There are some cities that are one-newspaper towns. There are others that are two-newspaper towns. In terms of daily home deliveries, New Orleans enters the New Year as a one-and-three-sevenths-newspaper town. As always, things are different down here.
We begin 2014 experiencing a news media environment that has changed dramatically over the last couple of years. That is true globally as it is locally; it’s just that in New Orleans the changes are more dramatic.
It all started with the Newhouse chain’s ham-fisted reduction of The Time-Picayune. Such cutbacks have happened in other markets but never have they been answered by a newspaper coming into town, setting up shop, hiring former staff members of the former daily and becoming the new daily.
While some cities are seeing newspapers retreat, we’re experiencing a newspaper war. From that situation a hybrid evolved that’s relatively new to local coverage: print/television partnerships. Now we’re seeing shared bylines and joint reporting between WVUE-TV Ch. 8 and The Times-Picayune as well as WWL-TV Ch. 4 and The New Orleans Advocate. This is a positive in news coverage since each medium delivers a story in a different way. Television can provide the headlines and quick summary; newspapers can flesh out the details and provide graphs and other forms of visual support. A manifestation of this appeared in November when WVUE and The Times-Picayune presented a multi-part series on political campaign contributions. Reporter Lee Zurik told the story on television while the T-P’s Manuel Torres spelled out the details in print, aided by charts that showed who was whom and who was giving what. (Ironically, the visualization of the details underscored why broadsheet newspapers are still important. No web-based carrier could be as effective.)
Under new owner John Georges, the Baton Rouge-based Advocate rebranded its local edition during the year and added New Orleans not just to its name but also to its content. With its core staff of former T-P talent, The New Orleans Advocate has become a good newspaper. Television news will also be enriched by having access to newspaper reporters, many who are specialists in particular beats.
As for the Internet – we’ll learn more in the New Year. It is no doubt an important source of headline news but not the place to go for analysis and details. While The Times-Picayune had an absolute monopoly as a newspaper, its offshoot, NOLA.com, though well used, will not likely maintain such a hold. There are too many other contenders including television, competing websites and even traditional non-news sources, such as government agencies providing information. A person with a smartphone is now likely to find out about a crime or street closing from the police department before they hear from a news outlet.
When the Newhouses swung their axe in New Orleans they said that news coverage would improve. That may be the case, not because of them but because the city stood up to them. That in itself is a story worth telling.