead discussion. Your own measly trickle of content will combine with the trickles of your fellow Content Providers and the steady generic effluence of the Associated Press wire to create a mighty, flowing stream. Whoosh! Don't let up, not even for a moment! Keep it flowing... peon! Isn't this what you went to journalism school for?


If the New York City Newhouses feel it makes sense to combine the geographically and culturally disparate cities of Huntsville, Montgomery and Mobile into a single news location, why stop there? I bet there are English-speakers in Southeast Asia who would generate a hell of a lot of content for and even more cheaply than the freshly-minted U.S. undergrads who will be replacing long-time regional reporters.

Since investigative political reporting is to be replaced with TV-show recaps and press releases, why do the recapper and press-release repurposer need to be anywhere in particular?

Outsourcing seems the logical next step-- but that's limited thinking. The truth is, ever paying anyone for anything is an outdated model. The churn's advantages go beyond merely removing the expense of editors; they extend into the future, where there are also no paid reporters.
"The Commenters," ca. 1490

Recall the emphasis on comments and commenters in the duties of those NOLA Media Group positions. The major responsibilities of what used to be a journalism job are to "Post frequent and incrementally posting [sic] throughout the day... Monitor and engage in reader comment streams... elevate comments into new posts..." The goal is more comments.

Back several thousand paragraphs ago I mentioned, one of the Newhouse family's online properties. Reddit is a peculiar website that functions as a vast, geographically unspecific comment section. It's an "information site" with no actual news, just links to other things elsewhere. The content of Reddit itself is all comments-- a dense weave of angry male voices shouting over one another about Japanese cartoons, discontinued television programs and the global conspiracy of circumcision. It's a labyrinth of pathologically lonely minotaurs, each mooing his alienated rage and then anxiously pounding the "reload" button to see if his response has itself provoked any responses. When you multiply this effect by the number of unloved video-game enthusiasts in North America, the result is a heavily trafficked website.

I single Reddit out because it's the high-profit digital future. Having abandoned real-world interactions, the site's users build status within their pallid and sedentary tribe by seeking out and posting the newest links and the angriest commentary about whatever's being linked to. It's the online equivalent of a skinhead boot party, except the virtual participants don't have to be able to unstick their thighs from their office chairs to participate. It's like YouTube if YouTube was only the comments, and it's tremendously low-overhead and high-profit for Advance. Reddit's users themselves generate all the site's content. No paid "Discussion Leaders" needed!

This is the maximally profitable future; it's the direction everything's going in, including what used to be our daily newspaper. The field-leading Huffington Post was there early, explaining back in '07 that paying for content wasn't in their "financial model."

Just as killing the Times-Picayune and replacing it with a thrice-weekly print dipperful of stale blog entries is prelude to discontinuing print altogether, repurposing professional journalists into humiliating new roles as "discussion leaders" and "buzz reporters" is a prelude to the elimination of the entire field., a protean snark sweatshop that began as NYC-regional but long ago cost-efficiently genericized into a global content mill, is on its way, eliminating all barriers between the site's few remaining paid writers and the unpaid commenters.

Consider the notorious cesspool that is the comment section, and then consider this:
Now, with a new commenting system called Kinja, [Gawker honcho] Mr. Denton is offering a set of housekeys to anyone who wants them... Under the new order, the commenters babysit themselves, while a secret algorithm ranks their conversations by relevance. In fact, their contributions are not even called “comments” anymore. Internally, the company has instituted a $5 penalty on anyone who uses the c-word.

“These are posts,” Mr. Denton explained, reclaiming a word once reserved for professional prose. “And we intend to hold the posts contributed by readers to the same standards as those of writers—and erase the rather old-fashioned distinction between the two castes.”


Journalists have no career future under capitalism. They can become freelance-contracted "discussion leaders" for, or they may find niches in nonprofits, as long as they can stay in favor with the rich and powerful grant-givers who underwrite such endeavors. Capitalism will stamp out those inefficiencies soon enough. There's always public relations jobs, if you have no ethical objections to propaganda.

Journalism is fucked. It's not the journalists' fault, and the notion that we the readership are to blame for how awful "news" has become in the 21st century-- that we are to blame for being interested in the lurid sensationalist stories, or that if we didn't click on them they wouldn't exist-- is just the usual way capitalism justifies its horrors.

The working-class schlub who needs a car to commute to the only job he can find is to blame for the oil industry's destruction of South Louisiana-- never the wealthy international industrialists who profit from oil, never the lobbyists and politicos who sign the oil leases that ensure our state sees none of the money, who slash public transportation to make our civilization more oil-dependent and who export jobs overseas.

If only people had purchased more newspapers, if only people had clicked more on the other stories... if only we... that's all fucking lies. The system is rigged to maximize profit. The illusion that we as "consumers" have control over this nightmare is how we're kept in our place. If you don't like the Norco refineries poisoning our communities, purchase a new Prius! Anything beyond that's unthinkable; buying or not-buying (boycott) are the only choices we're permitted.

Good journalists have hard-won and important skills, including vanishing skills like research and how to talk to strangers. Journalists understand better than most how the systems of our sick civilization work. They know, as Stephanie Grace said, where the bodies are buried. New Orleans' tiny regional ruling class has responded to the rude awakening-- that people with vastly more money and power are calling the shots-- by throwing a tantrum. Journalists know better.

