It was a year ago this month that The Times-Picayune completed its "digital transition" — going to three times-weekly publication — effectively whacking what was, by all appearances, a reasonably healthy newspaper. (In the print business these days, "healthy" is a relative term.) Nearly 200 people were fired; the "transition" fell apart when it became public earlier than management had planned; and the paper's owners and local executives made a series of embarrassing missteps and public relations disasters.
How that happened, and why, is the subject of Rebecca Theim's new book Hell and High Water: The Battle to Save the Daily New Orleans Times-Picayune, which traces the tumultous year for The T-P in extreme detail, set against a larger story but smaller subplot, about the plight of American newspapers in general.
Theim is hardly a disinterested (or uninterested) observer; she's an ex-T-P reporter now living in Las Vegas, a former journalist who had gone through layoffs herself at more than one company. Shortly after the changeover, she created dashTHIRTYdash, a fund that raised tens of thousands of dollars for fired T-P workers. She's also been an active participant in a private Facebook group that was set up as "Friends of The Times-Picayune" (though at times it reads more like "Pick on The Times-Picayune").
"I viewed it," she writes, "as a fierce and remarkable grassroots battle that America's most unique city would wage against a multinational media company and its billionaire controlling family-in-transition, and a romantic, yet battered, industry struggling to pull itself out of free fall."
It's clear where Theim's sympathies lie, but if there's a lack of balance here, it's due to The Times-Picayune itself, which has, even a year later, failed to tell its own story. The management of Advance Publications, which owns The Times-Picayune, went to ground almost immediately after word leaked out about the paper's cutback plans, and the only current T-P staffer who would go on the record in Hell and High Water is the respected veteran environmental reporter Mark Schleifstein, who mounts as good a defense as can be mounted. Longtime Editor Jim Amoss, who oversaw the transition, comes off patrician, aloof and a bit of an enigma, while newly installed Publisher Ricky Mathews, brought in from another Newhouse paper, is portrayed as a vainglorious middle-management type rather than a visionary; he could just as easily be a Coca-Cola regional manager. (Or, given the T-P's rocky transition, the guy who came to town to sell New Coke.)
Theim traces the shock in the newsroom and the outrage in the community through a summer of firings, protests, hapless decision-making by the T-P solons and the eventual purchase of Baton Rouge's The Advocate by New Orleans businessman John Georges, who not only launched a second New Orleans paper but staffed it with dozens of former T-P employees.
Hell and High Water takes the story up to the summer of 2013, but the saga continues to unfold as an old-fashioned newspaper war, although one with diminishing returns. Last fall, New Orleans was America's largest city without a daily newspaper. This fall, New Orleans is one of the country's smallest cities with two daily papers — and both are competing for the same rapidly draining pools of print advertising and subscribers.
How long that can last is anyone's guess — and has a lot to do with the patience and the pockets of the Newhouses and Georges. But if newspapers are black and white and dead all over, in New Orleans they're the walking dead, and Theim's tale of how print still lives will be of interest to New Orleanians and the newspaper industry at large. — KEVIN ALLMAN