Up and Down on the Bayou

A snapshot of The Times-Picayune five years after Katrina

In the spring of 2006, about seven months after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and a swath of the Gulf coast, Ashton Phelps, publisher of The Times-Picayune, gave this prognosis of his paper’s future to The New York Times: “The $64,000 question for us is this: What is the economy going to look like 18 months, two years from now, when most of the insurance checks have been cashed and the federal relief efforts taper off?”

With the five-year anniversary of the storm approaching, I revisited the T-P, whose heroic efforts in the weeks after Katrina I chronicled for CJR back in November of 2005. The sad answer to Phelps’s $64,000 question, of course, was that the economy proceeded off a cliff, as the nation endured the worst crisis since the Great Depression. But what had that crisis done to The Times-Picayune? How is the paper positioned to cover the disastrous oil spill still spewing off the coast, an emerging police scandal in New Orleans, and a new hurricane season that is predicted to be “extremely active”? I looked forward to catching up with some of the editors and reporters I’d spent time with in the then-deserted city, and getting their thoughts on the current state of affairs.

I quickly realized that many of those folks are no longer there. David Meeks, the editor whose kayak expedition up Interstate 10 I’d detailed, left the paper in 2008 first for The Associated Press and more recently to become an editor in the Tribune Company’s Washington bureau. Mike Perlstein, the veteran criminal justice reporter who was part of the squad hunkered down with Meeks at “Fort Picayune,” braving looters and stifling heat with the help of copious amounts of combat wash and Southern Comfort, had also left, first to teach and later to head the investigative reporting team for a local television station.

Not everyone is gone, of course. Art critic Doug MacCash and editor James O’Byrne, whose bike reconnaissance mission after the storm provided some of the first reports of the coming flood, remain at the paper and are doing well. But there’s no question that, for a variety of reasons, The Times-Picayune has lost a number of longtime staffers in the last few years. According to the paper’s internal figures, the editorial head count has decreased from about 265 before the storm to between 165-170 today. Similarly, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the paper’s non-Sunday circulation has declined from about 260,000 before the storm to just over 157,000 today.

To his credit, editor Jim Amoss doesn’t downplay the butcher’s bill. “I hated to lose some of the people we lost,” Amoss told me in a phone interview. “They took with them important aspects of the paper’s voice, but we remain a remarkably strong and connected paper.” It’s this level of connectedness that Amoss prefers to focus on rather than raw circulation figures. Numbers generated by The Media Audit, an independent media research company, show that, just as before the storm, The Times-Picayune continues to enjoy a remarkable degree of hometown loyalty, with 51 percent of adults in the metro area reading it daily, the highest rate of any large newspaper in the country (The Buffalo News is second with just over 45 percent).

“Our metro area population is about three-quarters of what it used to be and since the storm we’ve had three price increases and eliminated all special discounts,” says Amoss, citing all three as factors leading to circulation declines. He adds that, anecdotally, there seems to be more sharing of individual copies of the paper and that Nola.com, the paper’s popular Web site, is also drawing eyeballs that formerly fell on the print edition.

There is no doubt, though, that when I hoist my morning copy, like most metro dailies these days, it feels diminished. According to TNS Media Intelligence, before the storm non-Sunday editions of The Times-Picayune averaged about eighty pages and it grossed around $9 million a month in ad revenue, about 75-80 percent of that coming from display advertising. Though I couldn’t get firm revenue figures out of the paper (it is privately owned by the Newhouse chain), my unscientific sampling over several weeks indicates that, not counting inserts, the non-Sunday editions now average closer to fifty pages (fewer early in the week, more later) with a corresponding drop in display and classified ads.

Like other metro papers, the T-P has resorted to severe cost cutting while stopping short of straight-out layoffs (though Newhouse announced it was rescinding its longstanding no-layoffs policy for its newspapers earlier this year). The Times-Picayune ditched its stand-alone business section, for instance, moving it inside the paper. And last fall twenty-eight employees took voluntary buyouts in the news operation, including popular columnists such as Angus Lind and Chris Rose, who was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his post-Katrina commentary. It instituted mandatory unpaid two-week furloughs in 2009, and in the first half of this year, for everyone up to and including Amoss and publisher Ashton Phelps (who declined to be interviewed for this story). Amoss says the cost-saving measures and a reviving newspaper economy have stabilized finances and things look rosier for the second half of this year.

But with a leaner and younger staff asked to do ever more in print and online, there are real questions about whether the paper could repeat its post-Katrina performance if necessary. As David Simon, who has been camped out in New Orleans for much of the year making his HBO series Treme (he did some filming at the T-P’s headquarters), once observed, the idea that newspapers can somehow do “more with less” is a great fiction of modern media. “You do less with less,” Simon quipped. “That’s why they call it less.” With the recovery from Katrina ongoing, the police scandal, the oil spill, and the current hurricane season, it’s hard to imagine a metro daily anywhere facing as many challenging stories as does The Times-Picayune.

So far, I think the paper has performed admirably on these stories, even with limited resources. And as one of its loyal daily readers I’m obviously rooting for the T-P to succeed. But I can’t help but worry about its future. As I had done at the end of our final interview almost five years ago, I asked Jim Amoss what he sees ahead for his paper. “On the whole, I think we’re doing incredibly well,” Amoss told me. “Everyone was so profoundly changed by Katrina—it’s a watershed that divides what happened before and what happened after.” He paused. “That’s the real emotional impact of the spill. It reopens the wound that everyone felt was beginning to heal. It just seems unbearable that something like this could happen again.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Douglas McCollam is a contributing editor to CJR.