How the journalists fucked over by Advance here and in Alabama will respond remains to be seen. Most of them still have access to their newspapers' arcane and fragile computer systems and passwords-- if not their own passwords, then certainly those of their lazy, less tech-savvy overseers. They have all kinds of access to e-mails, to behind-the-scenes dirt, to the specific ways the editors and higher-ups who betrayed the rank-and-file have, over the years, unethically accommodated the agendas of the powerful.

Many of those fired know a great deal. They know about things that happened in the wake of the flood that still haven't come to light. Now that they've been thrown into the street, how will they use that knowledge? 

Will they continue to serve the powers that be, hoping to scrape by another year or decade? Will they continue to beg for scraps, and swallow the humiliation of being repurposed into "discussion leaders?"

Crisis, as we along the Gulf Coast have learned, brings certain people lucrative opportunities. There are people making money off the suffering of those fired.

Perhaps the destruction of our newspaper and the assault on our region it represents will prompt some of those fired to apply their skills, knowledge and abilities towards something new, something unconventional, something that directly challenges the power of the new-media moguls who've crowned themselves our kings. Surely those fired aren't content to let Steve Newhouse and Ricky Mathews tell the official story and write the official history, one smug, disingenuous op-ed at a time.

How will the laid-off press workers and delivery drivers respond? They know a thing or two. Some people take betrayal lying down; some don't. I wonder if September's three-day-a-week delivery will go smoothly, or if it will encounter problems-- problems with delivery trucks, problems with newspaper boxes, problems with the presses themselves.

I'm just a New Orleanian who values good journalism. This outlandishly long series of blog entries is my response to the murder of the Times-Picayune... but how will those who've been most directly affected respond? How will those who've been stabbed in the back by their bosses respond?

I'm as curious as you are.


a six-part series on the destruction of New Orleans' daily newspaper
Part  One - Two - Three - Four - Five - Six
written by Jules Bentley

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Jefferson Parish Cops Shoot A Person Over Drugs

via Cops Shooting People --
“Police report a sting operation went wrong just after 11 p.m. in the 2900 block of Jefferson Highway Friday night.
A drug sting operation was set up in a McDonald’s parking lot near the Causeway overpass on Jefferson Highway.
According to Sheriff Newell Normand, narcotics agents had reliable information that 27-year-old Lucious Stovall of Westwego, would be in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant at Causeway Blvd. & Jefferson Hwy. while in possession of crack cocaine.
As Stovall pulled into the parking spot, officers activated their lights and approached him.  While announcing their presence, Stovall put his vehicle in gear and intentionally crashed into one of the police units.
He struck an agent who was standing near the vehicle.  The officer sustained a minor leg injury and was transported to an area hospital for treatment.
Police said as Stovall continued to flee, he struck a second unit. Fearing their safety and the safety of other agents, two officers began firing as Stovall tried to get away.
He continued heading north on Causeway Blvd., crossing Jefferson Hwy.  He drove over the median and crashed into a fence on Causeway Blvd. A statement from the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office reads, “As Stovall was removed from his vehicle it was determined he sustained three gunshot wounds.  He was transported to University Hospital where he is listed in guarded condition.”

Fuck the drug war.
Fuck the world of poverty that is enforced by the police.
Fuck the laws written by the rich and only enforced against the poor.
When was the last time cops undertook a sting operation on white collar Wall St. fraudsters?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Murder of the Times-Picayune: Part Five

what has become of


"I'm available for speeches and consultancy gigs!"
At the risk of setting up a straw blogger, there is a category of blowhard I cannot bring myself to link to: media-pundit éminences gris who know little or nothing of the Times-Picayune and yet have confidently diagnosed its cause of death.

Of course it died; it's a newspaper. Open and shut case, according to these hoary experts.

Within journalism, talking about how important digital media is & how newspapers are dead is an article of faith, a touch-wood tic. Everyone's being laid off all the fucking time, and the only protection is to superstitiously acknowledge the inevitability of this, often and audibly.

Part of the journalist identity is already cynically knowing everything. Especially to those over forty, the suggestion that a real journalist could be blindsided by these rapid catastrophic industry changes is nearly as threatening as the changes themselves.

All who would not be left behind must chant the mantra: Print is dead!

Print is dead! The louder you shout it, a strange thing happens-- your wrinkles and white hairs become less visible. Your chin tightens; your baldness vanishes beneath reforestation. Say it louder, shout it louder: Print is dead! Dead trees, dead newspaper! Bray it, shout it, sit on panels and declaim it. Post it on the Tumblr your daughter helped you make. Louder, louder-- and the debt from your kids' college education, the mortgage, your partner's medical bills-- all the things that mark you as a product of the pre-internet generation, the frailties making you dependent on your career in this "dead" and "dying" medium, begin to ebb away.

Buy more progressive glasses frames-- thinner lenses, sleeker, younger! Get the newest iPhone to fumble with, so the twenty-something new hires who don't make eye contact will know you're one of them. Print is dead! Let me hear you say it, bitch! Louder louder: PRINT IS DEAD! Never mind the storied traditions, going back to Thomas Paine, going back to Gutenberg, never mind your mentors and their mentors-- they were all fools! You're hep; you're riding the inter-wave, you're running with the hunters! You ain't old, you still got it baby, you so cutting cutting edge. Print is dead! Let them hear you preach it, preach it. PRINT IS DEAD, PRINT IS DEAD.

