The Times Picayune Dies When We Needed It Most – New Orleans Tragedy

The Times Picayune is dead.

Allow me to rephrase. The Times PIcayune will produce a “more robust” expanded print version three days a week. Many staff members who won’t “have the opportunity to grow with the new organization” will be fired. Those remaining staff members will be offered much smaller salaries, and will be expected to work more hours, for less benefits. A new corporation, the NOLA Media Group, will be formed, which will theoretically “develop new and innovative ways to deliver news and information to the company’s online and mobile readers.”

Remaining staff will be expected to spend at least part of their day “blogging.” Which is just the same as working a challenging beat, of course.

The hard-working Times-Picayune team were treated abhorrently by owners Newhouse Newspapers, who didn’t bother to inform them of the drastic change until after a New York Times story had already run. Many reporters found out about the move—and the probable loss of their jobs and life’s work—via the Gambit’s Twitter feed. Sadly, this treatment is indicative of the total lack of respect most in the corporate world seem to have for our not-very-easy profession.

So why do I care? For one thing, I’m more reliant on print newspapers than most 23 year olds. This is partially a function of previously working for one of the few papers still extant that doesn’t have a website. Hello, Cambodia Daily! In Cambodia, I bought both the Phnom Penh Post and the Cambodia Daily every day. I felt like I was doing the community—and my profession—a big disservice if I didn’t at least read the local news from both sources every day.

I read the Times Picayune in print when I could access a copy – I’ll admit that as a Tulane student without a ton of money and an uncertain living situation, I never subscribed to the print edition. I regret it. Then again, the demise of the Times Picayune is less related to profitability than it is to the whims of its corporate overlords – who freely admit that the paper is still making money.

Which means that New Orleans, an American city internationally renowned for its corruption, crime, history and vibrant culture, now has no daily news source. I can think of few cities more desperately in need of an entire organization dedicated to honesty and documentation.

I imagine I’m going to be hearing something like this over the next week: Social media will jump in and pick up the slack, right? We don’t need newspapers and dedicated reporters anymore, right? What about the television news? 

Actually, dedicated reporters are needed more than ever. Do you really think that us bloggers are making enough money to support ourselves from our occasional posts covering a local event?

Well, we’re not. Seriously. We have to have jobs that relate to other things than local news to keep food on the table. Only a tiny, elite minority of bloggers can break even or support themselves. For the rest of us, journalism is increasingly becoming a rather punishing hobby, instead of a dedicated profession.

One also wonders what exactly morally suspect news aggregators and churnalists will repurpose when all the real-deal journalists have been pushed out of the industry. What will Ivy League college interns link to when all the newspapers are dead? How will anybody find out anything? 

As for TV, well, if you think local TV news can perform the same investigative reporting function as a dedicated, award-winning newspaper, you obviously don’t watch TV news very often. (It’s also worth pointing out that only hotties get jobs in TV journalism. Do we really want that?)

As for us young people who actually want to do investigative reporting instead of churnalizing, well, we should probably just forget about it. I remember reading a passage in Joel Brinkley’s “Cambodia’s Curse,” where he casually mentioned that the Louisville Courier-Journal sent him to Cambodia to cover the war in 1979.

Can you imagine a local paper from a smallish metro doing something like that today?

Circa 2012, these local papers are lucky if they can get an ass in the seat for the local city council meeting. (Which isn’t going to happen anymore in New Orleans). That trip to Cambodia was a milestone in Mr Brinkley’s life, and set him on the path to a successful career in investigative reporting. Nothing like that opportunity awaits myself and my fellow 23-year-old aspirant reporters today, at least in local American papers. We tend to feel pretty damn grateful if we’re not in food service.

And trust me, speaking as a blogger: dutifully taking down the minutes of city council meetings during normal working hours is not something that gets us ad money. It also doesn’t help with that nagging issue of paying the rent, either.

I’m very worried about New Orleans today. This is a city that loves its paper, and where you would regularly see folks reading the Times-Picayune in a public place. – prior to this truly heinous “yellow journalism” redesign  – was a wonky but relatively useful site, one I looked to as a missive from home on my world travels. I don’t really give a fart about sports, but it was still nice to see the exuberant headlines from the latest major Saint’s victory.

The Times-Pic was filled with a lot of murder and doom and gloom and horror, as would befit a paper coming out of the US city with the highest per-capita murder rate. But it also did a great job of documenting New Orlean’s rebirth and redevelopment. This is a story that needs to be told. I’ll quote Micheline Maynard of Forbes, who wrote a very good piece on the Times-Pic’s demise:

“Even if the post-Katrina clean up story is now old news, the creation of a new southern city, with lingering problems from the past, layered onto its rich history, seems like enough to fill seven days a week of news hole, with plenty of opportunities for local and national publications. Everything that’s being written about in Detroit is happening here, too, and deserves to be looked at with just as much scrutiny.”

It does deserve equal scrutiny. And it’s an absolute travesty that Phnom Penh – where the native language is not even English – has two active papers. New Orleans can’t even muster one. Many of us like to joke that New Orleans is a third world city, but it’s becoming less and less of a joke these days.

This is a tragic day for New Orleans. We can only hope that someone, somewhere steps in to fill the gap. The city we love needs good reporting and honest journalism more than ever before.