What do we do when a major city's daily paper becomes a zombie?
I was in New Orleans when news broke that the city’s daily newspaper, The Times-Picayune, plans to cut back its printing schedule to three times a week and lay off staff. It was my first time in the city since March, when I moved to Philadelphia after nearly five years there, working as a journalist and sharing the city’s newsbeat with the TP. As you’ve likely heard by now, the news made waves — people fretted, people drank free drinks at the old journo-dive Mollys in the Market, they formed Facebook groups that produced ugly if effective agitprop and organized into citizens groups.
They also penned legislative resolutions urging the newspaper’s owner to maintain the daily.
For me, the news was upsetting, if not altogether surprising; The Times-Picayune is the only daily newspaper in a region of 1.3 million people — and a well-read one at that with an extraordinarily high penetration rate of of 75.5 percent, meaning that three out of four people see the newspaper’s headlines every week, whether they get it delivered to their home, buy it in a newsbox or read at work, their corner bar or beauty parlor. Yet while virtually everyone counts on the TP, that “everyone” constitutes a shrinking pie — New Orleans is one of many American cities significantly smaller now than it was in the recent past.
In 2005, before Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent federal levee failure, the paper recorded a daily circulation of 261,000; in March of this year, the circulation hovered at 132,000, according to The New York Times, which broke the news, stunning the newspaper’s own staff who had not yet been informed by their boss-owners, Advance Publications, owned by the Newhouse family.
As that last fact may suggest, the paper’s owner is its other giant liability — Advance Publications operates primarily not to serve the quarter of a million people who rely on the paper, but to remain profitable in an increasingly inhospitable marketplace challenged by declining advertising revenue and changing reader preferences.
While New Orleans is the first major American city to lose its daily print newspaper, it will likely not be the last. If the last week of announcements of similar cuts in small- to mid-sized cities is any indicator of what is to come, municipal journalism is in for a serious blood bath.
Not even Warren Buffett knows what to do. See his recent letter New Orleans musician Evan Christopher:
Naturally I’ve been following the Times-Pic situation with interest. I don’t know any of the facts on their profitability but was really surprised when they made the announcement. It seems to me that three days a week is simply unsustainable over the longer term. Either a publication is a newspaper or a periodical and I think three days a week crosses the line.
The one thing I’m quite sure of: It would not work to start a competing paper. I have no insight as to whether the Newhouse family would sell the Times-Pic to a local group. They do not have a history of selling anything. That’s something a member of the community should explore. Let me know if you learn more.New Orleans seems to me to be a very strongly defined community and I believe the Times-Pic has high penetration. Therefore, I’m puzzled as to why the economics don’t work on a seven-day basis. But I would have to have the detailed figures to make an analysis.
Warren Buffett (non-musician)
I agree with Mr. Buffett that starting a competing newspaper is not the brightest idea. I also have no idea if Newhouse would sell and kind of doubt that would work out anyway; why sell an asset when you can bleed it lean then continue to wring it for whatever liquidity is left in its emaciated form?
Here is another idea for New Orleans: Invest in a local information provider whose mission is to serve the community, not its bank accounts or shareholders; come together as a community to support a nonprofit media organization whose only interest is serving the community. Fortunately for New Orleans, that organization already exists and it goes by the name of The Lens. (Full disclosure: I helped start The Lens and remain on the organization’s board.)
Not yet three years old, with a full-time staff that can be counted on one hand, The Lens will not replace its much larger 175-year-old colleague. That said, it provides the in-depth, community-based reporting that New Orleans stands to lose as Newhouse divests from the city. Its supporters know that — coincidentally, Open Society Foundations renewed a significant two-year grant to the organization on the same day the news about the TP hit the wires.
But to survive over the long haul, The Lens can’t be wholly reliant on out-of-town foundations, just as New Orleans can’t depend on out-of-town corporate stakeholders to be the sole stewards of their community news. As the Knight Foundation acknowledges with the local match demand in its Community Information Challenge grant program, communities need to understand that news is community infrastructure that must be valued and paid for, just like roads and bridges. Like transportation infrastructure, information is key to mobility — we aren’t going to get where we want to go without information guiding us. Now it’s time to invest in the information infrastructure that operates with public interest, not its bottom-line, as its primary concern.
This story originally appeared on Next American City and is published under a partnership agreement with the site.
Disclosure: Crosscut receives part of its funding from a Knight Foundation Community Information Challenge grant awarded in 2010.