Say it loud, and pray that the powerful are listening.

Maybe you'll be spared!

Ha ha... yeah, right.


Early version of, 2001
( screengrabs from )
Whether or not print is dead, the Times-Picayune has been killed. It's time we took a look at what we're being offered in its stead, the widely reviled website Back we go, via, to the site's beginnings.

The Times-Picayune is owned by Advance Publications and by Advance Digital, two (ostensibly) different corporations, each with its own chain of command and both answering to the parent company, To further confuse matters, Advance Digital was 'til recently called Advance Internet-- a subsidiary of The whole byzantine arrangement strikes me as a fiduciary shell game, but then I never did have a head for business.

The newspaper and were separated by a few miles of CBD and a vast gulf of culture and practice. Ashton Phelps Jr., the paper's publisher for three decades (right up until Ricky Mathews was sent in to kill it off), was the fifth generation of his family to run the Times-Pic. It was an institution steeped in centuries of tradition. At the paper's grim, bunker-like concrete building on Howard Ave., employees were obligated to wear jackets and ties to work.

In contrast to the newspaper's morbid cubicles, has an "open" office plan and gigantic windows offering a view of the Mississippi river. Those who aren't making sales calls generally wear whatever they like to work., like its regional sibling sites (, et al.), was at the outset curated by its own in-house editorial staff. The editors had complete control over what went where on the site's front page, and it was in that sense like a newspaper. Different stories or packages from different news categories-- sports, weather, JazzFest-- were given varying visual prominence on a sometimes hourly basis by human editors who used their judgement to sift and elevate whatever they felt was of importance, significance or interest.
Colorful: in 2007
( from )

Determined to make the site as interactive as possible within the limits of the Advance templates, what the editors chose to promote in the pre-Katrina years was mostly live cams, forum discussions, multimedia presentations and user submissions. The Times-Picayune's "content" was consigned to a single column, though as years rolled on, that column became slightly longer and eventually subdivided into categories.

The Newhouses saw their newspaper-affiliated websites as being separate, online-only entities, just as the newspapers were print-only. This was a stupid strategy, but it's how the Newhouses did things. At Conde Nast (another Newhouse property) even an influential print publication like Gourmet Magazine was denied its own website for decades; its recipes and articles went into the website

It's not so strange, then, that those in charge of for its first decade saw themselves as helming an independent media endeavor, a local portal site of which the Times-Picayune's articles were just one-- possibly minor-- component.

On the Times-Pic side, attitudes towards the site varied. Some pushed for the paper's content to have more prominence on the website, while others were more concerned that the site was giving so much of the newspaper away free.

These weren't mutually exclusive opinions, and there were areas of broad consensus: almost everyone at the Times-Pic found it difficult to countenance their work appearing side-by-side with photos and blog entries by staffers, unpaid web-only freelancers and unsolicited user submissions.

"From the start," Kevin Allman says in the Gambit, "the two 'platforms' have not gotten along."

The dawn of the user commenting feature and the attendant avalanche of racist filth pushed many Times-Pic staffers to a more negative view of the site, though the racism was at least in part editorially institutionalized. As defender of New Orleans and promoter of its culture Deborah Cotton pointed out (an article I first saw on a accountability blog by social-justice lawyer Billy Sothern), Nell Nolan's reporting on the ritzy, predominantly-white Uptown social scene always appeared with the comment feature disabled, to spare the subjects of her writing any criticism.

After the '05 federal flood and the spotlight it put on's usefulness, tensions between the website and the paper escalated. Post-Katrina, made a number of hires from outside the city and an unprecedentedly outspoken culture of antagonism towards the Times-Pic developed within the website's editorial team. This cold-war mindset played out in bizarre ways: staff were forbidden from exchanging e-mails or Instant Messaging with longtime colleagues at the paper, and those who remained even socially friendly with Times-Pic employees were attacked as turncoats. It was an era of paranoia, dysfunction and frequent managerial screaming fits, all in the name of competition between internet and print.

One former freelancer suggests it was a cynical maneuver to pit the institutions against one another. "There were plenty of forward-looking people at Howard Ave. Everyone was already talking about digital everything. The writing was on the wall, the only question was who would survive. That was where the tension was. It was like Boston in the 70s... make the Irish and blacks compete for the same economic niche."

Long, gone:, 2010
( from )
Bloodsport, for the amusement of the Newhouse Caesars. Another former staffer I spoke to disagreed with this characterization. "I don't think it was anything tactical, or part of any larger plan. [The feud] came from a tragic situation towards the top of the editorial masthead. It was a symptom of serious mental health problems within the leadership, which were resolved through firings. Most of the people I knew at had journalism backgrounds and respected the paper."

In early 2009, multiple staffers including the Editor-in-Chief and Managing Editor were laid off, and their positions were eliminated. Editorial authority was vested in a new "Director of Content," James O'Byrne, who came over from the Times-Pic. Around that same time, a new template (still in use at was implemented at

In this new template, seen to the left, staff had very little say in what was featured on the site's front page. A new digital content team drawn mostly from the Times-Pic was empowered to make those decisions, and the new front page was almost 100% Times-Pic content.

