When I got back to New Orleans, I noticed the “Save the Picayune” signs and tee-shirts around town.
With all respect to the good intentions behind this campaign, I feel it’s the wrong approach.
Let me explain why. This could take a minute.
While I was on vacation, it was a pleasure to be in a city with a newspaper, the Bloomington Herald-Times, that comes out every day. I was mildly surprised when there was no paper delivered July 4. I almost made a crack about how “in the big city the paper comes every day” — but then I thought better of it. After all, my hometown rag, the Times-Picayune of New Orleans, will cease daily publication this fall. The plan is to switch to thrice-weekly, leading Harry Shearer to dub it the Sometimes-Picayune.
How does the HT stack up to the TP? It’s a much slimmer paper, as one might expect since the community it serves is smaller. Frankly, it just seems like there’s a lot more news in New Orleans. I’m not bragging, because most of the news is bad. I’m just saying there are a lot more desperately important headlines to print down here.
Like newspapers everywhere, the HT is beleaguered. Yet, because of the peculiarities of market dynamics, it seems to be in no danger of ceasing print operations anytime soon. The TP competes with four local television channels that run ad-supported newscasts. The HT competes with precisely zero.
Strangely enough, the topic of the TP came up quite frequently on my vacation. People were fascinated by this unfolding story. They peppered me with questions.
Did you know the Times-Picayune is ceasing daily publication?
Yes. They’ve laid off almost half their staff. New Orleans is about to become the biggest city in the country without a daily paper.
“How do people in New Orleans feel about that?”
Oh, they are up in arms. They are mad as hell.
Yes, really. They’re having rallies. They’re circulating petitions. Everybody’s signing on, the mayor, the owner of the Saints, all the big names.
“What are they demanding?”
Well, they say that if Advance Publications, which owns the paper, won’t print daily, then they should sell it to someone who will.
“And how’s that working out?”
Well, the owners have said, essentially, no way, we’re not selling. Why should we sell?
I had that exact conversation several times, and I feel it’s instructive.
We need to think about this.
Xy worked at the HT for a few years as an intern. As a result we’ve always pretended to be an old newspaper family. Despite being often critical of the TP’s coverage, we’ve maintained our daily subscription as a matter of principle. We enjoy reading the paper and at least pretending to stay on top of the news. For about half a year after the floods of ’05, we couldn’t get the paper delivered to our neighborhood, despite the fact that we live right smackdab in the middle of the city. I went out and bought a paper from a box every damn day. Sometimes the nearest box would be sold out, and I would have to go hunting. Had to get the paper. Had to.
I mention this to illustrate the fact that we’ve been loyal. But our loyalty has limits. To maintain this loyalty in the face of such blatant abuse and disrespect is misplaced and foolish.
It’s naïve to think that Advance will sell the paper. Why on earth would they do that? They’re making money. They own how many papers? 37 or so by my count, all over the country. They also own business journals and magazines and cable television stations. They are the 46th largest private company in the United States. I repeat, they’re making money. That’s the whole point of owning these media assets. It’s not to uplift local communities. They’re not a part of the community. Why should they care? Do we think we’re going to shame them into doing the right thing? When has that ever worked?
What we need is some good old-fashioned American competition. This is an opportunity for some young hungry local start-up to try to make it work. That would not be easy, of course, but it’s the only way I see out of this mess.
Rather than trying to save the Picayune, I think we need to kiss it goodbye. Boycott the Picayune, kill it off, and create the necessary vacuum. Something will fill it.
To my friends who work there, the ones who still have their jobs after the recent bloodletting — I’m sorry. You’ve done good work. But you’re owned by an outside interest that is not fully invested in our community. If you have the wherewithal to quit your jobs, band together and start something new, I’ll support you. I certainly won’t hold it against you if you can’t do that, but I plan to cancel our subscription the Picayune when it moves to three times a week, and I exhort others to do the same.
New Orleans demands daily news, but the Picayune won’t deliver. I say — Screw the Picayune.
I have it on good authority that there will be a panel on the topic at Rising Tide 7. Buy your tix now while they are still cheap. There’s also a free forum tonight sponsored by the New Orleans Coalition on Open Governance.
Update: Don’t neglect the Boycott Nola.com group on Facebook, especially their statement of purpose.
Well said! Lucid as always my friend.
The problem is capital. The costs to start up and print a daily newspaper are phenomenal. A used color web press capable of printing a daily broadsheet paper can be over a million dollars. You need a full team of trained printers to operate it and a delivery system to get it around town.
You also need a place to put your ginormous printing press, so buy a building. You might be able to cut a deal with the Houma Courier or the Hattiesburg American and use their press, but not for a daily. This is, of course, on top of the staffing of the paper itself.
You would be asking a group of entrepreneurs to finance a many-multi-million dollar startup in a declining market against a profitable competitor with the best market penetration of any newspaper in the country. The reason so many people are pushing Newhouse to sell is for precisely these reasons; Newhouse apparently wants out of the printed paper business, and is slowly inching that way, and while the TP is profitable now, it likely will not be in coming years, or at least much less profitable — Newhouse’s measures are all aimed at cutting costs rather than expanding profits. Despite their protestations, they may very well be talked into selling — maybe not this year, but perhaps the next.
Starting up a daily in this market at this time would be insanity. Buying one from someone who has little interest and an increasingly hostile readership — that’s another matter.
You know better than I, Greg — and I respect that.
Still I can’t help but wonder. If I had the guts and the inclination to pursue such an idea, I’d start small. It wouldn’t be color. It wouldn’t cover the whole greater metro area. It wouldn’t even be daily, in the beginning. But it would be founded with a bankable promise, to stay committed to the local community, and to grow as fast as responsibly possible.
In that case the Gambit or the Louisiana Weekly or even the Data would seem well poised to take the initiative.
I realize I just used “bankable” a couple sentences ago because I thought it sounded good, even though I have no idea what that means, so probably I should shut up now.
Yeah, something like you describe is very possible; in fact, I see Gambit & the Weekly making great strides in the TPs wake. I don’t really see them taking the place of a good daily just yet, and I worry about the current online model (of sports news here, politics there, local events at another site) being emulated by the printed papers — I can imagine the weekly continuing to be a primarily black paper, Gambit doing harder news, Where Y’at becoming the music rag — then you have to pick up three or four papers every week …
Maybe it’ll even out, maybe the weeklies will grow into some new configuration I haven’t thought of yet. Maybe some of the online sites, like NOLA Defender, can move into print. But I’d really hate to see this town go without a strong daily while the little guys grow into their new roles. A good, strong daily paper of record, cold hard print, is still the best watchdog a city has against forces trying to do it ill.
I, too, plan to cancel when it goes to 3 times per week. We’ve subscribed to the T-P since The States-Item closed down and it will hurt to lose it but I refuse to put my money in the pockets of Advance.