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Journalism vs. The Future

The beginning of the inevitable

American capitalism thrives in the print news business after all, and south Louisiana residents, veteran journalists and journalism graduates will be the better for it. Then again, maybe not.

“We’re here!” shouted a bold headline in The Advocate Oct. 1, the day that The Times-Picayune ceased daily publication. The headline ran above one of those quintessential postcard scenes of St. Louis Cathedral, Jackson Square and lined-up tourist buggies – except this one included a red Advocate delivery truck, truly a strange contrivance.

After three decades of being a one-newspaper town, New Orleans suddenly finds itself in a more competitive print market. The Times-Picayune and its Advance Publications Inc. owners’ virtual monopoly on the city’s print readership is over. Readers and advertisers now have a choice between a New Orleans edition of The Advocate, its only daily, and the T-P. That choice is a miraculous turnaround since May when the T-P announced its decision to reduce publication from seven days to three, and make New Orleans the largest city in the nation without a daily newspaper.

The T-P’s counter expansion in The Advocate’s Baton Rouge market has been roundly viewed as retaliatory, even though the paper has denied it. T-P Publisher Ricky Mathews said in a September print article that plans to expand the paper’s presence in Baton Rouge had been in the works for a while. A Columbia Journalism Review web writer, however, called the territorial encroachments a “newspaper war.”

“While this is a war,” wrote Ryan Chittum, “it’s worth pointing out that it’s between an empire in decline and a regional power that’s also seen better days. It’s unclear how much firepower the two sides can bring to bear on each other, though clearly Advance and its owners have far more money.”

Or as one T-P writer said on his last day of employment, “It’s a lame war.”

Even pared down to a picayunish three days a week, the 175-year-old, Pulitzer Prize-winning T-P will have a clear advantage. The Newhouse family’s media fortune backs the T-P and NOLA.com, which provides up-to-date breaking news.

 The Advocate will need a good deal of New Orleans readership for an extended time to truly compete with the “digital first” NOLA Media Group, the new company formed by Advance, the Newhouse parent company. Local rage is in The Advocate’s favor momentarily, but if it doesn’t deliver the quality that New Orleans residents expect, over time it could lose momentum. The day the T-P ceased its daily run, The Advocate ran a small report in its New Orleans edition asking new subscribers to be patient with long wait times to order subscriptions. Subscriber response has been “overwhelming,” the article said.

So far, The Advocate’s New Orleans edition reads more like one of the T-P’s former “zoned” editions than a true local daily. Local stories are sandwiched into statewide and Baton Rouge-focused articles. This kind of product isn’t surprising considering that The Advocate’s initial New Orleans staff is tiny.

With a New Orleans-based staff of seven – an editor, four staff writers, a photographer and a sales manager, local subscribers aren’t going to get the kind of extensive daily coverage that they once received from the T-P. Publisher David Manship hinted at this difference in a front page “message” to New Orleans readers.

“We are different from what you are used to,” Manship wrote. “We have a different look and feel. But we are still a daily newspaper.”

This 21st century readership competition may not be as cutthroat as the Hearst-Pulitzer battle in New York City that marked journalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but it could be about as close as the digital age will see. More importantly for newsprint lovers, unemployed reporters and recent journalism grads, the rivalry provides a glimmer of hope for print journalism and at least some employment possibilities for future journalists who yearn to see their words in print, not on a computer screen.

Even as a “lame” war, it brings back nostalgic memories of the dying days of The States-Item, the afternoon newspaper that merged in 1980 with The Times-Picayune. The Newhouse family owned both newspapers, but the inherently competitive nature of journalists fueled a daily combat for breaking news and interesting stories. As a result, New Orleans readers received some lively coverage on their front lawns a couple of times a day.

Those cheering for The Advocate in the present day competition could take some comfort in the fact that in that past news war, David basically slew Goliath, even though it didn’t seem so from the outside. States-Item editor Charles Ferguson became the editor of the merged papers and States-Item reporters took over major assignments, leading many T-P staff writers to quit.

Unfortunately in the long run, a happy ending isn’t likely for newspaper readers.

Even though many old-school professors in university journalism programs have been holding tight to their print and broadcast heritage, new technology will eventually triumph.

Steve Buttry, an editor for Digital First Media, was asked recently by the Nieman Journalism Lab to evaluate J-schools, and his response implies that they aren’t responding well to the reality of their students and future news consumers.

He recommended in an article published on the lab’s website that student-produced media move away from print and broadcast in favor of digital. He related an exercise he did with student journalists at the University of Texas at Arlington and Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. He asked them where they went to get information about the “external world” and his survey found that computers and mobile phones trumped print and broadcast by 80 to 90 percent. These students said they sourced print and broadcast 0 to 10 percent of time.

“Students live digital-first lives,” Buttry wrote. “They should consider and experiment with new approaches even more vigorously and daringly than professional media.”

Past and present Times-Picayune employees who gathered under cloudy skies on Sept. 28 shared a bittersweet reunion. The gathering marked the beginning of the end of an era.
 

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