The Times-Picayune's section editors, reporters and photographers, whose job descriptions suddenly expanded to putting their own work online, could under this new template feature or "pin" stories atop each of the various front-page categories (News, Sports, Living, Business), though no-one could adjust the order in which the sections of the homepage were laid out. Amid the rollback of the Newhouse Pledge and looming layoffs throughout the Advance empire, what editorial control remained over's front page had shifted unmistakably to the newspaper. This limited editorial control was one piece of a larger transfer of what had been duties to Times-Picayune staffers-- additional responsibilities that came without additional pay.


A few months back, there was another sea change. The newest version of, the infamous "yellow journalism" (now beige journalism) Advance Internet template, did away with the multiple front-page categories.

The Way We Live Now:, 2012
( Flickr image from skooks )'s front page is now just an open, running aggregatory gutter of everything posted on the site, ranked by when the story (or rather, blog entry) was posted. There is no longer any room for editorial discretion, almost no means to feature or call attention to particular items. It's entirely automated.

Coinciding with the layoffs of hundreds and the killing of the Times-Picayune newspaper, this new front page is a single undifferentiated stream, a firehose of slurry. Murders, letters to the editor, the latest doings of the Zephyrs, legislation in Baton Rouge, lottery results, a cake recipe, the summer hours of the St. Charles Parish swimming pools, the indictment of an NOPD officer, a video Doug MacCash shot of an art happening, a developing tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico, recaps of television shows... all of it swirls indistinguishably into a single high-volume nola_river that flows endlessly off the page, carrying potentially valuable news away on a tide of less timely, less crucial information.

About the only way to keep older stories in view on now is for the site's users to comment on them; the most commented-upon stories of the past seven days are automatically listed in a sidebar widget. Why should fusty old editors get to make such decisions? When Li'l Wayne failed to cut the lawn on his Kenner property, the hootin' hollerin' cachinnatin' commenters pushed that crucial story immediately to the top of "most commented," where it remained for a week. By contrast, when the Times-Pic finally posted a story about the offices of Women With a Vision being attacked by an arsonist, it slipped off the homepage forever within minutes of its posting, swept out of sight by other updates.

The story of is the story of progress. At first had its own in-house editorial control. Then, a restricted set of editorial choices was assigned to already-overworked Times-Pic employees. Now the Times-Pic staffers have been fired, and editorial decision-making-- which local stories matter, what news a visitor to will see-- rests in the hands of the site's unpaid, mostly out-of-town commenters.

In part six, we'll see that same shift play out in reporting and photography. For now, let's take a minute to mourn the loss of human editors. What's replaced them is the journalistic equivalent of the grocery-store automated check-out machine, with your actual food selection determined by the tastes of St. Tammany and Little Rock.


Everyone hates the new site. My own criticisms are rooted in the approach to journalism it represents, but for a more technical understanding of its shortcomings I turned to a web usability expert, whose entirely negative response I excerpt below:
This is a nightmare of data design... There is a general lack not only of visual fidelity, but of consistency. No single typographic style, layout principle or even color palette ties the site together. This schizophrenic disjointedness violates a basic principle of journalism, that the medium itself, the paper or in this case the site, should exude a sense of trust, respectability, a straightforward approach to telling the stories of the day.

...The site also includes absolutely no features for what is referred to as accessibility, the simple coding practices that allow users who are blind or have bad vision to use screen-readers and other software to parse the site. Accessibility practices are a basic and inarguable part of web coding, as good web developers believe the web should be accessible to all. Not that the [newsprint Times-Pic] was accessible to the blind, but if you are going to argue for all of the advances of the digital form that is championing, taking the 5 fucking minutes to make your site accessible would have been an easy move.

...It used to be that unpopular and underhanded grabs for power or attacks against dignity were swathed in a kind of shiny aesthetic suaveness that made the pill easier to swallow. Not so with


a six-part series on the destruction of New Orleans' daily newspaper

Part  One - Two - Three - Four - Five - Six
written by Jules Bentley

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Murder of the Times-Picayune: Part Four

in which we consider the killers themselves


The Times-Picayune began in 1837 as the Picayune-- the price of the paper in its early years, and a word denoting pettiness or triviality. After a rapid rise it absorbed a succession of other dailies, some themselves the results of previous mergers. For a while New Orleans had six daily newspapers, then four, then only two. In 1980, media mogul S.I. Newhouse Sr. merged those two, the States-Item and the Times-Picayune, into one.

Laid off after 118 yrs, the Times-Pic
Weather Frog does what he must.
Although the States-Item and the Times-Picayune had shared an owner since the 30s, they had never been in editorial lockstep. "The different newspapers all served powerful interests, but they at least served different, sometimes competing interests," explained a friend whose family worked for the States-Item. "[Louisiana District Attorney] Jim Garrison was being paid off by the Marcellos. Everyone knew, but only the States-Item people would call him on it. The Times-Picayune would never rock the boat. They were the oil company paper... they were the newspaper that was in Shell's pocket, and they didn't want to upset anyone who made decisions about oil leases or oil companies. The whole city government in Bogalusa was KKK-- the judges were active Klansmen-- and the Times-Picayune wouldn't write about it. They had no incentive."

