The Big Easy's Hometown Paper

As of this fall, I'll be living in the largest American city without a daily paper. The Newhouse-owned New Orleans Times-Picayune's announcement on Thursday that the print edition will be downsized to three days per week—Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays—was a surrender to the digital age even the staff didn't see coming, not to mention a bellwether moment for the newspaper biz nationwide.  No doubt, we won't be the last. 

It did feel like a kick in the chops to be singled out, though.  I mean, jeez: Katrina, the BP oil spill,  Bountygate and now this. From Mother Nature to corporate America to the goddam NFL to corporate America coming back for seconds, do we really have to be everybody's plaything? We already know we're special, believe me.  Don't need the rest of you piling on. 

Mind you, my wife and I are post-Katrina newbies who didn't move here until 2010. But it didn't take us long to start saying "we," because that's what New Orleans does to people.  And after a lifetime of the magisterial NYT and the downright sarcophagal WaPo, it didn't take us long at all to dote on the Times-Picayune's stubborn, scrappy local priorities and Katrina-galvanized importance to the city's proudly chauvinistic identity. One thing you learn fast about life in NOLA is that every relationship here is intimate, definitely including the one between the T-P and the community it serves, annoys, clucks at and celebrates in about equal measure. 

It also says a lot that the paper still runs at a profit, making the Newhouse chain's decision smack of cynicism even more than it would anyway. Though subscriptions have dropped by almost half since Katrina, partly owing to the city's much reduced population after the storm, the T-P still has one of the highest market penetrations of any big-city newspaper, reaching between 65 percent (so says  Poynter) and an incredible 75 percent (so says the NYT) of residents in some form. 

As for the digital age's thrills, they're less widely shared here than a lot of places. As of 2010, over one out of three New Orleanians still didn't have Internet access.  So much for serving the community, right? 

In other words, even if  the cutback ends up predicting the fate of a lot of big-city dailies, it probably didn't need to happen here, at least not yet. Nor did it need to happen to a paper with a 175-year-old lineage, two Pulitzer Prizes for its Katrina coverage, a clutch of terrific writers from op-ed columnist Jarvis DeBerry to Saints columnist Jeff Duncan—that and not "sports columnist," by the way, is Duncan's official title, rubbing it in for the rest of us that he's got the best job in the world—and a vital klaxon role to play in a city whose police and other official corruption is as legendary as its murder rate. 

Just last week, as if determined to go out in style, the T-P ran an extraordinary eight-part investigative series on the horrors of Louisiana's for-profit prison system and the draconian sentencing rules that help keep the jails packed.  If the series was meant as Pulitzer bait—and it probably was—a lot of great reporting owes its existence to the same motive.  It also drove DeBerry, who normally tempers a disgust with racism's blights that otherwise might overwhelm him, to write one of the angriest sentences I've ever read in a big-city paper:  "Black bodies are the coal being shoved into the furnace."  If it were up to me, he'd cop a Pulitzer for that line alone. 

And yes, I know: the world moves on. This is a bummer, not a crime. You've read laments like mine before, and odds are you'll read plenty more like them in years to come.  If anything, I'm less of an Internet Luddite than a lot of my print-rooted colleagues, but forgive me for feeling down in the dumps anyway. Decades ago, when I lived in L.A., my favorite newsstand at the corner of Cahuenga and Hollywood sported a sign I loved: "Hometown Papers," it proclaimed, saying oodles about L.A.'s nature as a city people come to instead of being from.  Made me wistful, too, since I couldn't pick up a hometown paper of my own; calling the WaPo that would just be silly.  Imperfect, frustrating, and endlessly cherishable, the Times-Picayune was the first I ever had.

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