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Bracing for the Digital Future

A man goes into a coffee shop and sits with his daily broadsheet to read of local and world events. He does this day after day after day, same coffee shop, same staff. Then one day, he takes out an iPad. Out of nowhere, a 20-something server who has seen him regularly but showed no interest in his presence speaks to him.

She tells him that she approves of the iPad. “You looked so old reading a newspaper.”

I didn’t make this story up. A former colleague from my Times-Picayune days related it to me by e-mail more than a year ago. It happened to a friend of hers. The quote and details may be off some, but it’s accurate in point: Young people don’t read newspapers much, and the younger they are, the more likely they are to shun paper and ink – like, totally. Every semester in my English classes, there are always a couple of cutting-edge high school grads per class who refuse to buy a textbook. If they can’t find assigned readings online, they just don’t read them.

 They would rather suffer the consequences than drop a Benjamin on a paper text that provides information they probably can find for free on the Internet. Who can blame them?

Today’s youth, the consumers of tomorrow, didn’t grow up loving long columns of grey. They grew up playing video games with stunning graphics and using databases to fulfill assignments. Their habits and needs are reshaping the adult world, and adults will always play catch-up. Anyone who wonders what the classroom of tomorrow will look like only has to go to Apple’s website and surf the promotion of the iPad.

The iPad has “20,000 educational apps for teachers and students,” the promo says. “They can rotate a 3-D object to show a human brain from every angle.”

 “Budget constraints force schools to use the same books every year, long after the contents are out of date,” the spiel continues. “But with textbooks on iPad, students can get a brand-new version each year – for a fraction of the cost of a paper book.”

These words basically tell the whole story. Newspapers, textbooks, fiction – everything delivered on paper – they will be in heaven with the dinosaurs. This evolution has been predicted for at least two decades, long before the invention of the iPad. I studied this trend in graduate school 16 years ago, about the time e-mail began pushing out the inked letter.

As horrified as I was to read the June 12 Times-Picayune article about Advance Publications’ decision to reduce the print publication to three days a week and lay off 201 employees, anyone who follows industry trends knew this day would come. All of us who grew up with paper and ink and clear memories of Watergate coverage thought we would be too blind to read by then, so it wouldn’t matter so much. And no one would have predicted that a company that long prided itself in treating its employees and readership well would bungle the communication of its plans to the point of alienating an entire community.

But then, both happened.

Advance Publications, the newspaper’s Northeastern owners, in an effort to live up to its name and lead the way in publishing trends, gave layoff notices to about half of its editorial staff, some of them household names. Jim Amoss, the paper’s editor, and Ricky Mathews, the new publisher hired to lead the massacre (or the charge to the future, depending on the point of view) came out looking like the grinches who stole Christmas.

Employees, advertisers and subscribers got the initial news from The New York Times and news broke about the specific layoffs of some longtime, hardworking staffers before anyone at the top bothered to tell them. Gambit – which did a bang-up job of reporting the process – said that Managing Editor Peter Kovacs was told nothing in advance and Peter Finney, the city’s dean of sports, heard about plans to cut him via the Internet. Amoss later contradicted the newspaper’s original story and said that Finney would submit freelance.

All this is old news. Nonetheless, speculation will continue for months, if not years, as to why Advance Publications would take a seemingly healthy newspaper operation and decimate it. For the paper’s most loyal readers, myself included, not having a broadsheet to hold each morning with the morning’s brew is like having a favorite class canceled. The Times-Picayune is our window into our community. It is our textbook for continuing studies. It is vital to our understanding of the unsettling events that flit across the screen on the evening news.

Seeing our journalistic heroes and the printed version of The Times-Picayune being “liquidated,” as Jack Shafer of Reuters called it, is beyond heartbreaking. It is a harbinger of what’s waiting for us in the future. For there will come a time, probably sooner than we think, when a national publication like The New York Times will leak the news that Advance Publications is folding the print version entirely.

We will moan, gnash our teeth and cry out in grief over the loss of our beloved broadsheet, but it will vanish just like the typewriter did.

Shafer’s article, “The great newspaper liquidation,” validates the explanation given by the newspaper through the words of Amoss and Mathews.

Shafer cites numerous figures showing the declining financial fortunes of newspapers, including that the New York Times Co., worth $7 billion during its heyday, is now worth “less than a $1 billion.”

We, the upholders of a sacred tradition, say: so what? A billion is still a staggering sum of money. We see a cup half-full; unfortunately, corporate investors see a $6 billon loss.

The greater concern is what will this “liquidation,” both locally and nationally, mean for in-depth, serious journalism, the kind that we found on our doorstep in the past? The kind that shooed out corrupt mayors, led to education reform and exposed prison abuses? Amoss wrote in his June 14 explanation that the digital news that’s slowly replacing print news will include breaking news and “journalism of reportorial ambition and depth.”

No doubt Amoss means it – he’s the real McCoy – but with more readers clicking on stories about sports, celebrities and the silly antics of reality TV stars than the governor’s attempts to cut public employee benefits, will his absent corporate owners continue to pay for guard-dog reporting?

It isn’t surprising that many Times-Picayune supporters answer this question with skepticism. Actions speak louder than words: Gambit reported that the paper cut its staff of four full-time and one part-time education reporters to one.

If that’s our digital future, our Republic is in trouble.

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