Why a Weak Website Can't Replace a Daily Newspaper in New Orleans

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Today's layoffs at the Times-Picayune signal the end of daily papers as tribunes of the communities they serve.

t-p-body.jpgCasey Fox/Flickr

The newspaper industry is in the midst of a mass decimation. This is due to the inexorable forces of the web and to the constantly fracturing attentions of readers, who can find much of the stuff that used to be exclusive to newspapers elsewhere and in vastly greater quantity and quality. But there are still core functions that newspapers can do very well: covering news, sports, and entertainment in their communities, offering an authoritative channel for distinctive voices on those topics.

But what if the process of relentless downsizing degrades a newspaper's relationship with its community, and with it those last sources of journalistic strength?

This is an especially urgent question given what's happening in New Orleans, where today 200 employees at The Times-Picayune are getting pink slips, and others new job descriptions, as part of a radical restructuring. In the fall, Advance Publications, the paper's New York-based parent company, intends to reduce daily publication to Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays and reassign a much-reduced staff to focus on the paper's apparently well-trafficked but oft-derided website, nola.com. Similar changes are underway at three Advance-owned Alabama papers.

On the surface, this looks like more of the same for the beleaguered newspaper industry. Local dailies -- including the SeattlePost-Intelligencer and Advance's own Ann Arbor News -- have slashed staff and gone all-web. The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press cut back home delivery to three days a week, though they still print papers seven days for newsstand sales. And The Rocky Mountain News went out of business.

It's a free-for-all: The quality of news-gathering depends on an owner's whim.

But for journalism, this is a signal development. New Orleans will now be the largest American city without a daily paper. And during a time when newspapers are being hollowed out, The Times-Picayune has managed to retain its hard-won reputation for local journalism and, especially post-Hurricane Katrina, become an important community voice. Maintaining that reputation has depended on the owners' backing. Now that has effectively been withdrawn.

New Orleans greeted the announcement of the cuts -- a closely guarded secret until a leak to the New York Times -- with an extraordinary mixture of shock, outrage, and whimsy. There's been a protesta petition, even t-shirts. An organization of community leaders has formed to pressure Advance to reverse its decision. Last week, advertisers also joined the fight.

Above all, though, there's a sense of bafflement among the staff and readership. (And for me personally: I was a reporter for The Times-Picayune for more than 20 years until taking a buyout in 2006, and worked on investigative projects that helped build the paper's reputation as a medium-sized daily that did ambitious journalism.) The owners have said the paper is currently profitable. Why a radical overhaul that will damage its journalistic foundation, and a push to the web in a city where nearly a third of the population has no Internet connection? New Orleans would seem to be the last place to do this, not one of the first.

The Times-Picayune's plight is partly a result of the process Jack Shafer describes here, a slog to irrelevancy in which newspaper owners dismantle their institutions to keep ahead of falling revenues, cashing in residual goodwill at the same time. The future looks bleak:

Newspaper owners may be running out of time to beat the liquidation clock if the prediction (pdf) made in January by the USC Annenberg Center for the Digital Future proves accurate. Because the current generation of print newspaper readers aren't being replaced, most major U.S. print dailies will be dead in five years, the report concluded. Very small newspapers might endure as dailies, as well as the large national newspapers - The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today -- and the local Washington Post. For other newspapers to beat the reaper, said the Annenberg report, they must downsize from daily to once- or twice-a-week publication.

The difference in New Orleans is, after making cuts at various points over the past few years, Advance has simply decided to dispense with piece-by-piece downsizing. Instead, it's blowing up the old Times-Picayune and turning what remains into an adjunct to its nola site, creating a new, digital company called the NOLA Media Group to run it. This is audacious. And who knows? Since no one has yet figured out how to make newspapers profitable in the long run, either in print or on the Internet, maybe we would have ended up here anyway after a few years.

But what's the nature of this new enterprise? While the local controversy has focused on the loss of daily publication, something more disquieting has been overlooked: Advance's Internet strategy has never been about journalism or news. It's about clicks.

Nola.com is one of a bunch of regional web portals Advance has created. They're like local versions Yahoo.com or MSN.com. All have the same generic design template. They are run independently of the affiliated local newspapers, sometimes by non-journalists, and it shows. They are generic, ugly and notoriously hard to navigate. They share DNA with Parade.com (the website of Parade Magazine, the newspaper insert) another Advance property whose former boss now runs Advance's local digital strategy. They present news in a rolling blog format, as it is fed to them, without regard to its importance or community interest. In this framework, news is primarily a click-generating engine, featuring movie listings, weather forecasts, or the doings of the Kardashians.

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John McQuaid is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Times-Picayune reporter and writer whose work has appeared in Smithsonian Magazine, The Washington Post and other publications.

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