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American Journalism Review
Big Time in the Big Easy  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   July/August 1997

Big Time in the Big Easy   

New Orleans' Times-Picayune used to be regarded as a journalistic underachiever. With a string of high-impact projects, two 1997 Pulitzers and the National Press Foundation's editor of the year, a new reputation is in order.

By Mark Lisheron
Senior Contributing Writer Mark Lisheron (mark@texaswatchdog.org) is Austin bureau chief for Texas Watchdog, a government accountability news Web site.      



M ANAGING EDITOR FOR NEWS Peter Kovacs has a clear sense of when New Orleans' Times-Picayune, once listed among the nation's 10 worst big-city papers, began its steady climb toward the summit.

It was nearly a decade ago, well before its triumphs this year, when the paper earned two Pulitzers and its editor, Jim Amoss, was crowned editor of the year by the National Press Foundation.

In Kovacs' view the ascent started before Amoss replaced Charles A. Ferguson, a respected editor whom Amoss considered a mentor, who had hired this year's Pulitzer-winning cartoonist, Walt Handelsman, and a good many of those who worked on the Picayune's public service award-winning series, "Oceans of Trouble."

The year was 1988, when the Republican National Convention came to New Orleans. That was also the year Atlanta hosted the Democratic National Convention, and Bill Kovach used the event to showcase his intention to transform the Atlanta Journal and Constitution into a world-class newspaper. So while the Times-Picayune had prepared a year in advance of the convention, conducting training sessions to teach experienced reporters how to cover a campaign and dispatching them around the country for the first time, no one outside of New Orleans paid much attention. The national media instead lavished their praise on the Atlanta paper.

"I guess there can be only one star in every script," Kovacs says. "It was the first time some of us got to do reporting on a national scale. No one said anything about what we were doing, but our coverage was every bit as good as the big boys'. And we knew it."

The Times-Picayune is owned by Newhouse, a chain long known more for profit-making than for journalistic excellence. But in recent years many Newhouse papers have shown dramatic signs of improvement (see "A New Era at Newhouse," November 1994). The Times-Picayune has been in the vanguard.

Before the upswing began, the Times-Picayune in many ways represented the prototypical newspaper in the Newhouse chain--dominant in its market, a big money- maker that could offer virtually lifetime employment to those who decided to stay, and wholly unremarkable in the way it went about bringing news to its readers.

Those on the staff lived with the knowledge that no one in the national journalistic community thought much good about the Times-Picayune, a paper with a 262,000 daily circulation, nearly 304,000 on Sunday. If anyone thought about the paper at all, it was to resurrect its designation as one of the 10 worst big newspapers in the country by the now-defunct journalism review More in the 1970s. Like virtually everyone interviewed for this story, Kovacs says he was treated by newspaper friends with bewilderment and a little pity when he told them in 1983 he had decided to accept a job at the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

To a person, Kovacs and the others at the paper say the national image of the Picayune as a chronic underachiever was 10 years out of date by the time the Pulitzers were announced.

Perhaps it was because there had been no well-publicized effort to pack the newspaper with outside editing and reporting talent. Many of the people who have been winning awards had been with the paper for years. Amoss, a New Orleans native, began as an intern in 1974 with the New Orleans States-Item, a paper acquired by Newhouse along with the Times-Picayune in 1962. The papers were combined in 1980.

Amoss clearly understood the potential of a newspaper with a talented staff in a city as abundantly endowed with news as New Orleans. And, more than virtually anyone else in the newsroom, Amoss, the native, understood the abundance of the endowment.

"Hey, staying here was like buying a stock low," Kovacs says. "I always had a sense that we were trying to get better and that if we just stayed the course we would end up getting there. These people who won the Pulitzers aren't ringers. They really work here."

On the day the Pulitzers were announced in April, the paper was ready, with carts of champagne brought into its Howard Avenue headquarters and five bureaus at precisely the same moment. Staffers spoke of affirmation of a body of good work rather than the repudiation of a bad reputation. At 10 p.m. the staff put the newspaper to bed early and headed for Molly's at the Market, the suitably shabby press hangout in the French Quarter, for a celebration.

"To say that I felt great joy would be an understatement," says Donald Newhouse, president of the Newhouse family's Advance Publications, the newspaper chain in which the Times-Picayune has become a glittering link. "I believe [the Pulitzers] represent the culture of our newspapers, to chart their own courses, to create excellent, relevant, meaningful newspapers."

