29 May 2012

David Carr on the demise of The Times-Picayune

From the 27 May edition of the New York Times: 

A Doomed Romance With a New Orleans Newspaper

If it keeps on raining, levee’s going to break — “When the Levee Breaks,” Led Zeppelin
Newsprint sentimentalists are part of a shrinking club. Plenty of people care about news, but the fetishists who want it to be imprisoned on paper? We are like Shriners, once a proud, powerful bunch who now meet in little rooms and exchange secret handshakes.
Nothing gets print romanticists more dewy-eyed than The Times-Picayune, which we learned last week will no longer be a daily presence on newsprint in New Orleans.
I was in the city right after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the role the newspaper and its Web site played cannot be overestimated. Many of the women and men who work at the paper stayed and filed articles even as their families dispersed and their homes went underwater. It was the kind of journalism that won Pulitzers, but more important, reunited families, gave people critical guidance and brought order out of incredible chaos.
Since then, the newspaper has prosecuted coverage that has kicked up federal investigations and helped bring rogue cops to justice. In a city where not much of anything works, the newspaper does.
I return to New Orleans often — to fish, eat and dance. But it is a particular pleasure to sit in one of the city’s many coffee shops and watch plain old folks jaw over The Times-Picayune, brandishing it like a weapon when they want to make a point.
After the news broke that The Times-Picayune would no longer publish daily, far-flung fans of the city and its newspaper gathered on Twitter — just consider that irony for a moment — and had a collective sniffle. The Times-Picayune will be subsumed into a new company called NOLA Media Group and will come out three days a week (Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays), with most of the resources — fewer after the layoffs — devoted to the Web.
Many newspapers have gone away, including The Rocky Mountain News in Denver and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Others have been diminished to the point where it wouldn’t matter if they did go away. So why the freak-out over the Times-Pic?
Because it is a story about a town that loved its newspaper — its market penetration is among the highest in the land — but just not enough to keep it. It’s the kind of doomed romance that inspires tear-jerker movies and elegiac columns in, yes, newspapers, so bear with me. It is Memorial Day, after all.
There is nothing particularly remarkable about The Times-Picayune’s circumstance. Advertisers have consolidated, their choices have multiplied, and their potential clients have many more options for getting their information. Other than a few fat days like Fridays and Sundays aimed at food shoppers or moviegoers, many newspapers arrive at the doorstep looking more like skinny brochures than their stuffed ancestors.
But New Orleans is not a very wired city and The Times-Picayune has always been an excellent daily with a balky, dated Web site. Orders from headquarters aren’t going to reverse those competencies on a dime.
I talked to Steven Newhouse, the chief of Advance.net, part of Advance Publications, which owns the paper. Mr. Newhouse is as sweet on newspapers as the next guy; after all, he and his family own 35 of them. But advertising has dropped steadily year over year at The Times-Picayune, just as it has almost everywhere else. In terms of total revenue, the industry is half as big as it was in 2005.
Mr. Newhouse knew that New Orleans, notoriously averse to change, would not be happy about the reduced presence of The Times-Picayune. This city has already lost a lot, after all. But he and his colleagues did it anyway because they felt they had no choice.
On days like Monday, Tuesday and Saturday, the newspaper is all but ad-free, so all of the industriousness and skill that go into putting together those issues is noneconomic. The Newhouses are plenty rich, but they are not in the business of underwriting, so they are re-engineering their newspaper division for the long haul.
Experiments in Ann Arbor, Mich., and with the Booth newspapers in Michigan demonstrated that smaller staffs and a reduced print schedule could be sustainable, so Katrina and sentiment be damned, The Times-Picayune will become the largest guinea pig so far in an experiment that will end in either death or transformation.
Anybody who has been to New Orleans could have told you that the residents wouldn’t sit still for that. The news broke in the dead of night on Wednesday and by Thursday morning, some wag had stapled a poster of a cartoon fat cat to a wall in the Bywater, imploring locals to “Save the T-P from greedy out-of-town publishers.” People met in parlors uptown, coffee shops in the Marigny, and bars all over the city to plan coups.
“Asking if this town needs a paper every day is a silly question. We’re on to figuring it out,” said James Carville, the political commentator and a New Orleans resident.
David Simon, a former newspaperman, has spent the last few years unfurling a post-Katrina narrative for HBO called “Treme.” One story he isn’t interested in telling? The one about the city that ended up so far underwater it emerged without a newspaper.
“New Orleans is one of the more dystopic cities in America,” said Mr. Simon, who set his series in New Orleans. “Louisiana as a whole has a problem with corruption, the school system has been Balkanized and the prisons, which are run for profit, are jammed. It is one of the worst-run cities in America, but it is also among its most vibrant, and absent an aggressive watchdog in the form of a daily paper, I don’t see things getting better.”
This month the paper ran a deeply reported eight-part series on why Louisiana’s incarceration rate is the highest in the country. The people at Advance Publications told me that reducing the print schedule was their way of making sure that kind of accountability reporting continued for many years to come. But the staff may be cut by a third or more and charged with feeding the Web’s full-time appetite for incremental news.
My worry is not about the loss of the earthy smell of freshly rendered pages. A newspaper, even one short on advertising, is a great ad for at least one thing: the paper itself. The constancy of a daily paper — in the rack at the convenience store on Frenchman Street or on the tables of the coffeehouse on Maple Street — is a reminder to a city that someone is out there watching.
Important journalism will still be done at The Times-Picayune. Jim Amoss, the editor there, and the talented staff will make sure of that. But you have to wonder whether it will still have the same impact when it doesn’t land day after day on doorsteps all over the city.
E-mail: carr@nytimes.com;

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