Editor’s Note: Following is an excerpt from “Hell or High Water: The Battle to Save the New Orleans Times-Picayune” by author Rebecca Theim. Theim is a former reporter for the Picayune and has chronicled behind-the-scenes events surrounding it and other Newhouse-owned newspapers being reduced from daily publishing to thrice weekly. Her book also touches on events at Mobile’s Press-Register. Theim will be in Mobile for a talk and book reading Oct. 22 at True’s Midtown Kitchen at 1100 Dauphin St. at 7 p.m. All are welcome.
By Rebecca Theim
Courtesy of Pelican Publishing Company
Although many don’t expect a newspaper’s business-side executives to abide by the same journalistic standards regarding truth as their editorial-side brethren must meet, (Ricky) Mathews has his own credibility issues—dating back to at least his arrival at Advance Publications in 2009.
In August of that year, when he was named publisher of Advance’s Mobile Press-Register and the Mississippi Press, in Pascagoula, and president of the Alabama Media Group, which includes all three Advance newspapers in the state, the Press-Register announced his arrival with a front-page story. The story strongly implied—but did not explicitly state—that Mathews’ predecessor, Howard Bronson, had voluntarily retired at age seventy-two. The story even included a quote from Bronson, remarking about how he and his wife looked forward to making Mobile their permanent home after living there primarily as a professional necessity during his seventeen-year stint as publisher.
The only problem is that Bronson, who did not respond to requests for an interview, didn’t retire, and he didn’t provide the newspaper with a quote. He had been summarily dismissed by the Press-Register from his $745,000-a-year job after refusing to retire at Donald Newhouse’s behest, contending that he was covered by the company’s job security Pledge and had been repeatedly reassured before accepting the job that he would be allowed to work as long as he pleased. According to extensive coverage of the episode by Mobile’s alternative bi-weekly, Lagniappe, Bronson had been in pointed conversations with Donald and his nephew, Mark Newhouse, and they knew he was refusing to voluntarily retire. About a month after his forced retirement, he filed his $7.3 million breach of contract civil lawsuit against the newspaper and Advance, an action the Newhouses and Mathews could have anticipated was a likely outcome of their unsuccessful negotiations with Bronson.
Lagniappe was quick to call Mathews on the misleading story. “The first story the Press-Register ran when Mathews came in was a lie, claiming his predecessor Howard Bronson had retired, when, in fact, he’d been fired,” Rob Holbert, managing editor and co-publisher of Lagniappe, wrote about Mathews’ arrival in Mobile. “That alone shows how little Mathews and the P-R brass understand what running a newspaper is about. Lying to your readers probably does far more damage to circulation than the worldwide web.”
And then there’s the “piano story.” About a year-and-a-half after Mathews was named publisher, the Press-Register ran a front-page story about William Jones, a resident of Tuscaloosa, a burg two-hundred miles north of Mobile primarily known as the home of the University of Alabama. Tuscaloosa and neighborhoods in and around Birmingham, and as far north as my former hometown of Huntsville, were devastated by deadly tornadoes that tore through the region in April 2011. “On this blazing afternoon in what remained of the shattered Rosedale neighborhood, William Jones was approached by a stranger,” the April 2011 story teased. That stranger was Ricky Mathews. Again calling to mind his and his family’s near-miss by Hurricane Katrina, “Mathews introduced himself to Jones and understood his pain,” the story said, and wanted to help by restoring Jones’s piano. The remainder of the article discussed in painstaking detail how the damaged piano was collected (by a special piece of machinery operated by one of Mathews’ cousins), transported to a Birmingham man who restored it, and then returned to Jones’ home.
Holbert in May 2013 remembered the story vividly, more than three years later. “I was in the mood for an uplifting story that would restore my faith in humanity,” he recalled sardonically, about opening his Press-Register that morning. “This story’s talking about this poor soul who lost his piano in the rubble. And I get to the jump, and who comes to the rescue? Ricky Mathews. I just about spit out my oatmeal. I could not believe that the publisher of a newspaper would have a story like this written about himself, on the front page of the newspaper.”
