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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 01:28 PM ET, 06/15/2012

Times-Picayune reverses itself on restaurant critic

The Erik Wemple Blog reported earlier this week that Brett Anderson, the accomplished restaurant critic of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, was laid off by the paper over an anomalous set of circumstances. As Anderson put it via e-mail:

My meeting lasted less than five minutes, and I didn’t really say anything. I was told I’m being let go because I’m taking a Nieman Fellowship.

Reaction didn’t look favorably upon the newspaper’s management:

carr2n: Good news: You’ve a Nieman Fellow. Bad News? You’re fired. http://t.co/r2WSClDo @ErikWemple on @BrettAndersonTP and #TimesPic

Over the past couple of days, it appears, the Times-Picayhune woke up. An item on the Times-Picayune Web site this morning signaled a reversal: “Brett Anderson invited to return after Nieman fellowship.” Here’s the official line, in part:

Times-Picayune Editor Jim Amoss said the newspaper has always wanted Anderson to be part of its dining and food coverage and that when Anderson applied for the fellowship, the newspaper agreed to give him a leave of absence for its duration.
“We told Brett then that he would have a job with us when the fellowship ended,” Amoss said. “We should have communicated that this week when we announced the changes at our paper. We intend to honor our commitment to Brett. His work has been integral to the recovery of the dining scene in New Orleans.”

Bolded text added to underscore extreme weirdness: Indeed, the best way to “have communicated that” would have been to refrain from handing Anderson a pink slip. Keeping someone employed is always an effective form of communication.

There was another Twilight Zone moment in the Times-Picayune announcement:

Earlier this week, it was reported that Anderson was to be laid off as part of the newspaper’s reorganization into a digitally focused news organization.

Wouldn’t the Times-Picayune be able to verify such information, instead of relying on news accounts? Oh, that’s right — it’s a personnel matter. You can’t talk about what you’ve done to your own employees, but you can reference other reports about what you’ve done to your own employees. It’s a great world out there for media critics.

One day Anderson is expendable; another day he’s integral. Both of those days fall in the same week. The sudden reversal says nothing about Anderson, a James Beard Award-winning critic who has covered the New Orleans dining scene for more than a decade.

It does say something about the Times-Picayune’s plan to transition toward a grand digital future. The layoff-non-layoff of Anderson comes in the midst of the paper’s initiative to shed almost a third of its overall staffing, dump print for all but three days of the week and embrace the Internet more fully. Into the announcement of its diminishment, the newspaper dared to speak of “plans to enhance the paper’s award-winning food and dining coverage.”

Just what were/are those plans? Was Phase One titled “Alienate award-winning critic”?

Following Anderson’s pink-slip incident, I corresponded with Editor Jim Amoss about staffing levels for this food-coverage upgrade. I started out by asking Amoss how Anderson’s dismissal jibes with enhancement of coverage. Amoss:

We intend to maintain our substantial food coverage, with two full-time writers devoted to the New Orleans restaurant and food beat.

Me:

Thanks for getting back to me, very much. Does this mean that you are just going to maintain and not enhance?

Amoss:

We recently added the second writer, so I suppose that means that the enhancement has happened and that we’ll stay committed at that level.

That second writer appears to be Susan Langenhennig, and a byline search for her work at NOLA.com suggests that she splits her time between coverage of fashion and restaurants. Amoss made clear that there were no new hires associated with this enhancement, just a reallocation of existing resources. I asked Amoss if the prospect of Anderson’s return after the fellowship means that there’d be three people on the food beat; no response yet.

So if you’re a New Orleanian foodie, don’t get too excited about all these plans for improved food coverage from your daily thrice-weekly. What we have here is a vastly shrunken enterprise trying to plug coverage holes as best it can, just like most other newspapers in its class. There are no good ways to do it, and the bosses who churn out sunny pronouncements about how this’ll be better and that’ll be maintained — well, they expose themselves. “Jim Amoss’ statements and writings show how out of touch their transition plan is,” says Anne Rolfes of the group Save the Picayune. “What he’s saying does not reflect New Orleans. He’s clearly reading talking points from [ownership].”

And no word from Anderson on whether he’ll accept the paper’s invitation to return post-fellowship.

By  |  01:28 PM ET, 06/15/2012

 
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