In a world turned whacky, who could have imagined that by the second half of 2012 the New Orleans Hornets would be a stable operation on the upswing and The Times-Picayune would be in trouble?
That in itself is proof that the future can be totally unpredictable. We hope that the parent Newhouse Company is wrong (as many analysts have predicted) about its vision of the future because, if it’s right, both journalism and urban life will suffer. When we first heard about the newspaper’s downgrade we were disappointed in the same way that we, being partisan New Orleanians, bleed over any setback to the city. After the initial shock we realized that this was far more serious, and emotional, than just another business cutback. Because The Times-Picayune was always there, we never thought much about the role of daily newspapers in our lives, but now that we have been hit in the gut we realize just how important they are.
A daily newspaper is a maternal figure. It stays up late every night worrying about us. It will be the first to tell us when there’s mud on our face or scold us when we’ve done wrong. It tries to keep up with all that we do, chronicles family history, takes pictures, tells us where the bargains are and will be the most vocal in celebrating the good times and triumphs.
No enhanced Web presence can ever have that emotional hold.
When drastic staff cuts were announced last month, the company’s spokesmen tried to put a positive spin on the action. An official statement said, “Our goal is to serve the city well into the future.” We had expected for there to be some cuts and maybe scaling down to five or six issues a week, but what happened was so drastic and so quick it was overwhelming.
How the changes are good for the city defies logic. There will be fewer reporters gathering news. One of the paper’s best columnists, Stephanie Grace, survived the cut, though not as a columnist but as a reporter. Her insightful voice is silenced. We don’t think that the newspaper’s own editorial writers, if they could comment as third-party independent observers, would buy the claim that the changes are in the community’s interest.
For most of its existence The Times-Picayune was one of the great newspapers of the South; now it won’t even be the most important paper in Louisiana. Baton Rouge’s Advocate will own that title. And this is supposed to be good for New Orleans?
There has been a cry asking the Newhouse clan to sell the newspaper, but on the day of the cutbacks The New York Times quoted Steven Newhouse, Chairman of Advance Publications (the Newhouse Web division under whose domain the Picayune is run), saying, “We have no intention of selling no matter how much noise there is out there.”
So that’s what all the reaction (the pleas from high-profile citizens, the bishop, the legislature, the mayor, people in the street, past winners of The Times-Picayune Loving Cup) is to Newhouse: noise.
Instead of hearing the arguments about the role of dailies as defenders of the downtrodden and the social need to keep people informed, or about the jobs lost, the careers ended and the plight of a city trying to rebuild itself, Newhouse heard noise.
To be born rich as part of a publishing dynasty and to live on the east coast, a person, one suspects, could become detached. To them, Southerners might be people to be tolerated – as long as you can make money off them – who can sing, dance and fry chicken but who don’t grasp the intricacies of big business.
However we – especially in New Orleans, an island in the South – are a passionate people who care greatly about our city and its institutions. We know what it’s like to take a hit, survive and rebuild. Do not take away our daily newspaper, Mr. Newhouse. Once again you will hear a noise; this time it will be joyful.