The Arrogance of Newspaper Monopolies

Ideas and Issues

New Orleans  Here comes another report from guinea pig land.  In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has become ground zero for some bizarre and sometimes unfortunate social experiments, like the fact that we are the largest charter school laboratory in the country.  Just because we have proven we are resilient does not mean that we will put up with just anything, as we are now proving over the last year with our humbling of the hometown newspaper, the Times-Picayune, and its now long gone monopoly.

            The Picayune, owned by Advance Publications, said it was making money, just not enough, so before the margins they were sending out of town to their owners got slimmer, they were just going to stop being a daily paper and cut down to only three per week.  If you wanted news on the other days, god help you, you could try to find it on their notoriously clunky website that was always jumbled up to mimic the appearance of what used to be a grocery store special insert when the paper published a Thursday edition rather than only gracing subscribers by offering Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday papers.  Given that access to the internet is hardly 50% in this very poor city, I knew from the beginning that Advance was essentially writing off the city and abandoning any pretense of its role in proving a community service to the citizens, especially since they offered nothing until woefully late in the game to bridge the digital divide.

            The arrogance of the monopoly as David Carr, the media columnist for the Times, has termed it, reached too far though and besides stiffing the citizens, upset the elites and disgruntled virtually all of their “at will” reporters and columnists many of whom were laid off or ran for other jobs as they smelled the rot of the sinking ship.  Eventually the Baton Rouge Advocate got their act together and added 22,000 subscribers in the city and now has sold themselves to a New Orleans businessman who has hired yet more of the Times-Picayune vets.  The Times-Picayune without apology or real explanation is now countering in this coming “newspaper war” by announcing that it will add a tabloid paper sold on newsstands for 75 cents, the same as their regular paper, that will not be home delivered.  I’m not sure who this is supposed to make happy, certainly not the backbone of subscribers?  Oh, but they say, the subscribers can read the tabloid on-line for free.  Yeah, well, thanks for nothing again, guys!

            The Lens, an on-line source in the city, ran a follow-up piece the other day on how citizens have adapted.  They interviewed and photographed the “morning table” at our Fair Grinds Coffeehouse  about how they were adapting.  Essentially, our regulars, who have wide ranging opinions on almost everything, said they had “moved on” from the Times-Picayune.  They read the Advocate sometimes, and were rooting for them.  They read the Times-Pic sometimes, but the paper itself had taught them that they could live without it.  That’s an interesting insight, and I will bet money that that is what the owners of the TP are going to find with their tabloid effort now.  I’m certainly not going to go out of my way to buy it when I’m in town.

            Neither paper now does the job well.  The Advocate to their credit does a much better job on state business and politics and editorially is not as obnoxious and know-it-all as the Times-Picayune has always been.  The Times-Picayune just seems to be adrift.  The far right point-counterpoint columns between James Varney whose audience must be a couple of people living Uptown and some Republican Tea Party folks in the far suburbs face off with the one African-American columnist Jarvis DeBerry.  Most of the columns are simply off-putting and the point of views predictable and boring. 

            The far right Koch Brothers are supposedly potential suitors for the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune.  I wonder if they won’t find some surprises in store for them as well.  These mind control experiments rooted in the arrogant assumptions of monopolies all look good on paper, but in practice, people vote with their feet and their quarters, and are not so easily force fed something they didn’t want in place of something they had felt they needed.  There are a lot of lessons in these failed experiments, but I don’t have as much confidence that people are learning them very well.

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