Dean Baquet, national editor of the New York Times, once Amoss' investigative partner at the Times-Picayune and himself a Pulitzer winner, says the awards banish an old prejudice held by many who haven't actually read the paper in a very long time.

"Unfortunately, the paper has been saddled with a reputation that is probably 25 years old and at the time was probably deserved," Baquet says. "The Pulitzers wipe that out. No one is ever going to say to them again that they aren't a great newspaper. I believe that's going to be very liberating for them."

W INNING THE PULITZERS may make it appear that everything that has happened over those past 25 years has conspired to help the Times-Picayune improve its product and burnish its image. The reality is more fitful, less glamorous than the awards suggest, further from the chase for prizes and closer to what the newspaper is attempting to do every day.

"Oceans of Trouble," the exhaustive, eight-part project referred to lovingly around the newsroom as "the fish series," is a good example of the approach. Curled up around a bend in the Mississippi River near its mouth into the Gulf of Mexico, spread out around the shores of Lake Pontchartrain and surrounded by hundreds of miles of swamp and bayou, New Orleans is this country's largest fishing village. Not only is commercial fishing in the gulf a $750-million-a-year industry, but virtually everyone who lives in the region has a boat in their driveway.

"If the Times-Picayune had suddenly been transported to the deserts of Arizona I would say this would be an interesting topic," Kovacs says, "but should we be doing it? I don't think so. This was a subject important to everybody who reads our newspaper. It happened to take us around the world, but its genesis was right here."

However, massive series, no matter how impressive, are not enough. Excellent newspapers must strike a balance between projects and giving a sense of indispensability to their daily news coverage. That has not always been the case at the Times-Picayune.

Kovacs recalls an editors' meeting early in his tenure in which he suggested a police reporter and a photographer be paired to do a story on police department training. That his idea was greeted as a brilliant insight was remarkable enough, Kovacs thought, but when, after two days, the police reporter confessed he hadn't thought to actually go out with the photographer to witness the training, Kovacs was stunned. In that same week, the paper ran a sophisticated series on two nuclear plants.

"My reaction was that we were capable of doing very good things but that we seemed to have trouble doing things that make a good paper every day," he says.

The day-to-day performance of the newspaper has vastly improved, but it hasn't stopped some from seeing a gap between the quality of its award-winning projects and its daily coverage.

To the outsider, New Orleans has all of the makings of one of the best newspaper cities in the world. A city 58 years before the United States was a country, New Orleans could boast of a cultural importance quite unlike that of any other city in America. In this equatorial climate goes on a simultaneous rotting and spectacular regeneration--in its music, in its architecture and in its politics--not unlike that of the plant life in a jungle. To be a successful reporter in New Orleans is to recognize that everything is on its way to becoming something else. What's critical, says "Oceans of Trouble" project editor Tim Morris, is "the sophisticated understanding of the forces that are constantly at work so that nothing is exactly what it seems to be."

Despite its international undergirding and Mardi Gras reputation, New Orleans is, in its own way, among the most provincial of all Southern cities, with a separateness embraced by the locals and misunderstood everywhere else.

A MOSS CLEARLY DID NOT SEE winning prizes as a game. Rather, it became the centerpiece of a philosophy of news coverage that has won him widespread admiration inside and outside the newsroom. Projects would emerge not from a hat containing possible prize-winning topics but from the newspaper's daily coverage. And in New Orleans, there is no dearth of material.

From the beginning of his political career, the New Orleans Times-Picayune waged war on former Ku Klux Klan member David Duke. Walt Handelsman chose to submit only his best David Duke cartoons for contests in 1991 and earned a Sigma Delta Chi award.

In a state thought of as one of America's most polluted, reporter Mark Schleifstein and then-special projects editor James O'Byrne produced "Louisiana in Peril" in 1991. The four-part series drew together the connections between the state's chemical industry, water and hazardous waste pollution and the disappearance of the seemingly boundless wetlands. The series was a Pulitzer finalist in 1992.

In a state with a history of epic political corruption, the paper pinpointed the politicians and companies that positioned themselves to profit from the legalization of gambling in the five-part "Stacking the Deck" in 1994 and the "connivance" of state bureaucrats in allowing for-profit hospitals to use political connections to siphon federal money in the three-part "Medicaid Madness" in 1995.

