Among unintended consequences what follows is nowhere close in universal importance to the impact that the Wright brothers’ first flight would one day have on developing a space program. A closer analogy might be the space program’s influence on creating Tang. Still in the universe that is New Orleans, a business decision made in New York that would have an impact on our major cultural institution is at least noteworthy. With each of the Carnival seasons that have passed since the Newhouses cut the frequency of the daily Times-Picayune, we see more influences. And they’re not necessarily bad. Let us (in ascending order) count the ways:
3.) Revelation of royalty. Once upon a time a major Carnival-related duty of The Times-Picayune was to reveal the identity of that year’s Rex and his Queen on the front page of its Mardi Gras edition. Since Tuesday was not one of the T-P’s favored days to continue publishing a home delivered newspaper, Rex brass had to look for an alternative. The solution was to break with ancient tradition and release the royal identity in time for the Sunday newspaper. The kicker though was the emergence of The New Orleans Advocate, which would become aggressive in its Carnival coverage. Now the royal couple is announced on the front page of two Sunday papers, an overall net gain in visibility. TV news had been breaking the story, which was embargoed to the night before, but the prestige was with that printed front-page presence. Overall this change has made the King and Queen more visible. When you’re a royal, being seen is good.
2.) Society coverage. With the decline in frequency of the T-P’s print coverage there was worry, among those who care about such things, that the society page news would be reduced. Of concern was how many pages and how much support society reporter Nell Nolan would get. In a city with a pronounced social scene that is important not just to Carnival but also to philanthropy that was important. While society watchers watched, Nolan walked. She moved to The Advocate where she got more space, color and flexibility to do what she wants. The abandoned turf was too valuable for the T-P to ignore, so Sue Strachan, former editor of St. Charles Avenue Magazine (full disclosure, published by Renaissance Publishing, the blog’s parent company) was hired. (Meanwhile St. Charles Avenue has begun publishing "Courts of Carnival," a compilation of court portraits, in its April issue.) Now, instead of reduced reporting, there is twice the number of society sleuths covering the big social events. That’s probably worth the wave of a scepter.
1.) Parade Bulletins. By now we see a pattern. As the upstart, The New Orleans Advocate has known that to prove itself worthy to a New Orleans audience it has to be able to talk Mardi Gras. That it has done. Mardi Gras Guide Publisher Arthur Hardy has been a high-profile addition. But the big move has been brining back parade bulletins. In seasons of yore such bulletins were printed to show off illustrations of a given evening’s parades. That practice has long since stopped. The loss has been made worse since the 1980s, when the media began paying more attention to throws over float design. As the parade calendar expanded, some upstart krewes dragged in second-hand floats, which were hardly worthy of further examination. This year 13 krewes participated by having their float illustrations published as parade bulletins. For the satirical krewes this is a good opportunity for readers to digest their jokes. For the krewes that give a damn about quality design, their work, which can now be closely examined, is not blocked by hands outstretched for beads. The bulletins help the krewes reach a wider audience. A case in point are Proteus and Orpheus, both of which march on Lundi Gras evening. They are two of Carnival’s most beautiful parades. This year, however, because of threatening weather, their start time was advanced and their routes shortened. Some fans of the krewes may have been chased away by the weather. At least there were the bulletins.
If the bulletins make parade planners and float designers think a little harder about their product that will set the bar higher. It could be a leap worth taking.
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Finally, the Internet. What is happening on the web would have happened anyway. The web, however, is not the exclusive turf of newspapers. Other media, including TV, have their converge too. (More full disclosure, WWL TV's website this season included some Carnival-related articles by me.)
Web coverage tends to be inherently different. It is shorter and more intentionally interactive as readers ponder their favorite King Cakes. Web boosters will talk about clicks and global reach. That’s fine, but the coverage that is most important is the coverage that teaches local people about Carnival. Historically, newspapers have been an important force in chronicling the season. For those who have researched Carnival, newspapers have been a primary source.
Curiously, just when the future of newspaper coverage looked dimmest it has since expanded, at least locally, because of the spirit of competition. The Newhouses probably did not intend for it to work out that way. Nevertheless, the culture is better preserved.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s new book, “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), has been released. It is now available at local bookstores and at book web sites.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7PM, REPEATED AT 11:30 PM.WYES-TV, CH. 12.