Poynter has a story today about one bright spot on the recent dismal Audit Bureau of Circulations report: The Times-Picayune.

The New Orleans paper and its Web site had a combined 7 percent increase in its print and online audience.

Nola.com’s director of content, James O’Byrne, attributes the steady increase to the devastating storm that toppled New Orleans’s levies more than four years ago. Hurricane Katrina created a “connectedness” between the paper and its community, especially the displaced residents desperate to know what was going on back home, says Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore.

I spent three weeks reporting in New Orleans earlier this summer and people’s engagement with the paper was astonishing and refreshing. If I had read the paper that morning, (preferably over a plate of beignets and a cup of coffee at Cafe du Monde) I found the main headlines coming up again and again in conversation throughout the day. I was literally on the same page as the locals, and that’s no exaggeration. Two recent studies show that Nola.com reached 85.8 percent of the metropolitan area in 2009 and 87.3 percent in 2007.

But the best illustration I saw of the everyday New Orleanian’s engagement with the hometown paper was this:

On a non-tourist’s tour of the city with Times-Picayune crime reporter Brendan McCarthy — who won Columbia’s Meyer “Mike” Berger Award earlier this year for an eight-part series on the 37th murder of the year in the city with the country’s highest per-capita murder rate — we swung by a corner in the Lower Ninth Ward where a homicide had occurred less than 24 hours earlier.

McCarthy spotted a man sitting on his porch nearby, and though he wasn’t on the clock, ever the reporter, McCarthy parked the car and said he was just going to get out and chat with the man for a minute; see if he knew anything about the killing that had just happened yards from his front door.

As I sat in the car with the other out-of-town reporter on assignment with me, I couldn’t hear, but I watched as McCarthy greeted the man and raised his hands in the air to signal his non-threatening presence before being invited up on the porch. He sat down, the two chatted and in a minute or two McCarthy was on his way back to the car.

‘Well, what did he say?’ I asked.

The man didn’t have any information to share about the homicide, McCarthy said. But he had two things on his lap that said a lot: his gun and a copy of the Times-Picayune open to the story about the murder.

If that doesn’t show market penetration, I don’t know what does.

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.