The piano story was one of thirty-three reports either written by or featuring Mathews that were published in the Press-Register or on al.com in the twenty-nine months between his August 2009 appointment and January 2012, two months before he was named incoming publisher of the Times-Picayune. Besides his efforts to have Mr. Jones’ piano repaired, Press-Register readers learned about Mathews rubbing shoulders with media baron Rupert Murdoch while on a New York media tour with then-Alabama Gov. Bob Riley; exercising religiously to avoid the fate of his father, who died at forty-four of a heart attack; and winning an award from the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. (One story included a reference to Mathews as “president and publisher of the Press-Resister,” which made me wonder whether it was a typo or an act of quiet protest on the part of a defiant reporter.) Apparently accustomed to reading about Mathews in the pages of the Press-Register and al.com, a reader posted a cutting comment about the piano story: “Every time Ricky Mathews publishes a story about himself, an angel loses its wings. So, there are about a dozen flightless angels out there this year . . .”
In another story about the devastation caused by the tornadoes that damaged Jones’ piano, Mathews wrote, “As I learned after Katrina, when folks don’t have power, the printed newspaper becomes even more essential. On a normal day, we can tell a story better than other media, but if a storm takes out the power grid, everyone looks to us.” The passage made me wonder whether Mathews still feels the same about power outages that occur in Alabama on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, the days that none of Advance’s Alabama newspapers, the three largest in the state, publish print editions.
About a year later, Press-Register readers were greeted with another eyebrow-raiser, this time in the form of the headline on the story announcing the arrival of “digital first” and the termination of an undisclosed total number of employees, including what turned out to be 50 of 70 who worked in the newsroom. The headline? “Exciting changes for our readers.” Press-Register editor Mike Marshall acknowledged to Poynter.org that “he helped write the headline, which he characterized as an attempt to recast the story: ‘Perhaps I got carried away, but basically the storyline all day long had been that the papers were cutting back to three publications, and lost was the story that we’re building a digital future.’” Mathews was not quoted in the story, but he was apparently still publisher of the newspaper at the time the report was published.
Lagniappe’s Holbert was at his take-no-prisoners best when zeroing in on the “exciting changes for our readers” headline. “Calling the coming firing of P-R employees and the loss of the city’s daily newspaper ‘exciting changes’ is a lot like saying that getting hit in the face with a baseball bat is an exciting opportunity to work on a new look,” Holbert opined in Lagniappe. He went on:
They want us all to believe it’s really just the Internet that’s the problem. There have been suggestions by some that the citizens let the P-R down by not properly supporting the paper. But that’s kind of like blaming people for not supporting a Golden Corral, even after they installed a fancy chocolate fountain. No one blames the citizens when they don’t support a mediocre restaurant, and that applies as well to a mediocre newspaper. . . . Unfortunately, the people who will pay are the citizens who will have an even more timid watchdog and the people who really love newspapers and have been proud to work there. 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.
Holbert wasn’t the only journalist outside of Advance outraged by the headline. “To call this an ‘exciting change’ is more than just an editing error; it amounts to a cruel joke on long-loyal readers and those who write for them honestly and directly,” wrote Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, in what became a nationally syndicated editorial. (The Democrat-Gazette, incidentally is one of the first US general-interest newspapers to successfully erect a paywall.) “It’s hard to believe that any editor down in Mobile can believe the way this story was handled will add to the newspaper’s credibility. It’s an intangible quality—credibility—but it’s easy to lose. And easy to tell—at a glance—when it’s missing.”
Although it’s generally been accepted in journalism circles for years that the Press-Register is, in fact, a mediocre newspaper, the Times-Picayune has enjoyed a much better reputation, especially in the past twenty-five years. And although the Times-Picayune went with a hard-hitting headline—“Newspaper Lays Off 200 Employees”—when the extent of the workforce reduction was finally confirmed almost three weeks later, on the day after the New York Times broke the original story about the coming changes, all four Advance papers used neutral-to-misleading headlines, tinged with marketing-speak. While the Press-Register heralded “Exciting Changes for Our Readers,” the Birmingham News went with “Changes coming to the News,” and the Huntsville Times used a similarly innocuous “Changes Ahead at the Times.” The Times-Picayune’s headline? “Newspaper to Move Focus to Digital.”
From Hell and High Water by Rebecca Theim, © 2013, used by permission of the publisher, Pelican Publishing Company, Inc.