"When finally there was only one newspaper, it basically tried to please all the powerful interests, by avoiding anything that pissed off anyone with real money. I'm not saying the Times-Pic didn't do some good work, and didn't have some great staffers, but the assholes in charge had to be led by the nose before they'd cover anything controversial." I mentioned the post-Katrina murders by NOPD. "Absolutely," he said. "If the national media hadn't put pressure on the Times-Pic by scooping them over and over, the editors never would've paid any attention. You saw how they ignored it for years. To the owners, articles were filler between ads."


Those owners are the Newhouses. Their patriarch clawed his way to the top of the food chain just a couple generations back, and his successors have thus far managed to remain where their granddaddy put them. They're a clan distinguished not by their methods, merely by their success; they are to media what the Walton family is to retail. Besides a notable aversion to the spotlight, the Newhouses are just run-of-the-mill capitalist pigs-- nepotism, monopoly, occasional philanthropy.

"Shy, short, insecure, awkward,
inarticulate, rude, cruel--
and in his way, brilliant."
The pair of brothers now atop the Newhouse heap, S.I. Newhouse Jr. and Donald, are two of the richest people in the world. They own tons of media, including a cable company (Bright House Networks, roughly 2.2 million subscribers), Condé Nast Publications (Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, Wired et al.), around 35 U.S. daily newspapers and 40 weekly regional business journals as well as all those print entities' corresponding websites, most of which use variations of the same awful templates. The Newhouses also own the hellhole of misery that is, about which more later.

Many Forbes-list billionaires, American and otherwise, follow some variant of the Donald Trump behavioral model. In sharp contrast, the various Newhouses have consistently maintained public profiles so low as to be subterranean, an invisibility incongruous with their extraordinary wealth and power. They don't dabble in local or national politics beyond token contributions to the DNC, and aided perhaps their ownership of so many media outlets, they've been able to escape media coverage of their own lives almost entirely. The exceptions are minor: a couple wrangles with the IRS, occasional inclusion in society columns, and a single uninformative, unauthorized 1998 book about the dynasty that hilariously described aging patriarch Si Jr. as "shy, short, insecure, awkward, inarticulate, rude, cruel-- and, in his way, brilliant."

How painstakingly the Newhouses have kept themselves uninteresting may be the only interesting thing about them. Back in the 1930s when the original S.I. Newhouse was building his empire and buying up newspapers left and right, it didn't behoove wealthy Jewish people to crow about their accomplishments. It's pure speculation on my part to suggest the Newhouses' familial creed of secrecy is rooted in the historical realities of antisemitism, but even today, many of the websites which attack the Newhouse media monopoly do so from an explicitly antisemitic perspective.

Newhouses have lived in New Orleans since the 60s. Although a few of their wives have distinguished themselves through charity work, the Newhouse men have never been part of the social scene. A comment on a Gambit blog entry asserts that being Jewish kept them out of our city's inner circles. Though there's no denying the hardline bigotries of our old-line social & carnival club coteries, it's also not clear the Newhouses were interested in joining such organizations.

After a lively career including an Italian knighthood and a stint as executive officer of the CIA's predecessor agency, Norman N. Newhouse (kid brother of S.I. Sr. and uncle of reigning brothers S.I. Jr. and Donald) spent his final decades here in New Orleans, overseeing the Times-Pic as well as a number of the family's other regional holdings. "We are, basically, anonymous people," he said in an interview three years before his death.
We never went in for titles... If I were to walk into a room in New Orleans with the 100 most prominent people in town, there may be two who would know me personally. Most would probably know the name and the connection, but they wouldn't know me personally or recognize me by my face, because my public position is nonexistent.
Steve Newhouse (top),
David Newhouse (bottom)
The crop of Newhouses on their way up the ladder don't seem concerned with New Orleans one way or the other. Advance honcho and heir apparent Steve Newhouse, the man who made the call to have the Times-Picayune shut down, came through the Crescent City only occasionally. Though he owns multiple newspapers, nobody but the New York Times can get a quote from him about the Southern bloodbath he's ordered.

Folks in New Orleans who've dealt with Steve speak of his cold-bloodedness, his disregard for personal niceties and his strikingly un-touristic lack of interest in the city outside his hotel. During his brief visits, those whom he summoned for meetings had to go see him at the hotel, in the same suite he rented each time. It seems the judge who passed the Times-Pic's death sentence didn't care to venture forth from his Windsor Court chambers .

Steve's designated David Newhouse, one of Norman's sons, to oversee this exciting transitional time at the local level. Having edited a newspaper for ten years, David will presumably know how best to kill one. Steve himself hasn't been around lately.

Can you stand to meet one more Newhouse dude? There's one I'm genuinely curious about: Steve's nephew, S.I. Newhouse IV. I really want to know what he thinks about the killing of the Times-Picayune.

S.I. Newhouse IV, from the film "Born Rich"
Mostly known for expressing oedipal angst in the 2003 documentary "Born Rich," fortunate scion Si the Fourth was sent down here after college for "executive training" at the Times-Pic, and I'm told he had a very very good time in New Orleans. What does he think about the firings of all those who helped train him, those who showed him such hospitality? This was where he gained his first "executive" experience, barely a decade ago. Surely you never forget your first executive experience.

