NOLA and the Case of the Disappearing Daily

New Orleans is the 51st most populated city in the United States. Maybe I’m a purist, but that fact alone should assure a well-written, well-funded daily newspaper. When The Ann Arbor News made the shift from print to AnnArbor.com – mind you in a considerably smaller market – there were many who expressed their displeasure.  Of the 250+ people employed by the newspaper as of the announcement of the paper’s closing, “more than a dozen” were hired for AnnArbor.com. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but that’s not great turnover.

The owners of New Orleans’ Times-Picayune, an award-winning publication in print for the
last 175 years, are floating a similar plan. The Newhouse family and Advance Publications plan to lay off a large portion of the paper’s employees, begin publishing just 3 days a week
this fall, and operate primarily under the digital outfit, NOLA.com. For such a large market, this sort of production schedule is unprecedented, and came as quite a shock to both the Times-Picayune employees and the city of New Orleans.

It’s hard to argue that the business model of print journalism is a highly successful one in this digital age. But that doesn’t mean major cities should start down the path of abolishing their historically successful dailies. Newspapers matter. It’s hard to quantify their impact on public life, but there is much research being conducted that indicates there is evidence – such as lower voter turnout in communities without papers – to support the notion that newspapers make a difference in their communities, even as the industry struggles in a radically changing media environment and hard-pressed economic conditions.

The point, made well by Emily Badger in The Atlantic, is that when a city wants to keep their newspaper, and financial backers emerge who will support the daily format (see: Saints’ owner Tom Benson) – how can the Newhouse family justify holding the paper hostage?

Sure, if these financial backers wanted to start their own print daily, they could. But would it be the same? Imagine the Chicago Tribune or the New York Times shifting to a digital only format. Would citizens trust a brand new daily newspaper over a publication that’s been in print for over a century? The Times-Picayune is New Orleans’ paper, and the community has voiced their desire to keep it that way. One can argue that the Newhouse family owns the paper and can do with it as they please, but in my humble opinion, a community’s daily paper does, in some larger sense, belong to the community. One family should not be able to destroy something others hold dear.

Time Magazine in 2009 offered the sobering assessment that “it is now possible to contemplate a time when some major cities will no longer have a newspaper and when magazines and network-news operations will employ no more than a handful of reporters.” Three years later, that time seems to have arrived. I know many people, myself included, consume their news digitally – online, on their iPads, their mobile phones – but there’s something about a print newspaper that a great deal of the population still appreciates. I may read the bulk of my news online, but I would still find Chicago without The Trib to be a foreign place.

I hope the citizens of New Orleans’ voices are heard – that the Newhouse family comes to their senses and sells to someone like Tom Benson who has the city’s best interest at heart – but the sustaining questions remain: Can newspapers survive under their current business model? Will newspaper owners do anything to curb their decline, or will they simply allow print dailies to fade into the digital format? And most importantly, does it even matter? For New Orleans, the answer is yes. I have no doubt that other major cities will feel the same.

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