Peter Nicholas, 35, who is now with the Philadelphia Inquirer and who played a key role in "Stacking the Deck," had heard the "sleeping giant" complaints about the Times-Picayune from colleagues. Nicholas says he put his trust in Amoss and found the reality quite different.

"There was a sense from the start that we were going to be given running room and the institutional support to take the time to step back, investigate and to make stories as good as they could possibly be," Nicholas says. "The Picayune, to its credit, harnessed its talent for stories that arose organically from a very fertile territory for news. They didn't wake up one morning and decide to do a series. They sprang from beat reporting. The gambling series was an example of that."

At lunch on the second floor of Commander's Palace, one of the finest in a city of outstanding restaurants, Schleifstein recalled that "Oceans of Trouble" began as a computer note to himself to check on the state of the Gulf of Mexico fishery. Although an environmental reporter by training, it was Schleifstein's facility with investigative reporting techniques that kept him on various project teams, says Tim Morris, his "Oceans" editor.

Schleifstein had learned an environmental lesson from Louisiana chef Paul Prudhomme, who began a nationwide Cajun and Creole food craze a decade ago with his recipe for blackened redfish. So wild was the demand for red drum and redfish, restrictions had to be placed on their catches in the gulf. Added to that was Schleifstein's anecdotal evidence of fast-disappearing wetlands and other research. He returned to editors with the warning of a gulf fishery exhausted in 20 years.

The series would take 15 months and carry the reporting and photographic team to Japan and Thailand. In eight parts and 56 pages it reported on the world's overfished waterways, warned of the dangers of widespread pollution and questioned the very future of aquaculture. At the same time it challenged some doomsday assumptions and outlined potential solutions.

When Morris approached Amoss, not without trepidation, about going overseas, the editor's response was an unequivocal yes.

"What this paper does, better than most, I think, is recognize that the best stuff we've ever done is to seize on the ideas of reporters and have the editors do the predictable kinds of placement of artillery," Kovacs says. "Reporters here want the editors to reconstitute the newsroom when necessary to make sure that gets done."

This, more than anything else, illustrates the Amoss management style--the passion for and commitment to excellence coupled with a trust in his staff so explicit it can seem like detachment. It's not. The National Press Foundation this year gave Amoss the George Beveridge Award as editor of the year, honoring a body of work done by the newspaper since his ascension in 1990.

Cognizant of the damage done by the merger, Amoss takes pains to accommodate constituencies throughout the newspaper, says Dan Shea, whose title, like Kovacs', is managing editor for news. Amoss expresses concern for the morale of his news staff and exhibits a flair for finding, promoting and deploying good editors. He has a remarkably amicable relationship with Publisher Ashton Phelps Jr., according to Shea.

"I like to say that he reigns rather than rules. The only time I have ever heard Jim Amoss speak in the imperative, in command language, is over turf," Shea says. "I can't fool you, there are occasional battles internally about how things get done. But it is clear Jim does not like turf battles."

Those who have worked with Amoss describe a man of modesty, intellectual rigor and gentility, qualities not commonly attached to managers in the newspaper business but peculiar to New Orleans. Or rather, to a way of living in an idealized New Orleans.

Baquet, 40, considers Amoss a great editor and his best friend. He is the godfather of Amoss' eldest child. Their professional relationship was forged during an investigation of Carlos Marcello, once the city's organized crime kingpin. Nine years Baquet's senior, Amoss acted as a mentor, showing Baquet his way of seeing New Orleans as both a journalist and a romantic.

"He is of the city, in his love of the culture, the food, the art, all of the things natives take for granted," Baquet says. "He is also someone who lived elsewhere for a long time, which allows him to appreciate those things in a different way. But because he's a journalist first, I think it allows him to do the hard things he believes are necessary for a city he loves."

If Amoss is critical of his newspaper's past, he will say only that its daily coverage was plagued "by an endless succession of peaks and valleys." To eliminate the valleys, he has given a lengthy tether to an excellent team of editors, all of whom were aboard, with the exception of Shea, when he assumed the top job. The editor at the Times-Picayune is a setter of priorities that everyone must strive mightily to satisfy, Amoss says.

"There is a false hypothesis that the Times-Picayune was floundering until Jim Amoss took over," he says. "When I took over from Charlie Ferguson this was a paper that was sure of its mission and already had in place a substantial number of the building blocks to carry it out."

