October marks a year since The Times-Picayune, the city’s longtime daily newspaper, was reduced to three home-delivered editions a week. Advance Publications, the Newhouse family appendage under which The Times-Picayune is placed, has reduced the frequency of several newspapers within its empire both before and since. Nowhere has there been the negative reaction and pubic anger as there has been in New Orleans.
In speaking of the controversy it is important to make a distinction between The Times-Picayune the newspaper, which though greatly reduced in staff is still capable of publishing some good editions, and Advance, which has not only gutted a once great daily newspaper but insulted a city.
By most accounts The Times-Picayune was still profitable at the time of the cutbacks. We understand the arguments about newspapers versus the age of the Internet. Other publishing companies have, however recognized that daily newspapers still have appeal, and a market, and that they can peacefully co-exist and perhaps provide enhancement to the web. Yet under the direction of family member Steve Newhouse, Advance has wanted to be quick with the knife.
Smaller markets had already undergone the radical surgery with barely a whimper. New Orleans would be different. What the Newhouses did not understand about the city’s bond with its newspaper is that in less than a decade the two were joined together by two overwhelming events; one horrible, the other triumphant. During the days of the Katrina recovery, that T-P became more than just a newspaper, but a guide to rebuilding. There was the practical need to know news as well as the passionate works of columnists such as Chris Rose. The newspaper in many ways held the city together.
Then in 2009 there was the Saints drive to the Super Bowl, a story that left the city dazed. A new cast of heroes had arisen, and suddenly a city that only a few years earlier was left for dead stood as a champion. The T-P headline on the days after summarized the emotions of the time, “AMEN!”
That was the life that New Orleanians lived with the newspaper as its guide, then along came smooth talkers from Advance speaking of slash and burn, trying to dazzle us with digital and telling us how great it was all going to be. They just did not understand. As though to make the changes sound even more sterile, they even, at first, introduced Orwellian newspeak. Instead of “reporters” and “editors” there would be “content providers” and “curators.” There was no dignity.
If a business feels the need to make cutbacks in order to survive it certainly has the right to do so. The publisher of a daily newspaper, however, has more of an obligation to a community. The dissemination of news is so important that the business is even referred to as the fourth estate. No other industry is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Operating a daily newspaper is a responsibility not to be taken lightly.
(There may have been more local tolerance of the cuts had they been less draconian. Locals might have understood a shift to five times a week or a permanent switch to tabloid size. Instead, New Orleans got the bullet between the eyes while, since then, changes at other Newhouse-owned big city dailies have been less harsh. Cleveland’s Plain Dealer was allowed to remain publishing seven days a week, though without home-delivery on certain days. Recently the Portland-based Oregonian was cut to four days rather than the three to which New Orleans was sentenced.)
During the past year we have seen the emergence of The Advocate, based in Baton Rouge, but now publishing its own New Orleans edition. Many of its staff members were stars from what, in retrospect, was the golden age of The Times-Picayune. In a short time The Advocate has emerged as a respectable newspaper with daily delivery. Advance has responded with a charade suggesting that the T-P is daily again based on its four times a week Street Edition, which is only sold a newsstands, and its Sunday edition, which it produces an early edition of Saturday. In Newhouse math that equals seven. In our math that still equals only three home-delivered editions.
We maintain our respect for those who work for The Times-Picayune as well as our disappointment in those who own it. We also wish The Adovcate the best. To challenge an established, but minimized, newspaper in modern times so vigorously is unprecedented. The industry will be watching. May you provide it with faith in the power of the printed word.