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.”