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From AJR,   June/July 2012  issue

An Important City without a Daily Paper   

As New Orleans’ Times-Picayune cuts back to three times a week, what are the ramifications? Thurs., May 24, 2012.


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

If ever a city needed a vibrant journalistic presence, it's New Orleans.

Even before Katrina, that wonderful, endlessly fascinating city was plagued by a wide array of serious social problems, problems that required deep scrutiny from the press.

After Katrina, as a shrunken city struggles to rebuild, powerful accountability journalism is more important than ever.

So it's hardly encouraging that the Crescent City's Times-Picayune, the Newhouse-owned paper that performed so heroically in the wake of the storm and its tragic aftermath, will only come out three days a week, and that staff cuts lie ahead.

But just how bad this development is will depend on the details.

After New York Times media reporter David Carr broke the news Wednesday night, Times-Picayune Publisher Ashton Phelps Jr. announced Thursday that starting this fall the paper will come out just three days a week: Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Newhouse is creating a new entity, NOLA Media Group, which Phelps described as a "digitally focused company that will launch this fall and that will develop new and innovative ways to deliver news and information to the company's online and mobile readers."

There are also cutbacks in the offing, although Phelps gave no details as to how steep they might be. Gambit, a New Orleans alternative weekly, reported that the staff "will immediately be whacked by at least a third (from 150 to 100 or fewer reporters)."

The reconfiguration, of course, is not occurring in a vacuum. As newspaper circulation continues to drop, as people increasingly get their news digitally, it's not surprising that some dailies are becoming less than daily.

"The idea that print could contract or, in some cases, be eliminated, it's not a theoretical question anymore," media consultant Alan Mutter told AJR's Caitlin Johnston last year.

In fact, Newhouse has been at the forefront of the less-than-daily movement. Three years ago, its Ann Arbor News became a Web-first news outlet with just two print editions a week. Earlier this year, it reduced home delivery at four of its other Michigan properties to three days a week, an approach that had adopted by Gannett's Detroit Free Press and MediaNews' Detroit News in 2008.

Newhouse also announced Thursday that it is reducing the frequency of its three Alabama papers to three days a week.

Part of the rationale for scaling back frequency is to eliminate editions with relatively little advertising. The ones that remain are the most lucrative. And while print advertising continues to decline, it still provides the lion's share of newspaper revenue, as online advertising has been a major disappointment. (See Paul Farhi's prophetic AJR piece on that subject from 2007.)

But the key to the future in New Orleans isn't how often the old print product is published, but what is published in it (and, of course, on its Web site, NOLA.com).

One good sign is that Jim Amoss, the respected editor of the Times-Picayune, will remain (according to Phelps' memo, Amoss will run the "combined content operation of NOLA Media Group").

Phelps says the Times-Picayune will publish a "more robust newspaper" on the days it comes out. If that's the case, if the papers and NOLA.com are chock full of terrific reporting (like the ambitious series on Louisiana's prisons the Times-Picayune recently produced), then this isn't the end of the world. What matters is the quality of the journalism, not the platform on which it is delivered.

But is that going to happen? An amped-up, round-the-clock digital presence requires more manpower and womanpower. If the cuts are as severe as Gambit suggests, that means far fewer people to handle the demands of the Web site and those three robust issues each week. And serious enterprise reporting takes a serious commitment of resources.

The Times' Carr reports that the paper's two managing editors will be leaving. If the new news operation is a stripped-down shell without experienced leaders, that's not good.

Another worrisome sign: The recently redesigned NOLA.com hardly seems like a bastion of public service journalism.

If the radical restructuring in New Orleans results in a healthier news operation committed to real journalism, everybody wins.

But if it's simply a way to cut costs and emphasize link bait at the expense of public service journalism in a city that so desperately requires it, it's a true tragedy – and a disgrace.