The Times-Picayune, shared ritualistically amongst strangers at New Orleans’ cafes, is on deathwatch. This autumn, its print publication will be cut to three days a week and content for the remaining days will be digitized. Aside from the implications of lost jobs and fewer reported news stories, the reduced publication schedule strikes at the heart of the post-Katrina recovery.
Six (nearly seven) years after Hurricane Katrina and its subsequent federal levee failures, New Orleans has gained national attention as a resilient city on a successful path to recovery and throughout all of it, The Times-Picayune was there to chronicle the good news, as well as the continuing struggles. Among many other critical moments of the recovery, it reported on the Danziger Bridge case against members of the New Orleans Police Department and the rebuilding of the city’s public housing. Recently, the city’s paper of record released a stellar comprehensive investigative series about Louisiana’s prison system, which is the world’s largest prison system and a leader in privatization.
What then does it mean to New Orleans — and cities at-large — when the daily newspaper moves toward extinction? It is certainly more consequential than the easy math of lost jobs and less information; there is also the harder-to-quantify question of collective history and consciousness.
Cities are dynamic places: Neighborhoods change, new shops open and close, people move in and move out. The daily newspaper serves as stalwart observer updating the rest of us on the shuffle. Its headlines and photos punctuate our collective memories — no one present for the Saints 2009 Super Bowl win will forget The Times-Picayune cover exclaiming “AMEN.” Those who were paying attention to New Orleans on Aug. 30, 2005 likely will never forget that immediate post-Katrina morning’s headline: “CATASTROPIC.”
None of this can be measured in a cost-benefit analysis — it’s the city’s spirit and memories that fade when the daily paper goes bust.
Another outcome, this one more tangible and particular to New Orleans, is that the downsizing of The Times-Picayune disrupts the narrative of post-Katrina recovery. This disruption chips away at the image of an ascendant New Orleans. While the nuance of the newspaper’s cuts reveal that its media-giant owner, Newhouse, is simply testing a profit model on a mid-market city rather than making cuts based on on demographics of its readership, that nuance is often lost in transmission.
Despite all that may be lost and damaged when The Times-Picayune does move to three-day-a-week print publishing, there is opportunity for deep and lasting growth that is not yet being considered.
In New Orleans, the lack of broadband access across race and class lines is stark. As reported by the city’s local investigative outlet The Lens:
“[W]ealthy, white Uptown New Orleans has subscription rates of between 80 and 100 percent, and suburban areas…are similarly well served. Meanwhile poorer, more African American areas such as the Lower 9th Ward have broadband subscription rates of between 0 and 40 percent.”
New Orleans policy-makers, business elite, and community organizations should not let this fact be lost in the upset over the shrinking newspaper. Instead, they should use the crisis as an opportunity to implement policies that would move toward broadband access for all residents.
Regardless of The Times-Picyaune’s readership numbers, print publishing is on a downward trend and the digitization of the news is on the upswing. Instead of standing fiercely at the city’s gates, glowering at corporate out-of-towner owners as the future rushes in, the city’s populace should offer a partial olive branch in the form of an offer of collaboration. The shared mission? Broadband access and the democratization of information for all of New Orleans’ residents. There is no saving the dead trees, but this solution could at least save the city from losing a part of its collective brain.