W HILE AMOSS DELEGATES CREDIT as easily as he does authority, people inside and outside the newspaper agree that, without him, "Together Apart," the series on race that ran over six months in 1993, almost certainly would not have been undertaken. What began with sensitivity training to redress inequities in the treatment of minority and female employees became an unprecedented series of stories, "the most difficult story the Times-Picayune has ever undertaken to tell," Amoss and Phelps wrote in a letter to readers.

The first attempt to launch the series collapsed, Amoss says, "in a sullen, angry silence." Amoss admits that the newsroom was forced to confront a racial divide many staffers might not have believed existed. While far from addressing all of the problems, the sensitivity sessions allowed the newspaper to begin work.

In one remarkable centerpiece segment, James O'Byrne found three New Orleans men, one of them white, one black and one Creole (or of mixed ancestry) with a common ancestor. Theirs was a story spanning the history of race relations in New Orleans from the mid-1600s. Even more remarkable was the painstaking history that served as an unflinching indictment of the newspaper's own coverage of race throughout its 160-year existence.

The Times-Picayune followed 105 pages of text with 58 pages of comments transcribed from more than 1,000 public comments on the series. Deborah Howell, Newhouse's Washington bureau chief, says Amoss recognized as perhaps no other editor of the Times-Picayune before him the unique importance of the black community to the city of New Orleans.

Mulling it over at breakfast at the four-star Windsor Court hotel, Amoss says the series may have been the paper's finest moment. He still cannot believe it was not a Pulitzer finalist that year.

"The calls we received were extraordinary testimonials of gut-searing honesty," he says. "It was such a marvelous spectrum of human emotion. Some thought it would never end, that it was much too much. Some thought it didn't go far enough." Unfortunately, Keith Woods, the black city editor who, as much as any one staffer, acted as the conscience of the series, left to join the faculty of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. A considerable bit of momentum in the paper's diversity movement was lost when Woods left, Amoss admits.

Lolis Eric Elie, 34, a colorful peripatetic whose father, Lolis Edward Elie, was the attorney for many key figures in the city's civil rights movement, has attempted to assume a leadership role through his column. "Being, quote-unquote, black middle class in this city, which I was, I wanted to bring a particular interpretation and vision of the city," Elie says, "to try to make a coherent whole of all the disjointed pieces that make up New Orleans. But I also have a special responsibility to speak out for black people who could not speak out for themselves."

In this area, the Times-Picayune has a distance to travel, Elie says. Look at the blanket (some staffers say excessive) coverage of Mardi Gras and you will find subtle differences in play of stories about Rex, considered in the white community to be the culmination of the annual and defining pre-Lenten celebration, and Zulu, a parade that occupies the same place in the black community, Elie says.

Ed Tunstall, the editor who stepped aside for Ferguson but stayed with the paper until retiring in 1992, laments what he sees as the general malaise that comes from a newspaper monopoly. Tunstall, 72, now a professor of communications at the University of New Orleans, says the slavish devotion to graphics and big projects has caused local coverage to suffer.

"I'm not particularly impressed by them winning the Pulitzer," Tunstall says. "Hell's bells, it's like bad pie with meringue on top. But they're the only girl in town and you gotta dance with her, I'm afraid."

Even Ferguson, who counts projects and analysis among the strengths of the current Times-Picayune, admits that he thought incremental reporting on government and on education had diminished over time.

On the contrary, Amoss says the incremental reporting produced every day by the paper's seven local bureaus, as well as by the staff in the main newsroom, has been the springboard to the Pulitzer Prize.

"If I have made any effort in one direction," he says, "it would be predominantly toward making us a stronger local newspaper."

Meanwhile, talks of the next major series are going on all of the time, although by early June one had not yet been launched in 1997. Terri Troncale, deputy editorial page editor, says she believes in the importance of finding a project that's right for the Times-Picayune.

Troncale was an assignment editor for the Orlando Sentinel when it won its first Pulitzer in 1988 and an editorial writer at the Birmingham News when it won in 1991. Three years later Troncale was part of an editorial writing team for the News that was a Pulitzer finalist. Four months after coming to the Times-Picayune, the paper won its first two prizes.

"I told people here I was their lucky charm," Troncale says. "Seriously, there is a value in winning. It is an affirmation of the good work we've been doing, a confirmation of what we knew about ourselves. And instead of wondering how do we top this, it's more like, now anything is possible."

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