Does S.I. IV remember us fondly? He mai er may not. After all, we've been the ruin of many a rich boy. This young up-and-comer might share the opinion of former President Bush, speaking about New Orleans on Sept. 2, 2005: "I believe the town where I used to come to enjoy myself, occasionally too much, will be that very same town, that it will be a better place to come to."


Now I'm just an ol' spittin' cobra, but even I lack enough venom to adequately excoriate callow, shameless opportunistic tragedy-profiteer Ricky Mathews, the newly Newhouse-appointed president of the newly Newhouse-created NOLA Media Group.

As much as I despise the kind of narcissistic neocolonial fucks who consider our centuries of culture and history a "blank slate" for twee art experiments and corny childish bullshit they'd never try back in their hometowns, as much as I hate entrepreneurial techno-twaddle and "new urbanist" gentrifiers and blog-themed restaurants and Kirsha Kaechele and the Mall on St. Claude et alia ad infinitum, every ounce of that combined vitriol, supersized, is but a fingernail-fraction of what Ricky Mathews deserves.

Ricky Mathews
Can a Southern boy be a Carpetbagger? Ricky Mathews proves it's possible. Wherever something terrible happens to folks, Mathews pops up to get a paycheck from the powers that be. He's like a truffle-hunting pig, except he's a rat who snuffles out blood money.

Anathematizing the generic, profit-maximizing titans-of-industry Newhouses at any length feels like sorting out recycling: it might make some feel pious, but I personally can't be bothered. I'm not convinced there's a point. Yes, they're super-mega-capitalists, yes, they're bad. I consider Ricky Mathews something far more pernicious, more disingenuous, and more repugnant.

Let us examine, for example, Ricky's reaction to the 2010 BP oil disaster. The black death was flowing unabated into the Gulf when he parlayed his media credentials into the chairmanship of a spin agency funded by BP, an agency whose homepage's Project Overview, titled "Beyond the Oil Spill," opens with the sentences, "A once-in-a generation opportunity is upon us. A transformational moment in Alabama history."

That's the kind of shit that makes my Corexit-tainted blood boil. Further down that same page we see Ricky's gormless mug gracing an article titled "Oil Spill’s Silver Lining."

"We can turn a very bad thing into a good thing," Mathews says of the environmental holocaust in which BP murdered a dozen human beings and poisoned countless more, eradicating Gulf wildlife wholesale, destroying generations of coastal community, and laying waste to the lifeways of entire cultures.

"What we learned after Katrina on the Mississippi Coast," says Ricky Mathews, "is that a crisis of even enormous proportions provides opportunities to re-imagine a whole region."

Crisis, Opportunity. Crisis, Opportunity. Reading Mathews' work, it's hard not to vomit. It's also hard not to recall a prominent predecessor to Mathews' "Oil Spill's Silver Lining" piece. It's something Jeffrey at the Library Chronicles has recently refocused attention on, a New York Times editorial that's proven almost a Rosetta stone for understanding the post-Katrina experience.

The piece in question is David Brooks' September 8, 2005 essay,"Katrina's Silver Lining." In that essay, published while more than half our city was still flooded and the death toll was climbing daily, Brooks was already rubbing his hands together over the opportunities the "blank slate" of New Orleans could provide. His first sentence? "As a colleague of mine says, every crisis is an opportunity."

It's clear what kind of opportunities vermin like Ricky Mathews see in the suffering of our region, in the layoffs at the Times-Picayune, in the environmental holocaust of the BP disaster, and in the horrors of Katrina. To Ricky, these are financial, personal career opportunities. Is there a conflict of interest in the publisher and president of the Mobile Press-Register serving on a BP-funded commission, and his newspaper running an article in which Mathews is quoted assuring the reader that BP has cleaned the Gulf, and that the seafood is safe?

It's but one stunningly bare-faced example, an example which the Gambit points out remains prominent on BP's Facebook Page. In it,
[Mathews] noted the need for continued perseverance in getting out the message that the coast has bounced back from the April 20, 2010, oil rig explosion that led to the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history. BP, which leased the oil rig, has done admirable work in helping market the coast since the cleanup, he said.
image courtesy of
Is that unethical? Is that conflict of interest? Shit no... that's just someone who knows how to seize opportunity.

Opportunities for Ricky Mathews at the Huntsville Times, where he oversaw the firing of 102 workers, leaving the paper a 15-person newsroom. Opportunities for Ricky at the Birmingham News, where under his leadership news staff was cut sixty percent-- 107 fired, including two pregnant women and a cancer patient. Opportunities for Ricky Mathews at the Mobile Press-Register, where seventy-five percent of the newsroom staff were fired. There, where Mathews was still both president and publisher, the news of those layoffs and the death of the Press-Register's 200-year legacy of daily publishing was headlined "Exciting Changes for our Readers."

Exciting changes.

The Gambit provided an invaluable account of Ricky Mathews' introduction to our city's new stratum of cyber-capitalists by superdeveloper Sean Cummings. Presented like a blushing debutante to the venture-funded eligible bachelors of our post-K NOLA technocracy, Mathews sounds ridiculous.
"We’re going to create a Google-Nike kind-of-vibe work environment,” Mathews told the group. “It’s our goal to create a world-class digital work environment for the journalists who are going to work for us, because we can attract the best and brightest from around the country."
He also brags of a three-hour meeting with Mayor Landrieu, in which Landrieu "got it immediately." On followup, the Mayor's office then told the Gambit it "wouldn't characterize the meeting in those terms, either in the amount of time spent or in the mayor's takeaway (from the meeting)."

