Media 2012

The year the loving stopped

MIKE LUCKOVICH ILLUSTRATION

For many years The Times-Picayune would award its Loving Cup to an outstanding citizen in the community. The award was a well-intended effort to recognize good works, and through the years the recipients were worthy.

This year we heard from the recipients as a group when they joined many other citizens urging the New Jersey-based Newhouse family to sell the newspaper rather than to reduce the publication to three times a week. At that point the loving ended. Instead, Steve Newhouse, under whose Advance Digital division of the Newhouse empire The Times-Picayune belongs, snickered at the comments in an interview with The New York Times saying, “We have no intention of selling no matter how much noise there is out there.”

Those words should be immortalized in the textbooks of business and journalism schools. Coming in the same week when there were drastic cutbacks of the newspaper’s employees, Newhouse’s words sounded like those of a nobleman anxious for the unruly peasants to fall asleep.

As a new year begins the media profile in the region is drastically different then it was a year ago. The scaled-down, digitally enhanced Times-Picayune is still the largest news operation in town, but not nearly what it was.

There are new players. The Advocate, domiciled in Baton Rouge, has become the new daily newspaper. With time and growth we hope it can become a formidable replacement for what The Times-Picayune was. There are also new investigative websites, most notably The Lens, hopefully doing sleuthing lost to the Picayune’s downsizing.

A couple of The Times-Picayune’s reporters have moved to television, giving them an outlet in a medium where stories, no matter how complex, are best delivered in short form. Some TV stations, most notably channels 4 and 6, have enhanced their websites.

Still, the familiarity of having the hometown published daily newspaper waiting for us each morning is lost. New Orleans has always had a reputation for being a vibrant news city. What the Newhouses have done is sad. And at one point it looked like this was going to be a great year for the newspaper:

During the spring, an eight-part series on prisons had news watchers talking about a Pulitzer Prize for the newspaper; but while the subscribers were reading about jail cells, Newhouse enforcers were reportedly meeting in rooms at The Windsor Court scheduling the newspaper’s downsizing. Cindy Chang, the author of the prison series, saw what was happening and left town. If she wins a Pulitzer Prize she might hang it on the wall at the Los Angeles Times, where she now works.

We will never know the extent of the talent drain caused by the Newhouses’ decision. Fortunately some good employees survived. We wish them the best.

Businesses of course have a right to make modifications to fit economic realities, but when your business includes publishing a daily newspaper, there’s more of a public compact.

(By most accounts The Times-Picayune was still profitable, but even if its long-term prospects were less encouraging, the Newhouses could have cut their potential losses by selling.)

We speak of journalism as the “Fourth Estate” because it, along with government, is such a key element to how society works.

Journalism’s place in a democracy is such that it’s the only business protected by the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution that guarantees its freedom.

Publishing a daily isn’t just a business, it’s a privilege that should be respected. In 2012 we were denied that.
        
 

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