Clifford Burchfield sleeps in an abandoned building in the Algiers section of New Orleans, with no plumbing, electricity or running water. He can’t afford television, much less the Internet. But Burchfeld still devours the news every day from The Times-Picayune. Or at least he will until this fall, when New Orleans becomes the largest metro area in the nation without a daily paper.
“That’s my only way of getting the news,” Burchfeld said, shirtless in the 90-degree heat and incredulous at the Times-Picayune headline announcing across the front page: “PAPER LAYS OFF 200 EMPLOYEES.”
New Orleanians have reacted with shock, sadness, outrage and a jazz funeral of laid-off reporters, editors and photographers to last week’s announcement that the paper was cutting half its newsroom staff as it as goes to three-days a week in print and an emphasis on online news. Mayor Mitch Landrieu said it made New Orleans look like a “minor league city.” The president of the city council called it “totally unacceptable” and urged the New Jersey-based owners of the paper, Advance Publications, to reconsider.
The Times-Picayune has been part of the rhythm of life for 175 years in New Orleans, a beautiful but tragic city with a history of corruption and crime, poverty and natural disasters. New Orleanians relied on the paper to shine a light in the city’s dark corners, to bring the city together through its pain and to chronicle its celebrations and offbeat culture. There’s a connection between readers and newspapers not seen in other metro areas. That’s visible in the statistics showing the Times-Picayune with the highest rate of readership by population of any paper in a major U.S city, and in the visceral anger at what’s happening.
Irina McCallister, who packages coffee at a plant in New Orleans, said it seemed as if The Times-Picayune was giving up on the city that loved and needed it. She was so moved by the coverage of New Orleans cops gunning down unarmed civilians on the Danziger Bridge after Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent police cover-up that she cut the pictures out of the paper to save them.
McCallister evacuated to Lafayette, La., when the levees failed and the city flooded. She was riveted by the news coverage as Times-Picayune staffers stayed on in the apocalyptic city, even as many of their own homes were underwater.
“They were like bloodhounds. It was my lifeline,” McCallister said.
The Rev. Donald Jeanjacques, the pastor of a church in a New Orleans neighborhood that’s seen an explosion of violence, led his congregation in prayer last week for The Times-Picayune and the people who were losing their jobs at the paper. He called the newspaper a “tonic” and said many in his flock would be shut out by the changes. According to a 2010 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 36 percent of the people in New Orleans don’t have Internet access at home.
“Not everyone has that opportunity to have access to a computer. That is where we really need The Times-Picayune,” said Jeanjacques, who said he planned to work through the Louisiana Freedmen Missionary Baptist General Association to try to convene a meeting of ministers to talk about whether anything could be done.
Advance Publications doesn’t make its financial information public but the New Orleans paper itself has acknowledged “reports that The Times-Picayune remains profitable.” Newspapers across the nation, though, have been shrinking as they face the revenue plummet that’s come as fewer people subscribe to printed papers and more read them online, where ad dollars remain far less abundant. The Times-Picayune’s new publisher, Ricky Mathews, wrote in a front-page essay published Sunday that the number of people who pay for their papers continues to fall and the change is an effort to forestall a future “economic doomsday.”
“It is clear that to do nothing was a path to disappearing, fading away, becoming irrelevant,” he wrote.
Advance Publications is unique among media companies in switching to a printed paper just three days a week, a move it’s also trying at its papers in Alabama. Rick Edmonds, a media analyst for the Poynter Institute, a journalism research center, said he doubted that many other papers would follow Advance’s lead, at least in the short term. Edmonds called it a marginal move financially, given that newspapers still typically get 70 percent of revenue from print advertising.
“Number two, I don’t think the path to a fabulous website with fabulous revenues is there. I don’t see it demonstrated in the other places Advance has tried it,” Edmonds said in an interview this week. “And number three is, as events demonstrate, they are doing a fabulous job of pissing off a good segment of their readers.”
Even deep in the bayou country of south Louisiana, hours from New Orleans, in a world where coastal erosion and poverty are a way of life, members of the French-speaking Houma Indian tribe are fretting over The Times-Picayune. Lois Dion, pausing after making a big pot of gumbo last week, said she’d heard that billionaire Omaha investor Warren Buffett might come in and save the newspaper. No? Just a rumor? That’s too bad, she said, frowning.
Times-Picayune Editor Jim Amoss published an essay in the paper last week in which he invoked the Katrina coverage in describing the shift to an online focus. Amoss wrote that for three days during the flooding The Times-Picayune had no choice but to operate only online, producing vital dispatches for the world that would never see a printing press. The lessons of that time in connecting with readers weren’t lost as the media world goes digital, he wrote.
Amoss said the newsgathering arm of the newly created Nola Media Group, which will oversee the three-day-a-week paper and the NOLA.com website, would make new hires and end up employing 151 people, a 13.7 percent reduction from the previous news staff. Amoss promised readers in a video posted on NOLA.com that “we won’t retreat from our commitment to be a watchdog of local government, we won’t retreat from doing significant investigative journalism.”
But there’s little love for the NOLA.com website in New Orleans, and many readers expressed skepticism that getting rid of half the existing newsroom would lead to a good result. Richard Campanella, a professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, called the change to three-day-a-week publishing traumatic for the city.
“What went into the headlines and on the front page formed a common civic discourse,” Campanella said. “More so than most American cities, this city benefitted from a common civic discourse because we had such deep-rooted problems. The notion of that disappearing four-sevenths of every week leaves a huge gap.”
Martha Kegel, who leads a consortium of nonprofit agencies that fight homelessness in New Orleans, said it was “infuriating” to watch what was happening.
“The paper has its faults, but has been absolutely essential to the city’s recovery,” she said. “If ever a city needed a daily newspaper it is New Orleans.”