What's a little truth between journalists? In his recent Pearl-Harbor-sized above-the-fold front-page Times-Picayune advertisement for himself, Ricky writes, "The true story of our effort will be that we want the story that is told of our efforts to be that we embraced the amazing entrepreneurial spirit that has evolved since Hurricane Katrina." If you can parse that fucking mess, I doff my cap.

Ricky Mathews is an idiot, a gap-toothed clown useful only to his paymasters... but idiots can be dangerous. George W. Bush was an idiot, too.

Let us learn from the past. Let us learn specifically from this slimy invasive nutria rat Ricky Mathews' abhorrent and unforgivable past. Rob Holpert, managing editor of the Mobile, Alabama weekly Lagniappe, lays out the Ricky Mathews narrative:
The second Ricky 'Stormcrow' Mathews entered the building, the [Mobile Press-Register]'s fate was sealed.

The first story the P-R ran when Mathews came in was a lie, claiming his predecessor Howard Bronson had retired, when, in fact, he’d been fired. ...Mathews has been nothing but a hatchet man more interested in running groups he has no business being involved with than running the newspaper he was allegedly hired to save.

Newhouse can count his billions while Mathews moves to New Orleans and chops them to pieces next. Sounds like another "exciting change” in the making.
Unlike the Fifth-Avenue Newhouses, Ricky is here. Though he hasn't had the nuts to show himself in the newsroom, he's here in town, living it up on the blood money the Newhouses have paid him to swing axe. They outbid BP for his services-- here he is quaffing drinks at our bars, eating at our restaurants, maybe even walking our streets.

Let's find opportunities to give Ricky Mathews the welcome he deserves.


a six-part series on the destruction of New Orleans' daily newspaper

Part  One - Two - Three - Four - Five - Six
written by Jules Bentley

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Murder of the Times-Picayune: Part Three

exploring the possibilities of worker control


Some are crowing, crowing over the murder. Neoliberal Young Creatives are circling the Times-Picayune corpse, eager to dart in and nip at a tender undefended eyeball or internal organ, eager to feast on a once-mighty newspaper rendered defenseless by the superior Newhouse superpredators.

Follow them on Twitter
For a pair of prime examples, we need look no further than the horrendous young-privilege circle jerk Next American City, a bizarre media hub that elevates gentrification to a fetish, in fact to an entire identity-- "new urbanism."

There we find the opinions of Michael Martin, who since arriving here in 2010 has been made Manager of "St. Claude Main St," the recent recipient of a massive $275,000 grant to be shared with globe-trotter Candy Chang of "Blank Slate Neighborland" infamy. From his comfortable position deep in the non-profit clover, Martin urges largely web-unsavvy New Orleans to see the murder of the Times-Picayune as "an opportunity."

Crisis, opportunity. But an opportunity for whom? Ariella Cohen knows for whom!

"[C]ommunities need to understand," Cohen patiently informs us non-understanders, "that news is community infrastructure that must be valued and paid for, just like roads and bridges." Her solution is that everyone pour money into The Lens, which she helped found before following the NGO money train back north. By suggesting we respond to the death of our daily by investing in her internet site, she also promulgates the inaccurate notion that the murder of the Times-Picayune was due to it not being valued or paid for.

In the shadows beneath this gigantic, unselfconscious Shock Doctrine pitch for Knight Foundation funding, one comment by New Orleans poet Rodger Kamenetz provides a glimmer of light.
the missing piece in the discussion here is the staff of the Times Picayune. What if they had responded to this latest news-- or previous news-- and realized they needed to band together, really to unionize in some manner?

Then they as a group could have responded to this action by saying, fire all of us or keep all of us, print seven days a week or wake up tomorrow morning with no staff whatsoever. ...I really believe that had they done this-- if they did it, the whole community would support them.
I think he's absolutely right. Why didn't the Times-Picayune ever unionize?


On June 26 2012, the labor union representing about 200 employees of the Albany Times-Union Newspaper sent out a press release: eleven former employees would be compensated for their unjust firings. "We are proud to welcome back three of our colleagues, and we are glad all 11 will be compensated for their lost wages, health care costs and pension losses," wrote Albany Newspaper Guild Guild President Tim O’Brien. "But this case is not just about the past. It is about the future of all our members. Never again will employees be treated the way these colleagues were."

That kind of success story is what happens when workers-- even newspaper workers-- organize with one another. The Times-Picayune, of course, had no union. Instead, it had 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.
This promise from the men of the Newhouse family to their employees stood for decades: if you remain non-union, you will not be laid off. It's why a Newhouse job was once considered the holy grail of newspaper work.

What kind of a substitute for the protections of worker organizing did the Pledge provide, long-term? “We have had a pledge not to layoff employees for economic conditions or advances in technology,” Steve Newhouse, chairman of Advance, told Editor & Publisher magazine in 2009. The occasion of this interview was his announcement that the pledge was ending. Firings were to follow. "It was not a pledge that applies to the kind of transitional moment in the newspaper industry that is basically struggling to survive."

