Four years have passed since the Newhouse family’s Advanced Publications Inc., dropped a bomb on New Orleans by announcing that the venerable newspaper, The Times-Picayune, which the New York-based company acquired in 1962, would be reduced to three home delivered newspapers per week. The move would also be accompanied by huge staff cuts. The good news, we were told, is that the change would lead us into the new web world, where information would be flowing all the time.
We were very critical of the move at the time and still are. New Orleans faced the indignity of being the largest city in the nation without a daily newspaper, even though it has always been one of the country’s most active news towns.
From the beginning our criticism was not with the newspaper, which we admire, nor its staff members, whom we also respect, but with the Newhouses.
Many good journalists relocated to other locations. We might have lost even more had it not been for a surprise development, the entry into the market of what was then known as The Baton Rouge Advocate. The new New Orleans version, owned by the Baton Rouge-based Manship family had a rocky start with too much upstate news and not enough local, as well as a troubled circulation system.
Gradually however, the newspaper grew into its role. The hero of the drama was businessman John Georges, who, along with his wife Dathel, bought the newspaper from David Manship who once quipped that he would sell the newspaper “for more than it was worth.” Georges hired some of the best business and journalistic minds from The Times-Picayune and built an impressive newspaper, The New Orleans Advocate.
Meanwhile the rechristened Nola.com/Times-Picayune has gone all out for web, and although it claims to lead the state in clicks, that’s a turf that isn’t exclusively theirs – not the way that they dominated the dissemination of news in the daily newspaper days. Their web news is competing with TV and radio stations, government agencies, social media, apps and everyone without a new idea. The internet is a crowded playground. As a newspaper The Times-Picayune has done some good reporting, but the three times a week distribution interrupts the flow. Some stories are aged by the time they come out. Worst yet, the newspaper is now printed in Mobile rather than, as it was, in downtown New Orleans, so the paper is no longer a source for late-breaking news. (Neither is The Advocate, which is printed at its Baton Rouge plants although their delivery trucks heading to New Orleans at least have a two hour head start on the T-P’s copies coming from Mobile.)
So where do we stand at this stage in the saga? Actually, it isn’t as bad as it originally seemed. Instead of having no daily newspaper we, in effect, have a daily and a thrice weekly, both also feeding the internet. Both have smaller staffs than the T-P did in the old days; both suffer from those earlier deadlines; both also face the realities of the new age of journalism. Each newspaper now has a television partner – The Advocate with WWL-TV/ Channel 4; The Times-Picayune with WVUE-TV/(Fox 8). An example of the new bilateral news flow was the story about Jefferson Parish President Mike Yenni’s sexual issues. The news was broken by WWL’s David Hammer (a former T-P reporter) but also appeared in The Advocate the next day under Hammer’s byline with credit to WWL. The same approach is used for WVUE stories. With all newsrooms facing thinner budgets, the joint efforts have made sense.
What will happen to newspapers is a story that’s far from reaching its final destination. Still to come is the realization that the internet is only as good as the people who feed it information, and those people will often be inexperienced and underpaid. Newspapers are still the best source for developing news stories. The generation that’s overlooking print would be well advised to take another look. In business and pleasure, the most successful citizens are usually the best informed.