On a weekday afternoon in June 2012 Allen Toussaint drove his vintage Cadillac into the parking lot at Rock and Bowl on South Carrollton Avenue where anxious fans escorted him to a keyboard placed on a makeshift stage. Toussaint was a big star as a song writer and performer and had certainty played in more elegant surroundings, but never in a situation where there was so much sadness in the audience. First there were a few bouncy piano notes then Toussaint began to sing:

I can’t eat
And I can’t sleep
Since you walked out on me, yeah
Holy cow, what you doing, child?

Holy cow, what you doing, child?
What you doing, what you doing, child?
Holy smoke, well, it ain’t no joke
No joke, hey, hey, hey

No one missed the message behind Toussaint’s rendition of “Holy Cow,” a song recorded by R&Ber Lee Dorsey in 1966 but written by Toussaint. The event was a fundraiser to provide help for employees of The Times-Picayune who were losing their jobs because of the corporate decision to cut the venerable newspaper from daily circulation to thrice weekly. The decision not only hurt the employees, but it was a slap to the community pride as New Orleans was on the verge of becoming the largest city in the country without a daily newspaper. Other cites, especially those part of the parent Newhouse group, faced similar predicaments but the situation resonated more in New Orleans where pride is a fortress for a city that has frequently had to defend itself from forces such as weather, flooding, poverty, wars – even pirates. For the moment though the real hurt was over the looming unemployment of so many talented people.

Toussaint continued:

First my boss
The job I lost
Since you walked out on me, yeah
Holy smoke, what you doing to me, me?

Walking the ledge
Nerves on edge
Since you walked out on me, yeah
Holy cow, what you doing to me, child?

“What’s going on?” a truck driver who was paused at a stop sign asked as I waited to cross South Carrollton, “Is there free music or something.?” I explained that it was a rally to try to save the newspaper. “Oh yeah,” he responded, “that three times a week thing, that aint no good.” Then he drove away.

He was right, three times a week ain’t no good and amazingly, as the saga unfolded, New Orleans would be spared that. In the months ahead the Baton Rouge-based Advocate newspaper, owned by the Manship family, would enter the market. The early issues were too upstate-centric but the newspaper eventually found its local legs especially as departed Times-Picayune staffers were hired and then when local business man John Georges, and his wife, Dathel, purchased the paper. In the years ahead The New Orleans Advocate would advance from being an average daily newspaper to a very good one. Meanwhile, The Times-Picayune poured its resources into a promising website and churned out its promised three home delivery editions a week. From a news consumer’s viewpoint it was a happy result: Instead of being a no daily newspaper town New Orleans became daily and a half newspaper town. There was an extra benefit seldom seen in cities of any size: newspaper competition.

Last week’s stunning announcement of the Georges buying out the T-P, and its website, adds a new spin to the situation. The good news is that there is a commitment to maintaining a daily newspaper and that some T-P employees will be hired by The Advocate. The bad news is that other T-P employees (we don’t know how many) will lose their jobs. Buyout offers are already being circulated.

Looking back at the saga to date, the critical moments have been the Manship’s decision to extend The Advocate to New Orleans and then the Georges decision to buy the paper. Key to the success have been former T-P staffers who assumed expanded leadership roles at The Advocate. Significantly, when The Advocate won its first ever Pulitzer prize recently the members of the winning editorial team were all originally from the T-P.

In fairness to the Newhouses, during their nearly 50 year control of the T-P they allowed it to be a good newspaper as guided locally by Ashton Phelps, father then son, as publishers. The newspaper was competitive in recruiting good talent who through the years won four Pulitzers, including for its splendid coverage in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Too bad both newspapers could not have survived and thrived but anyone who watched the market place knew that sooner or later one had to go.

Adding to the surprise of the sale was that it has always been a Newhouse company contention that they do not sell their properties. We first heard that at the beginning of the controversy when various locals, including Tom Benson, explored buying the newspaper, but the answer was always no. That brings to mind the controversy’s most memorable quote.

Back in the early days, as local protests intensified and as T-P staff cutbacks began, The New York Times quoted Steven Newhouse, chairman of Advance.Net, the Newhouse web division, saying,“We have no intention of selling no matter how much noise there is out there.”

That wasn’t noise Mr. Newhouse, that was passion.




BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.