The Sometimes Picayune

Want to damage New Orleans (again)? Decimate its newspaper

Here, for your reading pleasure, are two familiar cliches: 1. New Orleans is a unique city. 2. The newspaper business is changing. Several days ago, when it was announced that The Times-Picayune would get out of the daily print newspaper business, the second cliche kicked the first one’s ass. This makes no sense to me.

There’s more to that first cliche. I’m a New Orleanian, by adoption, and I can attest to the uniqueness of the place. Not just for the reasons visitors might think—the beads, the boobs, the music, the food—but for the most important reason of all: New Orleans is a genuine community. Not a “community” in the sense of like-minded gamers connected by the Internet, but in the sense of an urban space where the residents have deep connections to the place, to each other, and to the past.

Prior to the 2005 disaster, New Orleans had the highest level of “nativity” among America’s major cities, meaning the highest percentage of people living in the city who were born there. Often, they lived in houses mere blocks from where their parents and grandparents lived. I can see that tightly knit structure, so grievously ripped apart by the flood, gradually being rewoven.

The city’s calendar is unique, too. Days which are ordinary weekdays elsewhere have special meaning locally—from Monday being red beans and rice day to St. Joseph’s Day being the occasion for a Mardi Gras Indian street festival. I’ll never forget the day Bill Clinton was acquitted by the Senate of his impeachment charges. That story was front-page news in every paper in the country, except New Orleans. It was Fat Tuesday, so the front page of The Times-Picayune was devoted to a portrait of the King of Rex, who rules the city on Mardi Gras.

A strong community has intense ties to its institutions, too. That includes the Krewe of Rex, the Catholic Church, and The Times-Picayune. People love them or hate them, but New Orleanians tend not to be indifferent about them. (I compare this to my birthplace, Los Angeles, where a massive shoulder shrug ensued when two—two!—NFL teams up and left town, and where the steady, two-decade-long decline of the downtown daily leaves most folks not even partially whelmed).

New Orleans, before and after the disaster of 2005, was a hard place to find national chain retailers. They tended to shun the city, not finding in its compact blocks sufficient acreage. And after the flood, the businesses that were most tentative about returning were the chains that did have stores there, while the locals were back, shoveling, gutting, rebuilding, as soon as the city, in the Corps of Engineers locution, was “unwatered.” Neighborhoods still have corner groceries, corner bars, corner juke joints.

So: a city of tightly knit neighborhoods, of varying classes, with mainly local retail. Yet, the model for Advance Publication’s demotion of the New Orleans Times-Picayune metro daily into the Neverland of thrice-weekly print publication—gee, what day is it? Is there a paper today?—was based on, wait for it, a college town in Michigan. Ann Arbor, to be exact. And this plan is being applied to three papers in Alabama, as well—the Press-Register in Mobile; The Huntsville Times; The Birmingham News. All quite similar to New Orleans, of course. This is the kind of cookie-cutter decision-making that gives absentee ownership a bad name.

The Times-Picayune is not Starbucks or Rite-Aid or Winn-Dixie sitting on the sidelines waiting for the recovery. It is the paper people in New Orleans love, or love to hate. You’ve probably read the relevant stats: the TP enjoys the highest rate of print penetration of all dailies in the 50 biggest metro areas.

And 36 percent of New Orleanians are not connected to the Internet. Consider also that, the website to which Advance Publications now assumes people seeking news in the city will drift, is widely recognized as one of the ugliest and worst-designed such sites—aside from the others in the Advance newspaper stable, all of which are forced by Advance headquarters New York to use the same digital template.

Okay, the argument goes, the decision to turn the paper into the Sometimes-Picayune may ignore local realities both cultural and statistical, but it’s Advance’s bat and ball. If they want to play only on the days when advertisers really want to buy space, that’s their right.

Yet it is funny the word “right” should pop up. The newspaper business lives off the benefits of free speech, which all citizens enjoy, but none more than news outlets, who put out so much of it. The First Amendment offers government protection against almost all lawsuits from angry politicians, lazy ballplayers, and dim-witted celebrities whose exploits may be reported to their dismay. Should there be a societal expectation that the proprietors of such privileged enterprises owe a little something back—perhaps a calm acceptance of a lower profit margin than could be attained, say, in the car-leasing business? The TP, after all, is still reported to be profitable.

On the other hand, Advance has signaled—by this stumble-footed decision—that they don’t understand the New Orleans market. You can’t care about what you don’t understand.

Advance executives performed a major public service when they allowed the Times-Picayune to report, and report remarkably well, on the 2005 disaster, during months when the act of publishing a paper at all was comically uneconomic. New Orleans will never forget that service. But those Advance executives are doing a fine job now of making us try.

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Harry Shearer is an actor, comedian, voice artist, musician, and radio host. He is the voice of Principal Skinner and Mr. Burns on The Simpsons. Tags: , , , ,