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Grading the 3-Day a Week New Orleans Newspaper Experiment

New Orleans        Three months have now passed since the New Orleans Times-Picayune made national news with its shocking announcement that they would no longer publish a daily paper, but would put out a print edition only three days per week (Wednesday, Friday, & Sunday), and count on their web page for survival.  Shortly thereafter the Baton Rouge Advocate announced that they would try and fill the void and began publishing a New Orleans edition.  There have been changes galore in personnel.  Reporters from the Times-Picayune have disappeared into the diaspora created by the print meltdown all over the country while others have migrated to the Advocate, the web weekly, The Lens, local television and wherever they could get a job.

As a subscriber on the bleeding edge of this newspaper experiment with sometimes four papers on the front porch, I think it’s time for some report cards as a reader and citizen.  The executive summary would be that it’s all interesting, but it’s not pretty.

It’s hard not to give the Times-Picayune a D minus at best for the first trimester.  The paper had already, as the publisher made abundantly clear, shrunk their news hole drastically to survive loss of ad revenue, so now in addition to being small, they are redundant.  Whether football or basketball scores or something pretending to be “real” news, they are at best a one-trick pony now hoping to have something to carry each day.  Somehow this morning they were the only one of my 4 papers to actually catch the fact that Congress approved a “fiscal cliff” measure, but of course that was an AP story and the TP simply caught a break because they printed late.

Worst the character of the paper seems to have become more muddled in its voice and unsure of its community and whether it has a core readership at all.  A weird point-counterpoint kind of experiment elevated a recent sports reporter, James Varney, into being the right wing voice of pages opposite a long term African-American columnist, Jarvis DeBerry, who is now supposed to be the more liberal voice.  The former eccentric, conservative columnist, James Gill, in this standoff now comes off as a moderate voice of reason, which is one of the few surprises one reads after all of these years.  I used to admire Varney as a reporter covering our work or even the sports, but now he comes off as a mean spirited wacko.  Asking my partner for her two cents this morning in an elegant turn of phrase she noted that the “centrifugal force of elitism” that has always dominated the paper is now compressed in three issues enough to make it seem like Varney is the new Times-Picayune.  She also noted that the shrunken paper has eliminated virtually any other voices that previously had emerged from time to time.

I have only looked at the Times-Picayune website twice in the last 3 months.  It’s a very small, bit more accessible, but still horrid when compared to the Times or the Journal or so many other papers.  I go there when I have to, and that says it all.

The Advocate had a rough, not ready for prime-time start.  They had no on-line ordering system, their phones were tied up, and then they contracted out to somewhere that was clueless about New Orleans.  It took almost two months for the Advocate to consistently deliver the Sunday paper and Tuesday, which I never understood.  Being a early riser, I was finally able to work out the delivery, but the paper itself could never get the job done.

Looking past that, I have to say the Advocate is not much, but is trying and is better than I thought it was when we were staying in Baton Rouge after Katina.  It turns out that they are so much superior to the Times-Picayune on the coverage of state government and the governor’s office that in our line of work, we probably should have been reading them for that work for years.  They have a columnist up there that is excellent on these topics and surprisingly balanced.  I had always assumed they were probably in the governor’s pocket, but comparatively they are on his ass, while the TP is letting him get away with murder.  They ran a story over the last week for example listing where older citizens could get free or reduced price tuition in state universities and community colleges around Louisiana based on a little known law passed a dozen years ago though never funded, that might end up justifying the subscriptions of thousands of local readers, if they took even one class!

On New Orleans news they are not so much at least yet.  Their coverage is essentially “cultural,” so they do a lot of local interest stuff.  The TP still beats them on the story of the former mayor, Ray Nagin, moving towards indictment.

The Lens does a better job on New Orleans schools though that is largely because of a grant that has them covering the mess of charter school so-called “governing” boards, which are a horror.  The Times-Picayune is still better at New Orleans courts and city hall, but they could be bested.  The Advocate rules on state business.  The Times-Picayune has lost its voice in a city that is still majority African-American and votes for the Democratic nominee for President in the range of 80%, and is clearly hoping to find a future in the suburbs of the north shore and Jefferson Parish, while the Advocate might want to take the city but is still too Baton Rouge centric to do so.

In New Orleans we have now lost what makes a newspaper essential for citizens and for a functional, informed democracy.

It is hard to believe that the Times-Picayune can be successful on this model.  I would bet even with a low C grade that on the news side the Advocate could win this fight, but I don’t know if the economics favor any of us too much.

We are guinea pigs and we’re squealing!