Does the Picayune’s Fate Portend the Future of Dailies?


A version of this story ran in the September 2012 issue.

It’s the kind of thing that almost no one would notice. That, in and of itself, is part of a welling media problem. In New Orleans, the clerk of the Civil District Court, Dale Atkins, quietly released a mid-summer memo with this news tucked inside it:

“The Clerk of the Civil District Court’s Office has selected Gambit as its official journal for all advertisements required to be made in relation to judicial proceedings. Beginning August 1, 2012, all advertisements required to be made in relation to judicial proceedings for the Clerk’s Office shall be placed in Gambit.”

Atkins was telling the public that those small ads written in confusing legalese—and that are often found in the very back of newspapers—will be running in the alternative Gambit newspaper instead of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Atkins announced that he was motivated, in part, by what might prove to be the real canary-in-the-coal-mine moment for mainstream newspapers in America. He said his decision, a financial knife in the back of the already staggering Times-Picayune, was guided by the fact that there is going to be a “reduction in the number of times the paper would be printed.”

Come October 1, the historic Times-Picayune—the paper that won Pulitzer Prizes for its courageous coverage during and after Hurricane Katrina—is scheduled to cease being a daily newspaper. Newspaper executives announced plans earlier this year to cut back publication to just three days a week. If that happens it will be a watershed moment in American journalism, and could become the tipping point for the nation’s large dailies. (Never mind that staffers at the Times-Picayune first learned about this when they read an article in The New York Times.)

Publishers everywhere, including Texas, are watching closely. The Austin American-Statesman—which rarely receives reassurances from its owner, Cox Media Group—must be studying the impact of slicing its seven-day-a-week publication schedule, cutting the print-centric staff and coalescing around its online operations in tech-friendly and tech-savvy Austin. If there were one place in Texas where the financial planners might want to go all-in on an online-only operation, it would be Austin.

Meanwhile, the executive overseeing the changes in New Orleans for Advance Publications, which owns the Times-Picayune, told the excellent media reporters at Poynter Online that he wasn’t concerned with “how many days we publish but how well we cover the community.” That sounds noble but it probably rings extremely hollow to the hundreds of staffers who have been forced out, or will be forced out, of the Times-Picayune because of publication cutbacks.

One Times-Picayune staffer has described the retrenching into the online operation as doubling down on an unproved bet—a gamble with livelihoods … and a public’s need for daily news. Not to mention that we are talking about New Orleans, a city that can shift on a dime, and that is often home to more human and natural disasters than many places in America. New Orleans (hell, the entire state of Louisiana) practically exists as a poster child for the need to have daily, constant, vigorous, intensive investigative and explanatory journalism.

A few folks in The Big Easy are howling in the face of the storm. The colorful owner of the local football and basketball teams offered to buy the paper but was basically told it was not for sale. Various citizen kings, community leaders, academics and artists have formed groups to lodge protests with Advance. You know people are pissed when both Mary Matalin and James Carville have joined the protest.

There have even been vague rumblings about big players ironically canceling even more advertisements in the paper unless Advance agrees to cancel plans to leave New Orleans without a daily newspaper. So far, it doesn’t look like any of the moves has gained momentum.

Finally, some enlightened souls have suggested that Advance could have split the difference—keep some semblance of the daily print operation alive, but stripped down to the necessary essentials: hard news and investigative packages. That’s the type of reporting that really changes lives, that people need to see in paper, in their hands.

Instead, Advance appears to be staying the course. And it might not be too long before publications in Texas make the same mistake.