New Orleans: A 24/7 city with a 24/3 newspaper

 

A month ago, when Ricky Mathews declared breathlessly on behalf of the Newhouse family that New Orleans would become a major league city with a minor league newspaper, I did some channel surfing on the morning news.

This was eight hours after the New York Times had broken the story on its website May 23 that The Times-Picayune, after serving the community every day for more than 175 years, would scale down its printed publication schedule to three days a week – Wednesday, Friday and Sunday – and beef up its “digital” delivery of information in a town where one third of the population has limited or no access to the Internet.

Incredibly, on a day when news broke that a major social institution, still running a comfortable profit, was going in for an elective, double amputation, the TV coverage that should have been sober, expansive and explanatory qualified as a YouTube yuck fest.

One channel showed the video-gone-viral of a dog driving a car.

Flip the channel. Three local anchors with goofy grins engaged in what used to be called unscripted “happy talk.” Behind them on the screen was video from London of Big Ben, which was to be renamed Queen Elizabeth Tower in honor of the monarch’s 60-year reign.

The anchors looked at each other and, as if on cue, intoned one by one: “Bong! … Bong! … Bong!”

Flip the channel. There was the latest clip on “American Idol,” which in the TV biz is the practice of using a local affiliate to shamelessly cross-promote a network prime time show. Driving eyeballs to a moneymaking show is big business, but it’s not news.

And now, in a south Louisiana culture of cash-and-carry politicians and dog-driving-car-loving voters, the neutering of a robust watchdog organization such as The Times-Picayune diminishes the common good and democracy itself.

The human carnage – 200 staff members, one-third of the company’s payroll, jettisoned from their jobs as of Sept. 30 – is enormous. These are people of modest means with mortgages, car notes and tuition to pay, and their value to an informed society, like that of teachers, is disproportionate to their pay grade.

Aside from that human pain, the saddest reality is that this was the wrong battle at the wrong time waged by a corporate entity that views the outrage of a revived community as just another speed bump en route to maximizing profits.

It is homogenized management via satellite – what’s good for one community is good for all.

No one needs an Excel spreadsheet to acknowledge that the day will come when daily newspapers no longer need presses to fulfill their mission. But that time is not here yet in New Orleans.

The Times-Picayune reportedly makes about $66 million in print advertising and $6 million in web advertising every year – an 11-to-1 ratio that belies the Newhouses’ rush to throw out print and anoint its digital heir. The digital product will emphasize sports and entertainment and track reporters’ success and job approval based on the number of “hits” their stories attract.

Get ready for streaming video of P. Diddy and Snooki, because those cultural icons drive the needle. Sob stories, the ones longer than 300 words, about bad prisons and cash in freezers make even the most energetic mouse cold and lethargic.

New Orleanians don’t like to be told, “Tough, get over it.” Especially since Katrina, we have long memories and fierce loyalties. Many print advertisers who have spent a fortune on the T-P in the past may not want to spend a penny going forward on a tone-deaf media company.

What happens then to the new digital company when those multiple millions are directed elsewhere? What’s half of $66 million? That’s a whole lot of mouse clicks.

The ultimate loser is the citizen. When a daily newspaper cannot find a workable business model to pay for its bread-and-butter newsgathering, we are left with Vinnie sitting on his sofa, with a laptop, commenting anonymously on the state of the City Council.

Welcome to the minors.

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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