Last Thursday was a real Molly’s at the Market night. Molly’s has long been a news media hangout, more so in days of yore when the press was more male and less suburban. Still, on special occasions those of the press gather, especially when there's something outrageous to talk about. Lately it has been the Newhouses – owners of a long string of corporate titles that ultimately trickles down to The Times-Picayune – that have provided most of the outrage. Unlike in 2012 when T-P staffers first read about the newspaper being downsized in The New York Times, this time the men from Newhouse were upfront. They announced earlier in the year more editorial cuts were coming. Those cuts came Thursday. There were 37 of them; 28 full time, 9 part time. Counting the first wave of cuts back in 2012, approximately 300 people have been let go.
Companies cannot be faulted for economizing; they do it all the time, adapting their payroll to meet shortfalls and new technology. But daily newspapers – especially since most cities only have one of them, partially because the survivors devoured the competition – have an obligation to the community they're supposed to serve. A daily is the first source of news. It has the biggest staff, the most beat reporters and the most specialized journalists. A good daily newspaper is an essential tool of a democracy, in theory providing a learned and independent voice.
Whatever they're serving with the tea at Newhouseland, the company went bonkers over digital. Their competitors saw digital coming too, but they did not sacrifice the concept of a daily; they looked instead at how the two could adapt to each other. For the Newhouses it was lights out for the dailies. In some of their smaller markets folks didn't really care; in New Orleans, where community pride is as deep as the big bend in the river, there was outrage.
(At a conference of city magazines in Washington last year Katharine Weymouth, the publisher of The Washington Post was asked about newspapers cutting back their frequency. She referred to that as "a death spiral,” and added that her newspaper will continue to be published daily “for a long time.” While it could be countered that Washington Post management is short selling the potential of the Internet, note that the newspaper is now owned by Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com.)
We don’t know what the Newhouses see when they look at their trimmed down financial statements. Surely costs are lower, but is revenue what was expected? How could they have seen the emergence of The New Orleans Advocate? Imagine a new, aggressive, fully fledged daily newspaper coming into play and staffed by many of the T-P’s former employees. Surely that's a hit on advertising revenue. Also, some industry analysts are saying that while the web is generating revenue for traditional news media, the dollar figure is far below what was expected. The web: Everyone has to have it; no one has fully figured out how to maximize income from it. The big revenue is still in print
What the Newhouses have done is to diminish a very good newspaper that was part of the city; a newspaper that was NOT created by the Newhouses but that they coveted. A product of early New Orleans entrepreneurship, hustle and mergers, The Times-Picayune is a local creation that fell into what proved to be timid hands.
There will still be a thrice-weekly Times-Picayune; there are still some good people on staff; but it won't be the same, especially as the newspaper becomes more of a common product with the other Newhouse regional publications. Soon the T-P will be printed in Mobile and then trucked here – so much for late night breaking stories. Of course there will be the Internet and Nola.com. Yet to be learned is if people will turn to it with the same loyalty as they did with the T-P. There was only one daily newspaper; now there are many news outlets online – including TV stations – pumping out news. The Newhouses scarified their monopoly. Were it not for the Advocate, New Orleans would be one of the few major cities in the country not serviced by a daily.
A former Times-Picayune reporter who moved to the Advocate thought about going to the T-P staffers’ gathering at Molly’s last Thursday. Then she had second thoughts. “I realized I would not not know many of the people there now," she said. Her old acquaintances were at the Advocate.
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 websites.