The Times-Picayune changes: Retreat or rebound?

5NN01X2A1108_23963.inddThis week, The Times-Picayune of New Orleans announced that its home-delivery subscribers, who were cut back to three days a week in the fall of 2012, would be getting two “bonus” home-delivered papers — Saturdays and Mondays — at least through the end of football season this year. Also, the paper would switch back to a broadsheet format every day, dropping the tabloid editions it had introduced last year.

I’ll make an educated guess and say that some critics of Advance Digital, the T-P’s parent, are going to declare this a sign of failure, saying it’s a retreat from the strategy of reducing access to the print product and pushing people to the associated website, NOLA.com.

I have no inside knowledge about this decision. However, I was in the thick of preparations for the changes at Advance’s Cleveland operations, and I had talked to lots of people around the company before I left. It always seemed to me that part of Advance’s strategy was to create a startup-type culture at its sites — thus the creation of new job titles like “curator,” the moves to different offices, the declaration that everyone would work without an assigned desk, spending as much time as possible in the field.

Part of a startup culture is being flexible — trying new things, but adapting quickly if they don’t work. Failing fast, they call it. The Next Web says:

We mingle with a lot of startups and entrepreneurs, and we often hear about ‘pivots’ – where an initial seed of an idea evolves over time, as the startup better understands what’s needed by the public.

In an interview with serial entrepreneur Jason Calacanis a few weeks back, we asked him if there was any way of cutting out the ‘pivoting’ part of a startup’s evolution, and Jason said:

“The best practice today is to get a product in the market and learn. You can’t do it any other way in my mind, at least not for Internet companies.”

If Advance’s New Orleans properties were a real startup, there wouldn’t be much surprise, or criticism, if elements were tweaked over time. And these are tweaks: I don’t expect we’ll ever see a Times-Picayune like the one that existed before the 2012 changes. If I understand that “bonus” adjective — the same one The Plain Dealer uses to describe its Saturday home-delivery edition — what that means is the paper won’t be nearly as thick as it is on the existing home-delivery days. James O’Byrne, one of the bosses of the NOLA Media Group (umbrella name for NOLA.com and the paper), responded to a question in the comments on the story announcing this week’s flip by insisting that this wasn’t just the first step toward complete abandonment of Advance strategy:

We’re adding two bonus days during football season because we know readers will welcome having their hometown newspaper with Saints, LSU, Tulane, college and high school football and NFL coverage delivered to their doorsteps during football season. However, home delivery 7 days a week is not a sustainable business long term. We plan to serve the New Orleans area over the long term.

These changes aren’t the first time Advance has advanced by taking two steps forward and one step back. The company’s website template has been evolving — initially, every city was going to share the same glaring yellow color scheme, with a homepage reduced to little more than a stream of the latest posts regardless of topic. That quickly got adjusted when it hit NOLA.com, and over time most of the sites have put more and more emphasis on an editor-chosen selection of top stories, among other changes.

The initial print plans, too, have been changing. At the first test site, AnnArbor.com, the old Ann Arbor News name was eliminated and a print AnnArbor.com paper was only available twice a week — not even printed the other five days. The Ann Arbor News returned last year. And in general, Advance sites are maintaining print products these days. When Advance brought the new way of doing things to New Jersey earlier this year, it said it would continue seven-day-a-week publishing at all the affected papers, despite dropping many newsroom employees.

When I suggested to my Facebook friends that the Times-Picayune announcement mostly reflected the usual shifts of a startup, someone objected: “But you just can’t experiment THAT much with your brand. It’s unlikely you’ll have a chance to go back and win people over again.

I replied that no one expects print properties like the Times-Picayune to show real growth ever again — at least, that’s my analysis. “Save the brand” is what established companies say — indeed, it’s what I heard at The Plain Dealer for many years. Startups, though, don’t have brand equity to begin with. That difference is what puts Advance in an awkward position. Unlike a startup, its newspapers have brands that still have some value — even if the audiences tended to honor that equity more in memory than in the hard cash of subscription dollars. Shrinking though those papers may be, they’re still valuable as ad delivery systems, too.

That makes changing the print product risky. Certainly, the Advance executives took a big gamble when they first announced the New Orleans plan to drop most days (or, rather, when the New York Times announced it for them). Switching to a smaller format some days was also a risk — though not one without precedent. Adding home delivery days and going back to broadsheet may seem like conservative moves, but they’re also risks — anything that confuses the subscriber base is.

Yet startups take those kinds of risks all the time. Some work, some don’t. When they don’t, the startups try to bounce back … or they close. The Advance properties are very big startups, with a lot more jobs at stake than the average entrepreneur. The consequences of failure would be correspondingly high. But I believe that Advance’s bosses think they don’t have any good alternative, so I expect more risks — and more tweaks — to come.

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