To paraphrase an old commercial: What this town needs is a good daily newspaper. For nearly 200 years, we've had one or more. Since 1980, though, it's been just one — and last week we learned that The Times-Picayune, like so many newspapers in the 21st century, is on life support. It was sad news indeed.
New Jersey-based Advance Publications, the parent company of The Times-Picayune, announced the paper will go to a three-day-a-week printing schedule this fall, shifting focus and content to its online partner, NOLA.com. The paper's staff, which already has been buffeted by buyouts, early retirements and furloughs in recent years, has now been told that many of them will lose their jobs. Those who are approved to remain will be invited to apply for employment with a new company, NOLA Media Group. Our hearts and prayers go out to them. Business is business, but they have been treated shabbily by a company to which they have shown loyalty and, yes, love. They deserve better.
What city in America needs — and deserves — a strong daily newspaper more than New Orleans? We have it all here: crime, corruption, politics, police stories, urban development, sports, characters and culture. We have big businesses and mom-and-pop stores. We have art, music, architecture, food, literature, masquerades and Mardi Gras. We have a patchwork of neighborhoods like no other city in America. New Orleans generates enough news to fill a rack of newspapers each and every day of the week.
So why can't we have a daily newspaper?
The answer is complicated. In New Orleans' case, it's a tragic admixture of out-of-town corporate ownership, the debilitating effect that the Internet has had on all print publications (especially dailies), ownership's obsession with the bottom line and a sluggish national economy. All over America, dailies are struggling to find a business model that will work in the face of current market realities. Some are finding new ways to remain viable. Sadly, the owners of The Times-Picayune have chosen to give up.
Daily news is history's first draft, and The Times-Picayune (along with its predecessors) chronicled both the everyday life and the amazing history of this great American city. In this town, the everyday and the amazing ultimately meld into one story, and the T-P has done an increasingly good job in recent decades of covering that story. The original Picayune had been around for decades at the time of the Civil War. Since then, the paper has seen the development of motorcars, jazz, flight, radio and television, the Superdome and the Internet. It has chronicled the civil rights movement and the end of segregation. It has seen a man walk on the moon, another man snipe from a tower in downtown New Orleans and a third man hoist his baby son to the skies as New Orleans finally won the Super Bowl.
At no time in its history was The Times-Picayune more important to its readers than in the months after Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failures. Many employees lost everything in the storm, yet they continued to put out the paper during those dark days — and in doing so, they produced journalism of a quality so high it won two Pulitzer Prizes. They documented our city's recovery, which was hardly seamless. For years after the storm, the print edition of The Times-Picayune was a must-read for any New Orleanian. And just when it seemed things were getting back to "normal" (a term that has its own meaning in a quirky city such as ours), they did it again after the BP oil disaster. Whatever its faults, The Times-Picayune has been a great newspaper.
Despite the paper's many journalistic successes — and New Orleans' uniqueness among American cities — the T-P's fate proves that it is not immune from the ravages of time, the Internet and the general economic pressures that afflict every daily newspaper in the country. These are perilous times for America's newspaper industry, yet it's still shocking that our city has to be the largest U.S. city to lose its daily newspaper. The paper's ownership promises that the three weekly editions it will publish starting this fall will be "more robust" than the existing editions, but nobody believes that — least of all the paper's reporters and photographers, many of whom will be laid off.
Though The Times-Picayune will still be around three days a week, its voice will be diminished. That's very bad news for New Orleans. Like the paper's employees, our city deserves better.