A sign of the Times: where is my hometown newspaper going?

May 24, 2012, the news broke. The Times-Picayune, the only daily newspaper in the New Orleans metropolitan area, would reduce publication to a three-day-a-week printing cycle.  This now makes New Orleans the largest city in the country without a daily news print presence.

With the announcement came word that more than half of the Times-Picayune’s reporters would be without jobs. Many of those who grew up in the local area, watched the city go through “hell and high water,” and the “Saints come marching in,” will soon have to seek employment elsewhere. The paper’s entire marketing department has been eliminated, save one person.

In an attempt to combat the industry’s decline, the news corporation has chosen to center its efforts around digital news reporting – driving traffic to its online publication. The reporters who choose to stay will receive new job descriptions and cover stories for the online version of The Times-Picayune, NOLA.com. The paper, which is owned by Advance Publications, Inc., will now be transformed into a new company called NOLA Media Group and will be delivered to doors and in stores every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

Response, as articulated by Times-Picayune Editor Jim Amoss, has been, sorry, but “we can’t sustain the old business model in the face of irreversible print advertising and readership trends.” These “sentiments” were echoed by Ricky Mathews, president of NOLA Media Group, who wrote, “Before we faced economic doomsday, we decided to build a new model, a combination of print and online that gives us a chance to achieve a sustainable business and content model.”

This shift in publications relying more heavily on digitally enhanced news really comes as no surprise to anyone. Three papers in Alabama and another in Ann Arbor, Mich., have also reduced their printing schedule to tri-weekly publishing. With digital news, advertisers are finding easier ways to consolidate, their choices of media have multiplied and potential clients have many more avenues to get their information. Readers can receive their news almost instantaneously, overhead costs to maintain an online presence are relatively low and stories are not limited to layout or printing restrictions in Web browsers.

With a host of seemingly positive reasons for this change, why does it feel a little heart-breaking – especially for a city like New Orleans?

In a city where not much else works, The Times-Picayune does. Although Sunday circulation for the 175-year-old paper had fallen from 285,000 to 155,000 since 2005, in large part because of the 29-percent post-Katrina population loss, The Economist reports, “the Times-Picayune was thriving. Its market penetration was 65%, the fourth-highest of any newspaper in the country.”

Additionally, in a city where a significant portion of the citizens do not have access to the Internet at home, the effects could actually prove even more detrimental than imagined. Yes, the Internet is happening everywhere, but according to the New York Times, only 40 percent of households with incomes under $25,000 per year have wired Internet at home, and 30 percent of all Americans have no Internet access at all. How will readers in these communities get their daily news?

News organizations are more than businesses; they bind communities. The Times-Picayune, especially, is a hyper-local paper with several geographical zone editions that cover a barrage of topics from the coastal erosion to rising sea levels. These “local Picayunes” with lots of photographs of school groups, social, civic and sports happening out-power many of the small dailies in the sprawling, outlying parishes. According to The Nation, “this zone strategy made pre-Internet Times-Picayune so profitable.”

Unlike the online versions of publications such as The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times that replicate formatting of its print version with a “front page story” and sections, NOLA.com is different. It follows the format of other Advance online publications, with a vertical column that readers scroll down for headlines, photos, lead paragraphs and links to full stories.  Many have complained about the difficult-to-use and hard-to-search aspects of the online website. For instance, if you go to timespicayune.com, readers seeking news will instead find an advertisement for the paper’s 175th anniversary commemorative edition and contact information for various departments – but no portal or even a direct link to the news page on NOLA.com. In effect, this eliminates the paper’s institutional voice and provides no real journalistic cohesiveness in its online product – essentially eliminating the heart of true journalism.

My roots are in journalism. When I began my first reporting job at a local community paper almost ten years ago, never would I have imagined my “summer job” would fuel my passion to work in the news and media industry. My first assignment was to cover a local community basketball game for a story my boss planned to write. With a fellow photographer, I anxiously arrived to the court the day of the game, where I found a place in the corner to observe and scribble quickly on my notepad. Nervously, I even mustered the courage to ask a few players for quotes.

The next morning, instead of merely ripping out and handing my boss the notes I’d scribbled in my spiral notebook, I combined them into a “rough” sketch of what I felt best resembled a real news story. And, I was proud.  Handing it my boss, she quickly glanced over it, muttered a quick, “Interesting,” and diverted her attention back to her afternoon emails.

That Friday, when the paper’s full-color, print edition ran, I picked up the copy that was left on my desk as usual. To my surprise, the front-page headline read the same as the story I submitted to my boss just a few days prior. The byline read: Ambur Evans.

That paper remains, framed, in my parent’s house to this day.

 

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