Editor’s Note: This article is written by Matthew Rozsa and Cady McClain
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans seven years ago, 80% of the Crescent City was buried under water, spanning an area approximately eight times the size of Manhattan. Katrina caused “the largest diaspora in the history of the United States,” driving over 1,000,000 citizens from their homes, many of them for good. Yet as thousands fled for safety, the legendary New Orleans newspaper, the Times-Picayune, stayed put.
As the Times-Picayune Editor-in-Chief Jim Amoss later spoke about reporter James O’Byrne, who found himself on a railroad bridge overlooking his flooded neighborhood, “He stood frozen on the bridge for several minutes as it dawned on him that his house was drowning, that there would be no coming home when this was over. Then he shook himself back into reporter mode, grabbed his pad and continued writing.”
There can be no arguing that during Hurricane Katrina, the Times-Picayune became essential to the community in a way no paper has ever been before or since. Throughout the disaster, New Orleanians found consistent and passionate reporting in both the paper itself and its attendant website, NOLA.com. Residents stuck at the Convention Center latched onto copies of the Times-Picayune like it was their only link to civilization, which in a very real sense it was. Those who had evacuated were able to use NOLA.com as a way to search for lost loved ones and discover the latest information about their homes. An emotional connection was forged between the readers and the Times-Picayune. Indeed, the journalists and reporters who stayed behind from both the Biloxi, Mississippi, Sun-Herald and the Times-Picayune were locals themselves, experiencing the same grief and horror as their readers, often pushing their code of objectivity to the limit.
As a result of what has been described as the “heroic circumstances” of its staff, the privately owned Times-Picayune wound up sharing a Pulitzer Prize with the Biloxi Sun-Herald in 2006 for Public Service, as well as winning another for Breaking News. One would assume that the memories of such laudable actions would linger for years. Instead, the events of the past few months have caused the Times-Picayune to be on the receiving end of some shockingly bitter vitriol.
It all started on May 23rd, when the New York Times reported the Times-Picayune was going to “enact large staff cuts and may cut back its daily print publishing schedule.” Soon it emerged that the Newhouses (the family that owns the Times-Picayune) had brought in a pinch hitter in the form of Ricky Matthews. He was to act as president of the newly created NOLA Media Group to represent the merging of the Times-Picayune and its website NOLA.com. Indeed, the paper was only going to produce three printed copies a week instead of the usual seven while moving more of its content onto to its digital affiliate. The backlash was surprising in its intensity.
“It’s New Orleans’ bad luck that our city has become the latest laboratory for the Newhouse family’s ongoing experiment in digital-age publishing,” wrote the editorial staff at Gambit Magazine, a local publication that could very well reap some of the benefits of any anti-Times-Picayune controversy. Three weeks later various luminaries calling themselves “The Times-Picayune Citizen’s Group” signed a public letter backed by the consortium Greater New Orleans Inc. Their members included James Carville, Mary Matalin, Wynton Marsalis, Cokie Roberts, the presidents of Tulane, Xavier, and Loyola Universities, and Archie Manning (the quarterback and father of Peyton and Eli Manning). The letter urged the Newhouses, “If you have ever valued the friendship you have shared with our city and your loyal readers, we ask that you sell the Times-Picayune” to a group that would continue printing daily editions.
Other responses have been less respectfully worded. Take the comment on the “Save the Picayune” Facebook page insisting that “New Orleanians will wrestle this gator to the ground even if they get bitten.”
Or the incident in which a website called “RickyGoHome.com” created a faux “wanted” poster to denounce and threaten Ricky Matthews.
The website Nolanarcha.com has perhaps been the most alarming. “Unlike the Fifth-Avenue Newhouse’s, Ricky is here. Though he hasn’t had the nuts to show himself in the newsroom, he’s here in town, living it up on the blood money the Newhouse’s have paid him to swing axe. They outbid BP for his services — here he is quaffing drinks at our bars, eating at our restaurants, maybe even walking our streets. Let’s find opportunities to give Ricky Mathews the welcome he deserves.”
One detail many of the critics seem to ignore is that the Times-Picayune is reacting to global trends beyond its control. As Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor and blogger at BuzzMachine.com explained during an online debate with John Griffin, the president of the National Geographic Society’s magazine group, “Media defines themselves by the pipes that feed them but the public does not; we want what we want when, where, and how we want it. The wise media company will be there with us; the stubborn ones will die.” This mentality has been abundantly reinforced by the events of the past few years, in which major metropolitan newspapers from the Baltimore Examiner to the Honolulu Advertiser to the Rocky Mountain News have been closing down. Indeed, entire websites like NewspaperDeathWatch.com have been created for the sole objective of chronicling this phenomenon.
Another point overlooked by the Times-Picayune‘s detractors is that, even as they vaunt their disdain about the pecuniary motives of the Newhouse family, they are playing right into the hands of other businesses who are attempting to capitalize on the Times-Picayune’s plight. On July 23, barely two months after the TP announcement, the Baton Rouge Advocate announced that it would be more aggressively entering the New Orleans market. “We are looking at the day that they (the Times-Picayune) cease to be a seven-day newspaper and I think that’s around the first of October,” said Richard Manship, president and CEO of Capital City Press. Meanwhile, four local online newsrooms –– The Lens, My Spilt Milk, NOLA Defender, and Uptown Messenger –– have united to form the New Orleans Digital News Alliance, which plans on availing themselves of the same cyberspace advantages as the Times-Picayune. Finally, on July 27th, 2012, the Wall Street Journal released the story that “National Public Radio, the University of New Orleans, and a group of business and community leaders” are creating a “nonprofit newsroom to compete against the city’s for-profit newspaper, the Times-Picayune” called NewOrleansReporter.org. In a strange twist, Greater New Orleans Inc., a consortium that is supposed to help instead of hinder innovation, backed both the public letter requesting the Times-Picayune sell its paper and the NPR-backed digital news site. All of these digital news sites are moving forward without the stigma or intense criticism now being attached to the Times-Picayune’s decision and without a print product to burden the bottom line.
