Times-Picayune Goes Digital While Changes Prove Alienation from Community

Ideas and Issues
Times-Picayune Staff Meeting about Cuts

New Orleans    My hometown paper, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, suddenly announced after being scooped by the New York Times, their radical plans to cease being a paper.  They were less frank about their total desertion of New Orleans as their hometown, though their intentions are explicit.

Inarguably times have changed for daily newspapers and the economic climate is challenging and their business model has to adapt to a new reality.  I will grant them that their predicament is real, even while disagreeing that these are correct prescriptions.

This is a decision made solely about money.  The baloney their announcement trumpets about the “digital age” is simply balderdash, especially when it comes to New Orleans.   The Carr story for example cites a 2010 Kaiser Foundation report that 36% of city residents do not have internet access at home.   I actually believe the reality is worse than that, but what do I know, I refuse to capitalize the word “internet” and think it is very dear that the Times is so out of touch that they do, but that’s another story.  A close second is the Times-Picayune claim about their website.   It’s an abomination, and virtually impenetrable.  In a Catholic city like New Orleans, being forced to read the news daily on the existing site could only be comparable to a special kind of purgatory or one of the circles of Dante’s Hell.  They claim they are going to improve the site before their fall transition, so pray that they do though be mindful that they seem to also like it now, so this could be another slap down for the power of prayer as well.

Oh, and other thing about the money.  They claim that in cutting out four of the daily papers per week and going with three print additions that are popular with advertisers, they will be OK.  For those of us who subscribe at home, hey, they are going to reduce the monthly subscription cost by $2.00 or roughly 10%, while giving us less than half of what we were paying for.  Ignoring their explicit confession that the paper business only exists for advertisers rather than the community, what kind of math is that?  If I get the New York Times and Wall Street Journal at home along with the Times-Picayune, exactly why would I consider this a good deal?  Once abandoned, why would I have to finance the desertion?   Did I mention that there will also be staff cutbacks, though they have not revealed yet how deep?  Part of the new digital model is about cheaper pay for young, unemployed journalism majors and aggregation of items from other sites and news services, so goodbye longtime employees and hello more youngsters and interns!

This is not about me though or the protestors the paper is reporting are massing in fancy living rooms in the Garden District among the 1%, because neither of us is typical of the New Orleans community, which the paper should have learned to serve, especially after Katrina.   Newspaper audit reports regularly tout that New Orleans has the highest percentage of newspaper readers of any daily paper in the country.  Why doesn’t that mean something in the search for the new business model?  After Katrina I can remember the advantages of waking up early and still sometimes standing in line to pick up the Times-Picayune in Baton Rouge’s Spanish Town neighborhood when it was essentially nothing more than a broadsheet on stapled Xerox paper, solely because it was the only way to get real local news from New Orleans.  That’s the point of a “hometown newspaper.”  When I’m out of the country for weeks at a time, I still read each paper from the stack on my return.  Living in a community, local news is critical.  The new Times-Picayune decision to abandon the community and their public service responsibility, to at least provide local news in the haphazard and uneven way they have done so, still has value.

If we accept that a new business model is required, and that seems inarguable, what are some of the elements?

A commitment to the community would have meant providing a cheaper, more accessible local-news only paper for home delivery and news box access for New Orleans residents, just as they did after Katrina, even if they did bulk up on certain days as they have announced.  I would guarantee on the days after Saints games such a rag would fly off the shelves throughout the city!

A new business model would have to finally accept that New Orleans is a poor, broke ass city with a 60% minority population, and this is the core reality that the Times-Picayune is now finally conceding, is exactly what makes it so sadly traditional and out of focus in the community.  The pictures of the newsroom staff in today’s paper getting the word, just like the picture of the staff in 2005 after Katrina printed in today’s Times, is virtually lilywhite.  This is not the city and hasn’t been the city for a long time, but the paper has refused to ever move from its St. Charles Avenue and Central Business District chokeholds to put its arms around the real New Orleans and its people, who could ostensibly be its readers.  For years the paper has ceased being a place to go for jobs and more recently as the paper has become largely a police gazetteer featuring crime, convictions, and court proceedings, why would lower income and working families pay 75 cents for the same thing they can get for free from television or radio or from looking out their front doors?  I even think the paper knows this implicitly.  They ran a recent multi-part story (finally!) on how bad the entire criminal justice system smells in New Orleans and Louisiana which even included kind words about Texas, which is heresy Uptown and in the CBD, but one series does not change the editorial page positions or the front page daily headlines.

A new business model would require news organizations to push people like me and organizations like mine out of the way and lead the campaign to eliminate the digital divide.  They can’t throw computers on front stoops like they do their free advertisers on Thursdays, but they can join us in getting Cox, Comcast, and other cable providers to provide low-cost and accessible internet to lower income families as they have promised the FCC.  In fact they could have coupled their announcement not only with advocacy but also with a whole program of community internet and computer access and a commitment to help finance it (kiosks, coffeehouses, community centers, neighborhood businesses, etc), because it is in their self-interest in verifying their advertising base and rates.  Creating this kind of business model requires a commitment to the real community where we live, not the community they really try to serve.  Take Fair Grinds Coffeehouse and our daily early morning paper readers for example.  I will be calling the the Baton Rouge Advocate to see if they will add their papers to the store and may have to put a dummy computer monitor up somewhere in the main room set to the news outlets as a customer and community service.  If I understand that I have to do that, why don’t they?

The real problem of the Times-Picayune is not the digital age.  The digital age simply annoys them because some of the younger, hipper new residents are more comfortable there, but they are not the community of the city either.   The real problem of the Times-Picayune and many other papers around the country, is that they have steadfastly refused to accept their community, design an accessible, valuable, and affordable product and then deliver it.   I spend a lot of my time in mega-slums and huge cities teeming with the poor around the world whether Mumbai, Delhi, Nairobi, and Mexico City, and see people grabbing the daily newspapers, multiple papers, papers given out for free on subways and buses, and people reading and arguing about local news.  They all have websites, but they all also have embedded themselves in the community that really lives there, not the community they wish they had.

Having so recently been a co-winner of the most coveted Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for Public Service, they should be forced to return the prize for abandoning the community, rejecting the commitment to public service, refusing to learn the lessons of Hurricane Katrina, and refusing to adapt to the city and our population.  The Times-Picayune and Newhouse family papers’ announcement is not about the digital age or a new business model, but another example of a plant closing and the continued race-to-the-bottom for workers, wages, products and production that we see everywhere around the world in the search for the cheap and the desertion of service, commitment, community, and values.