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VANTAGE POINT

Death Warrant

In a city known for its excesses, The Times-Picayune is a case study in how not to slim down.

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Limited edition: A Mardi Gras Indian.(AP Photo/Bill Haber)

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mistated the name of The Times-Picayune's former food critic.

When the levees broke in 2005 and New Orleans began to fill with water, the staff of The Times-Picayune took flight to Houma, 90 minutes away. If they were going to put out a daily newspaper, they needed working equipment on higher ground. But someone had to cover the descent of my hometown from Bayou idyll to hellscape, so a dozen dutiful staffers—reporters, editors, photographers—hunkered down in a columnist’s uptown house. They chronicled the ensuing agony (the Convention Center) and ecstasy (rooftop rescues). They worked themselves raw. They won a Pulitzer Prize.

 

Next time a hurricane decimates New Orleans—it happens a few times per century—don’t expect these heroics. This week, Advance Publications, the media conglomerate that owns The Times-Picayune, cut the newsroom staff by 49 percent to 89 employees. When the overhaul is complete, the daily will be a Web-first publication that prints thrice weekly. In any town, this development would render hand-wringing. In New Orleans, the reaction is closer to horror. Practically every civic, culinary, religious, and artistic leader has begged Advance to reconsider.

That’s because New Orleans has a special love affair with itself. It’s not just garden-variety civic pride—the self-justifying way people convince themselves that their place is the best place. No, New Orleanians are obsessed with the anachronistic, easy-living, macabre, gluttonous, and jingoistic attributes that make the city what it is. And they’re largely right: The Crescent City is a place of glorious and conflicted weirdness. Impoverished black freedmen gave it music, their former masters gave it Mardi Gras and a love of rituals, and immigrants—Creoles, Cajuns, Italians, French—pitched in cuisine.

The Times-Picayune devoted itself to celebrating those attributes. It distinguished itself by the way it treated its subject—New Orleans—with exactly the right mix of curiosity,  indignation, bemusement, reverence for tradition, hunger for progress, and love that the city deserves. As a local musician put it recently, The Times-Picayune was “the voice of the city.”

 

Yes, I’m writing in the past tense. This isn’t just a journalist’s elegy for his dying industry and the paper he grew up with—although, yes, it’s also that. Just to rehearse the main points for posterity: It is not possible in a greater metropolitan area of 1.2 million people to practice good accountability journalism with just 89 employees. Writers dashing off three Web stories every day will never be able to develop sources, get to know the subjects of their profiles, or spend enough time just observing to tell original stories. Especially when the story they’re trying to tell is as vital and complex as New Orleans.

More prosaically, but even more important, it takes manpower to comb through the jail logs and the City Council budget. Louisiana has a history of political corruption that exceeds even its reputation—a reputation brought to life as much by the enterprising work of investigative reporters as by local prosecutors. Meanwhile, the city faces a social-justice catastrophe: 28 percent of its residents live below the poverty line (more than double the national rate), and its nation-high murder rate is nearly 20 percent above the next-highest city on the list. The Times-Picayune says it will cover these stories, but the cutbacks belie the promise.

I’m not naive about the economics. After Hurricane Katrina, Times-Picayune circulation fell by nearly 30 percent, roughly mirroring the population decline. Although Advertising Age credited the publication with $70.4 million in print and Web ad revenue last year—sources inside the paper say it was profitable—national trends are obvious. (Advance is a family-owned company, so its finances are not public. It did not answer requests for comment.) Like all papers, The Times-Picayune must adapt.

But not this way! The print edition had 65 percent penetration in New Orleans, the fourth-best rate in the country. Now it will publish mostly online in a city where 36 percent of the people don’t have Internet access. Advance says the publication will focus more on sports and entertainment. (So why fire Brett Anderson, the beloved James Beard Award-winning food critic in a city that lives or dies with the fortunes of the food-service industry?) In other words, it will cater to white and wealthy readers in a town that owes its identity to the underclass, which stands to lose its voice.

 

It’s not hard to see Advance’s reasoning. Executives won’t sell the paper, because they can’t fetch a good price; and they don’t think it’s their responsibility to carry losses for the sake of the greater good. Maybe it makes sense to try something radical. Rip off the Band-Aid, right?

Wrong. A family-owned media company (no public shareholders or fiduciary obligations) can weigh other considerations, and in New Orleans there are many. Surely Advance knows that a newspaper is a public asset; it should have recognized that my hometown—beset by worse-than-normal urban pathologies, racing to reverse Katrina’s annihilation—needs one more than anywhere else. Ultimately, the company may be forced to move upmarket. But it could first try this experiment with its properties in, say, Newark, N.J., or Staten Island, both of which have less poverty and more Internet access.

And when the business model no longer works in New Orleans, as it eventually won’t, Advance should make the changes gently: Give readers time to make peace with them, cities time to generate more broadband penetration, and populations time to convert more fully to digital life. Cut publication but not staff, or not so dramatically, or not all at once—anything that prolongs the beautiful “voice of the city.” That, too, has value.

This article appears in the June 16, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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