'Times-Picayune' Paper Slashes Staff By 200 People

The New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper, known for its Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of Hurricane Katrina, announced this week that nearly half of the newsroom staff would be laid off. Melissa Block speaks with Times-Picayune reporter Mark Schleifstein, who has been on staff at the paper for 28 years.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Yesterday was hatchet day at the New Orleans Times-Picayune and three Alabama newspapers all owned by the same company. About 600 people found out they were being laid off.

In New Orleans, nearly half the Times-Picayune newsroom is being let go. What this means is that the city will no longer have a daily paper. They'll publish three times a week. The focus will shift online to the website, NOLA.com.

Taking it all in is Times-Picayune reporter, Mark Schleifstein. He's been with the paper for 28 years and shared in two Pulitzer Prizes the paper earned for its coverage of Hurricane Katrina.

Mark, thanks for being with us.

MARK SCHLEIFSTEIN: Thank you.

BLOCK: And you are among the lucky ones, I gather. You still have your job, right?

SCHLEIFSTEIN: I have been offered a position in the new corporation and am considering the offer.

BLOCK: Well, what was the scene like yesterday as so many of your friends and colleagues were called in and told they're gone?

SCHLEIFSTEIN: I actually referred to it online as sort of Katrina without the water. It was very disconcerting and very emotional. There was a lot of crying and a lot of hugging and people streamed in all day long to meet with individual editors who provided them with a packet that was either a job offer, like mine was, or was a severance package that gave them the news as to whether or not they would still be around.

BLOCK: There was a video posted online at NOLA.com by the paper's editor, Jim Amos, and he said that newspapers that don't serve a digital audience risk a slow death. Let's listen to some of what he said.

JIM AMOS: We won't retreat from our commitment to be a watchdog of local government. We won't retreat from being the dominant news source for our communities. Those are our promises and we know that you'll hold us to them.

BLOCK: Mark Schleifstein, what do you make of those promises?

SCHLEIFSTEIN: I'm hoping we're able to do that or I'm hoping the new product is able to do that. We're really going to have to figure out whether or not we can keep our audience once they see what the products are that we're able to produce. And what those products are is what the real question is and it's something that us in the newsroom still do not have a decent handle on.

BLOCK: A lot of people have questioned how the organization can keep an audience in New Orleans on the digital side when there's such a digital divide. So many people in the city don't have access to the Internet.

SCHLEIFSTEIN: I think there have been surveys that show maybe 35 percent of the city of New Orleans proper do not have access to the Internet, either on cell phones or by computer. So, we've got to figure out how we're able to get that information to them. In the past, our circulation has not been that large in New Orleans, as well, but there's this thing in New Orleans where people would go to, you know, their local barber shop or their local coffee shop and find a newspaper there and read it. And that provided us with market penetration rates that were maybe fourth highest in the United States, prior to what this, you know, what this new product is going to be.

BLOCK: You know, a lot of people, Mark, will remember that, during Katrina, the Times-Picayune was able to keep publishing under just heroic circumstances by its staff. What do you think it means to the city to not have a daily print newspaper anymore?

SCHLEIFSTEIN: People are upset about - there's a lot of emotion about this idea that we're going to become a three day a week kind of product. I don't know how we're going to be able to get over that. As the new corporate entity goes forward, how do we keep our readers? And how do we also keep our advertisers happy in such a way that we're able to survive financially?

BLOCK: Mark Schleifstein, thanks so much.

SCHLEIFSTEIN: Thank you.

BLOCK: Mark Schleifstein is a reporter with the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which yesterday laid off 200 employees, including nearly half of the newsroom.

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