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.