Transitional moments-- transformational moments-- moments of crisis and change.

Sure enough, Times-Picayune and staff began transitioning to joblessness. On the newspaper side, the layoffs were mixed into buyouts: higher-paid staff or those covering theater, books and other apparently obsolete aspects of New Orleans life were offered incentives to quit. With the Pledge rescinded, weeks of mandatory unpaid furlough ensured everyone understood the stick awaiting those who didn't accept these generously proffered carrots.

Howard Bronson
One person who had the means and determination not to go quietly was the publisher of the Advance-owned Mobile Press-Register, Howard Bronson. Fired shortly after the rollback of the pledge and replaced with (now NOLA Media Group president) Ricky Mathews, Bronson was not satisfied with his severance package of a year’s salary, continuing health care coverage and access to University of Alabama football tickets. This ungrateful good ol' boy filed suit against the Newhouses for having violated the Pledge, and a good ol' court case commenced. On the stand, Donald Newhouse explained the Pledge was "a promise-- not a legal contract." Attorneys characterized the Pledge as simply "a protection for lower-level employees who didn’t join a union."

The ever-excellent American Zombie judges the Bronson suit and the Pledge to have played a major role in the liquidations of the Newhouse newspapers. In this, I disagree with him. Bronson had the means to sue the Newhouses; the rank-and-file never would have. The Pledge was a successful swindle. The reverence Newhouse staffers felt towards the Pledge imbued it with a mystic aura, and its warm glow kept them safe and secure right up until that warm glow ceased to be cost-effective.

Workers believed the benevolent patriarchs of the Newhouse family would look after them, based on nothing more than the Newhouses having said so. In practice, the Pledge was like the "privacy agreements" users have with Google or the fine-print fee structures of a credit card: subject to change at any time with basically no notice & no recourse. It was designed that way. The Newhouses might've misjudged how cheaply they could buy off Bronson, but billionaires aren't generally naive about labor.

The Pledge served its purpose: it bought worker loyalty. When the time came, heads rolled just the same as they had at Gannett & other news companies. The Pledge was never more than a facet of Newhouse efforts to suppress worker organizing.


Strikers published their own
newspaper, the "Valley Voice."
Photo by William D. Lewis
Back in late 2004, when employees of Youngstown, Ohio's daily "Vindicator" went on strike, Advance was one of the media companies who provided the Vindicator's owners with scab labor. New Orleans anarchists, the tediously scolding voice of idealism, painted the neighborhood around the Times-Pic building with anti-scab graffiti. "Scabs Are Scum," the spraypaint read. "Don't scab. Fuck your boss."

Some listened, some didn't. Times-Picayune managing editor Dan Shea was among those who took the bonus pay to go cross the picket line. He was deluded enough to believe himself on the side of the publishers. He, like many workers in many fields, mistakenly conflated his interests with those of his overseers.

"I'm a manager," Shea told picketers who asked him why he was stabbing fellow newspapermen in the back. "Publishers stick together just like unions do, and this paper has the right to publish. So we're just here helping out.... I hope you wrap this up soon; I want to go home to my kids."

Remember BP CEO Tony Hayward's words, in the wake of the BP oil disaster? "There's no one who wants this thing over more than I do, I'd like my life back." Shea, like Hayward, considered himself unfairly inconvenienced-- a victim of these other people's tragedy.

In May 2012 Shea found out how the publishers reciprocated his loyalty: he and the Times-Pic's other managing editor were excluded from the secret meetings new honcho Ricky Mathews held at the Windsor Court Hotel. Shea, like the common union rabble he'd sided against, was out in the cold, unsure of whether he'd have a job and depending on third-party reporting for his information.

"Since the New York Times story I have not heard anything," Shea told The Nation. "I’m in the same boat as the majority of the staff.”

Then, like the majority of the staff, he was fired.


There is, for better or worse, one prominent and semi-recent example I can cite of the Times-Picayune staffers working collectively, autonomously and without orders from above.

According to an article in the US News, in the teeth of the 2005 federal levee failure and the flooding of New Orleans, at the Times-Picyaune "a new, unexpected kind of leadership emerged-- one in which people at all levels banded together to do what they had to do: put out a newspaper." The writers of the article, titled "Out of Disaster, Power in Numbers" describe this dynamic as an example of organizations "shifting away from 'top down' approaches, in which a few leaders call all the shots, in favor of more collective processes."

I find it very telling that in the Times-Picayune's finest hour, its greatest triumph over adversity, the period for which it's been justly lauded, there was "no grand plan directed by senior editors." According to editor Jim Amoss, "It became immediately apparent that our very survival as a publication depended on collaboration and cooperation." The crisis "dramatically leveled all hierarchical considerations."

The conduct of Times-Pic staffers was heroic, and it also happened to be an example of cooperative, collective action. The work those employed by the Times-Pic did through Katrina and its aftermath remains a shining moment in that newspaper's history, in our community's history and in journalism's history.

Nothing-- neither the death of the Times-Picayune, nor the crass invocations of Katrina by those killing it-- will ever dim that luster.


a six-part series on the destruction of New Orleans' daily newspaper
Part  One - Two - Three - Four - Five - Six
written by Jules Bentley