It is important to note that seven years after Katrina, despite the tremendous economic recovery of New Orleans, the emotional recovery continues. Stories about the devastation wrought upon homes and lives continue to be a part of daily conversation. It seems fair to consider that some of the stronger reactions to the Times-Picayune controversy might be driven by these disturbing memories. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), certain responses can be a natural reaction to extraordinary events, in essence a byproduct of trauma. “Events that last longer and pose a greater threat, and where loss of life or substantial loss of property is involved, often take longer to resolve. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.”
What also must be considered when analyzing the backlash against the Times-Picayune is the deep attachment and commitment to tradition particular to New Orleans. The city has a deep dedication to its pastimes: its culture of street parades, local sports, local music, and Southern cuisine are steeped in a rich appreciation for its unique history and culture –– a jambalaya (if you will) that draws millions of visitors a year. Theirs is not a dead tradition or some kind of pitch for the tourist to “come back and visit us y’all,” but a genuine way of life, one that the seven-days-a-week Times-Picayune has been a part for over 175 years. In response to the Times-Picayune’s announcement, local writer Jim Gabour expressed succinctly the feelings of many locals by observing, “We are an analogue planet in a digital universe.”
Despite Gabour’s sentiment, the technological revolution has been moving to his neighborhood for a while. In 2000, a company called Idea Village began a mission to “identify, support and retain entrepreneurial talent in New Orleans.” Although not all entrepreneurs work in tech, because of Katrina, hundreds of students who came to help with the recovery effort saw the benefits of starting a tech-based company in the Crescent City and brought their Silicon Valley connections with them. “This whole thing has been very grass roots,” says Tim Williamson, the CEO of Idea Village. “We had MBAs from Stanford, and then those kids went to work for Salesforce.com and Google and now their companies are involved.” By April 2011, Inc. Magazine was calling New Orleans “The Coolest Start Up City in America,” and as recently as June 2012, the Wall Street Journal announced that New Orleans is in the middle of a mini-tech boom. “A metric of technology jobs generated by Moody’s Analytics — a broad category that includes everything from pharmaceutical manufacturers to software publishers — shows New Orleans’s stock of tech jobs grew 19% from October 2005 to April 2012, compared with 3% nationwide.”
The Newhouses’ company, Advance Publications, feels strongly that the future is digital, although they insist they are not planning on getting rid of print. As Randy Siegel (president of local digital strategy at Advance) stated in the American Journalism Review, “We knew that standing still was not an option for us. Not evolving was not going to be a winning strategy. And we’ve watched very closely in all our markets how our readers and advertisers are using digital products and services to get their news and information. For us, this is not about print versus digital. It’s about print and digital, and there’s a huge difference.”
Ricky Matthews picked up where Siegel left off in a June 17th editorial when he explained:
“The number of people who pay for their copy of the Times-Picayune continues to fall while readers have moved in dramatic numbers to the Web for news and information. Our visitors to NOLA.com more than doubled between 2009 and today, going from 2 million visitors to more than 4 million visitors a month. Newspaper advertising revenue continues to decline year after year, as advertisers reduce advertising budgets in response to the challenges of a tough economy, while shifting more and more dollars to a few high-value print days and into digital advertising.”
It isn’t that the Newhouse family has been free from error. Steven Newhouse himself admitted that “some of the criticism was well founded. We could have communicated our decisions more openly and sensitively to our employees, our readers and our communities.”
Indeed, one might question whether it was even necessary at all for the Newshouses to fire 201 of their workers (nearly one-third of their total staff), especially at a time when corporations across the country are being criticized for maintaining the lofty incomes of their own higher-ups while laying off employees and increasing the workloads of those left behind, often at lower salaries. In a city as challenged as New Orleans, these jobs were considered sacrosanct, the journalists almost like priests who during times of crisis had given Holy Communion to a congregation hanging on by a thread.
At the same time, the Times-Picayune’s business interest is ultimately the same as the best interest of the paper itself –– it can’t survive, after all, if it doesn’t make a viable profit –– and there was no way it could make enough money printing seven days a week if its customers continued to turn away from print and toward digital alternatives. It seems fair to surmise that if New Orleanians had been extremely determined to keep the daily print editions alive, they would have bucked national trends and purchased subscriptions at a higher level. Barring that, Newhouse rightly observed that “ignoring the existing trends and insisting on the status quo would have been a recipe for failure, and that only taking small, incremental steps in the face of massive change was also a losing proposition. By taking transformational actions now, painful as some of them are, we have a chance to continue doing what we do best, as publishers, journalists, business partners and community leaders, for decades to come.”
Business, as they say, is business. In any business, the rule is the same: move forward or die. Hopefully, locals will come to accept their city paper is doing what most newspapers across America are being forced to do –– adjust with the times to stay relevant in a changing world –– and be there for the journalistic force that in the worst of times, was there for them. They might also do well to remember those few original reporters that remain at the Times-Picayune may also be feeling the strain of change as they watch long time friends and colleagues lose their jobs. How can they complain if they have mouths to feed and a mortgage to pay, especially in these tough economic times? It seems the best response to critics has come from long time Times-Picayune reporter O’Byrne, now editor-in-chief for NOLA.com. When cornered in his local bar, forced to listen to more outrage from a local about a situation over which he had no control, he had three words that seemed to sum up the whole problem: “Did you subscribe?”