drink strong chicory coffee, preferably accompanied by a Café du Monde beignet fresh out of the deep fryer
• listen to authentic New Orleans jazz or blues live on the street or via WWOZ, the most offbeat and culturally authentic radio station I’ve heard in the nation
• talk with at least one native New Orleanian, just to soak up the inexplicable accents and idioms: “earl” for “oil,” “making groceries” instead of shopping for them, “Where Y’at” instead of “What’s going on”
• and read what was then the 150-year-old — and now the 175-year-old — daily newspaper, the Times-Picayune
It wasn’t the greatest journalistic exemplar, the kind you’d use in journalism class, although in 2005 it won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize for its heroic coverage of Hurricane Katrina floodwaters that inundated swaths of the city, killing more than 1,800 people.
The “T-P” was, and from the look of its Web site still is, insular and idiosyncratic, stubborn in its defense of local traditions, and blind to much of what happens outside the bayou.
While parts of the world explode or default, it fills its columns with biographies of Carnival captains and princesses, creole recipes, and in-depth analyses of the New Orleans Saints football team.
Recession? Foreign wars? Maybe worth a blurb on page 4. Of more import in “the City that Care Forgot”: The Krewe of Comus is announcing its Mardi Gras parade theme!
The word “myopic” fit the Times-Picayune’s worldview when I was there.
Even today as I write, two of the four “recommended stories” on the newspaper’s Web site concern howls of protest by residents about Coca-Cola ads on the French Quarter’s sidewalks and a citation of rapper Lil Wayne for allowing the grass to grow too high at his gated mansion.
The two other flagged stories describe acts committed by local citizens that I never thought I’d see headlined in a respectable family newspaper.
Still, once one felt the lulling rhythm of the city, the don’t-worry-be-happy ethic, the intoxicating ethos of the sultry Louisiana Gulf Coast, the T-P’s insularity seemed sensible. New Orleans is a world of its own and a world apart. Why shouldn’t its daily paper be as well?
Only the Times-Picayune soon won’t be daily any more.
Its absentee publisher, Advance Publications, a multi-billion dollar media conglomerate owned by the powerful Newhouse family, announced that because of the declining revenue in this digital age from the Times-Picayune’s print editions, it will cut them to three days a week sometime this fall.
If and when that happens, New Orleans will be the largest American city without a daily newspaper.
“The proportion of New Orleanians who read the Times-Picayune is the highest in the nation,” the paper’s John Pope reported. Subscribers and callers to the newsroom are “irate,” he added.
New Orleanians can be a contrary lot. They will happily stand for hours in freezing temperatures to snag cheap beads in a [Carnival] parade, and they will loyally support a less-than-stellar football team for 40 years — and go crazy when that team wins the Super Bowl.
They are just as passionate about the newspaper.
But the cold fact is that while the T-P had a daily circulation of 261,000 in 2005, by this March the reported figure was half that — 132,000. Of course, Katrina, which drove 29 percent of New Orleans’s residents from town — tens of thousands of them for good — had something to do with that.
But for a publisher, the bottom line is the bottom line.
Still, the newspaper’s staff, already reduced several times, was shocked by the decision to eliminate four publishing days a week. And devastated to learn that the publisher will cut 200 newsroom positions — half of the existing jobs — when the change takes place.
Was it symbolic and fateful, if unintentional, that on the day the draconian cutbacks were announced, the newspaper’s front page was dominated by a story about a model of the doomed ocean liner Titanic, bobbing in Lake Pontchartrain on the city’s northern border?
Print advertisements account for more than 86 percent of the $24 billion in ad revenue collected by U.S. newspaper publishers last year. But the New York Times reports that “print revenue is falling so rapidly that the industry is roughly half the size it was as recently as 2007.”
And producing a printed paper also carries significant costs, including expensive presses, warehouses full of newsprint, fleets of delivery trucks and a manufacturing process that hasn’t changed significantly in decades.
While lots of Americans, including me, still love to collect the paper on the front walk, bring it inside, slide it from its wrapper, and read it at great leisure over morning coffee, Carol and dozens of my friends, relatives, and VOA colleagues prefer to sip that coffee at their computers, clicking briefly and selectively on online stories. Time’s always a-wasting in our increasingly busy days.
In many cases they’re not even calling up their local newspapers’ sites. They go straight to the Web sites of cable news networks or nationally renowned papers such as theWashington Post or New York Times.
As Jill K. Willis wrote three years ago in South Carolina Business magazine, the old idea of “appointment journalism” — in which you could count on your audience to pick up your newspaper and read it each morning, turn on your radio station on the way to and from work each rush hour, and catch your TV newscast each evening — is not just dying. It’s dead.
People are receiving news all day via the Internet, radio, i-Pods, cell phones, and other mobile devices. So now, seasoned journalists in newsrooms all over the world are scrambling to adapt to high-tech information dissemination.
Even Caroline Little, the chief executive of the Newspaper Association of America, concedes that cutbacks such as the Times-Picayune’s are inevitable. “I care about print deeply,” she told the Washington Post. “But I also care that 30 or 50 years from now that there will be a way to support good journalism.”
But the macroeconomics of the journalism trade are of minimal concern to the readers of the print editions of the New Orleans Times-Picayune and other papers that are slashing payrolls and publishing schedules. They wonder what will they hold in their hands and read with their morning beignets and coffee.
A Mere Bagatelle
You might be curious about the meaning of the second word in the New Orleans newspaper’s name: “Picayune.” It’s truly a curious choice for a newspaper. It means trifling, piddling, not worth very much. The picayune was a Spanish coin, roughly equivalent to the American nickel or five-cent piece, freely circulated in New Orleans during the late 1700s when Louisiana was a colony of Spain. The paper took its name from that coin. Now the “worthless” meaning of the word has a somewhat ominous ring, given the latest developments.
By Ted Landphair
Published June 29, 2012
From Voice of America: