Sept. 17, 2013 06:00 AM

After several turbulent years of furloughs, layoffs and buyouts and now facing a leadership vacuum, employees at The Advertiser and Daily World have every right to be wary of their parent company's latest initiative.

After several turbulent years of furloughs, layoffs and buyouts and now facing a leadership vacuum, employees at The Advertiser and Daily World have every right to be wary of their parent company's latest initiative. By Walter Pierce

Photos by Kari Walker

If a suit flaps its lapels in McClean, Va., will it cause a sinkhole in South Louisiana? Time will tell, once the so-called "Butterfly Project" makes its way to Gannett-owned newspapers across the country, including - maybe? - the local Daily Advertiser and Daily World.

The newspaper/media giant, headquartered in the Washington, D.C., suburb of McClean, has kept the initiative on the QT since it was conceived more than a year ago. According to Gannett Blog, a website unaffiliated with the company but a clearinghouse nonetheless for Gannett news from company insiders, the Butterfly Project involves upping content from Gannett's flagship paper, USA Today, in the company's roughly 80 community newspapers, presumably at the expense of local content.

The blog reports that top editors across the company met in August to discuss its rollout, which "will be piloted at four or five sites, with at least one in Wisconsin." The blog also quotes Gannett CEO Gracia Martore telling Wall Street analysts in July about a "fairly exciting add to the consumer experience by blending some assets that Gannett is uniquely positioned to do."

Locally, the Advertiser began incorporating a USA Today page devoted to world and national news a couple of years ago. The page uses USA Today fonts and layout style as well as the national paper's recognizable use of quotes and heavily encapsulated news briefs accompanying a couple of longer stories generated by USA Today staff writers.

However, according to David Petty, publisher of the Gannett-owned Monroe News-Star and interim publisher of the Advertiser and Daily World - former Acadiana publisher Karen Lincoln was canned in July for undisclosed reasons - the Butterfly Project might not affect local Gannett papers at all. "It's just a project, but the aim is to enrich the local content, not force content or whatever else - every paper has an option," says Petty, who was surprisingly accessible and forthcoming in a recent phone conversation.

Petty suggests individual papers will be able to opt out of the Butterfly Project. "I don't know all the details and really shouldn't comment too much on it because I don't, but I do know that the way it has been rolled out in the past on USA Today content, you've had an opportunity or not," he says. "In Lafayette they use the USA Today world page; in Monroe we do not. We use the baseball page because our readers love it [Lafayette uses the baseball page as well]. In the past that's the way it's been rolled out; I don't really know any other specifics so I cannot comment on that, but that's the way it was in the past."

It's no secret that Gannett has undergone some monumental industrial stress over the last decade. The company expanded rapidly in the 1990s, just before the bottom dropped out on display advertising and classified advertising thanks to a little thing we call the Internet. The local Gannett papers went through their own paroxysms of layoffs, furloughs and buyouts as the parent company tried to adjust to the new reality of print journalism, which has been cruel across the publishing world and not just for Gannett.

And there seems to be little relief in sight. According to figures obtained by Gannett Blog via the Alliance for Audited Media, which tracks newspaper circulation, Gannett's community newspapers saw an average 36 percent decline in circulation between 2005 and 2012. Locally the declines were even worse. The Advertiser's circ fell from a daily average of 45,543 papers in '05 to 27,561 last year, a 39 percent decline. Up in Opelousas at the Daily World, circulation fell 42 percent over the same time span, from 9,202 to 5,303.

Those types of precipitous plunges in circulation have industry watchers wondering whether an initiative like the Butterfly Project will lead to more layoffs and buyouts. It's certainly a cost-cutting measure, and more USA Today content, it can reasonably be assumed, will likely lead to less local content and less need for local staff to produce it.

But the News-Star's Petty doesn't see it that way. "That's certainly not the plan," he says. "Each newspaper as far as furloughs and buyouts, that's all based upon their own financial situation. This isn't a deal to do otherwise."

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