OLD Media Moves

What does the future hold?

September 5, 2012

Posted by Liz Hester

After the New York Times (yes, the one in New York) broke the story of New Orleans’ Times-Picayune cutting staff and reducing its print schedule to three days a week, many pundits were calling this the beginning of the end for newspapers.

And New Orleans remains in a uproar at losing an institution, one that raked in Pultizer Prizes and became a symbol of residents’ grit, determination and love for the city in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

While this may be old news, a recent first-hand account by Chris Rose published in the Oxford American was a reminder of just how rich New Orleans is and integral the paper is to the citizens as well as the rest of the country. As Rose wrote:

The Times-Picayune, after all, is different. Or maybe that’s the wrong word. It’s more that New Orleans is different. In New Orleans, the Picayune is woven so deeply into the cultural fabric that it’s impossible to overstate its role as informer, arbiter, entertainer, cheerleader, advocate, and companion.

Among the scores of Letters to the Editor published since the paper’s announcement to go digital, many have implored the owners to reconsider, calling the morning paper a “friend.”

Has anybody in Westchester County ever called the New York Times his or her “friend”? I realize that the rest of America, in its post-Katrina fatigue, is pretty tired of hearing New Orleanians, the city’s acolytes and defenders, always carrying on about how it’s the most unique city in America, but, the fact is, it is. Get over it.

There may be some amount of nostalgia for a place that may never exist in the same way, but New Orleans is and remains one of the best business stories. Period. There’s not just the reconstruction and government programs from Katrina and other hurricanes that demand continued dedicated coverage. There’s also the rich music, culinary and cultural aspects that deserve reporting.

It’s an insult that a regional and national hub of innovative cuisine, scrappy entrepreneurs and tenacious survivors won’t have a daily newspaper. There’s a status that comes with that. It seems a shame that my small hometown with less than 20,000 people should still get a daily newspaper while the people of New Orleans will have to go online to get their news.

It also bears mentioning that Advance Publications (aka the Newhouse family), the owner of the Times–Picayune, is consolidating and cutting back on papers in Alabama. The Birmingham News, The Press-Register of Mobile and The Huntsville Times are also being cut back to three days a weeks as well. Advance also announced a similar move last week with a paper in Pennsylvania and one in Syracuse, N.Y.

As the Times said in its original story:

The Ann Arbor News in Michigan, another Newhouse newspaper, cut back the printed paper to Thursdays and Sundays in 2009, and hired a fraction of its former staff to run the Web site AnnArbor.com. In 2010, The Detroit News began delivering its paper to subscribers on Thursdays and Fridays only, although it prints papers every day.

Michigan is another great business story with a bailed out auto industry and the decline of one of America’s biggest hubs to be chronicled. And while cuts have been across the newsroom, it’s often the sections behind the front that bear the brunt of the reductions.

With fewer editors and reporters to cover the major, general interest news, there will be even less time and attention devoted to features, especially some of the more in-depth work involved in putting together a business story.

All that means there will be fewer auto parts suppliers profiled in Detroit and that the commercial fishing industry in New Orleans will lack coverage. In general, stories can not only bring to light the bad, but also point out the good and bring potential investors to communities. Often, it’s the local paper that helps with this.

This may open the door for business-only papers such as those published by American Cities Business Journals. (Ironically, ACBJ is also owned by the Newhouses.) But they’re still aimed at a niche market and typically come out once a week. In cities such as New Orleans and Detroit, citizens deserve to know what’s going on in their communities daily. Especially when the stories touch their very livelihoods and ability to survive.

Much of the argument for cutting back print production is that online news is cheaper and the wave of the future for news consumption. While this is true, it’s interesting to me that many of these cuts are coming in economically less advantaged areas. I would bet that a large percentage of the populations of New Orleans and Detroit don’t have an extra $499 for an iPad.

Ultimately with all the cuts, newspapers are creating another class of under-educated and under-informed citizens. It’s the newspapers’ job to disseminate the news. Cutting an outlet and source for that furthers the divide and could hinder the ability to grow.

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