Friday, June 22, 2012

Save The Clock Tower, or in this case, The Still-Great, Culturally-Significant Local Newspaper

Comedian Eddie Izzard once joked at the beginning of his stand-up routine in America: "I grew up in Europe... you know, where the history comes from."

He then went on to poke fun at how Americans consider anything over 50 years old to be "historic": "No, surely not, no. No one was alive then."

It was quite the effective comedy bit.  Very British.

But when one thinks about that, that is not quite so funny.

Recently, Advance Publications made the announcement that the 175-year old New Orleans daily newspaper The Times-Picayune would move to a mostly digital format that would decrease printed publication to 3-days a week.  And all hell broke loose...

The reason given to the up-in-arms city is that the Publisher looked down the road and saw an "economic doomsday" on the horizon.

The Facts:
- The Times-Picayune, by the admission of the publisher, remains a profitable newspaper.
- The TP has the "highest rate of readership by population of any major US city", according to
- It is estimated that newspapers "still typically get 70% of revenue from print advertising" as opposed to online ad revenue.  (McClatchy)
- In what Esquire magazine called "one of the greatest sustained performances in the history of American newspapers", the TP's post-Hurricane Katrina coverage kept the city informed and alert, while also breaking a story on the corruption and devastating violence perpetrated by the New Orleans Police Department that eventually earned the newspaper a Pulitzer Prize.

The above facts alone should indicate what Advance Publications already knows: The Times-Picayune is just fine.

What they may not be aware of, is this:

New Orleanians are unlike any other citizens anywhere in this country.  Sure, very often New Orleans (NOLA) makes the news for all the wrong reasons.  Having grown up there, though, I can tell you that by-and-large the people of NOLA are some of the most unique, thoughtful and generous people that walk the earth today.  By nature, the cajun attitude is about family and friendship- not to mention the comfort that its famous cuisine instills.  It took me a long time (and moving to Los Angeles for work) to realize it, but NOLA was an amazing place to grow up... and it's a place to which I would readily return.  And that is a sentiment shared by many.  Even here in Los Angeles, people crowd a bar in Hollywood called "504" (the NOLA area code) to get even a small taste of what they had back home.  New Orleans is a place you can be "proud to call home." 

These qualities, however, have a side effect.  We New Orleanians have our traditions.  We love our Saints... we've always loved our Saints.  As a matter of fact, I believe the Saints organization means more to NOLA residents than any other football team does to its own.  Challenge a Saints fan on that claim.  Go ahead, I dare you.

We love our food.  We love our Mardi Gras. And Jazz Fest.  Our music.  Our culture.  Our crawfish boils.  Our language (this is a tame version).

We love our pirogues and our muffulettas.  Oh, don't know what those are?  Well, you just gonna have to hurry up and tell somebody (more NOLA slang).

We also love our Times-Picayune.  Now pay attention... the Times-Picayune is more than a newspaper.  Does it have the same grand style of the New York Times? No.  Does it have the same hard-hitting insight that made The Washington Post famous?  Not really.  But The Times-Picayune successfully represents the New Orleans people.  It informs us from the perspective of being one of us.  In addition to being a light for a city in dark times like post-Katrina, it also has become a record of a culture that does not exist anywhere else in the world.  Cotillions, debutante balls, Mardi Gras balls... not many other places still practice such things.  And NO ONE does it like New Orleans.

Does any city have a music scene as unique and varied as New Orleans?  Even the theatre scene is alive and well, and in true New Orleanian fashion- diverse. NOLA is part cultural mecca, part good ol' red blooded Southeastern American city and part capital of industry.  If ever a city could be said to have character, it is NOLA.  And as such, we like to sit down in the mornings with our chickory coffee and keep up with this treasure of a city by reading The Times-Picayune.  In print.  At our tables. So the kids can read the comics, dad and son can read about the Saints together and mom and daughter can keep up with the Boudreauxs- all at the same time.

As for me, the first thing I do when I land in NOLA (and the last thing before I leave), is pick up a hard copy of The Times-Picayune.

So, in short... the followers of The Times-Picayune like it just the way it is.

The Ramifications:
The publisher asserts that moving to a digital format will do nothing to hurt the readership or the people of NOLA:

- Recently, The Times-Picayune- or more accurately Advance Publications- fired 48% of The TP staff. Loyal staff. Beloved staff.  One member of the staff had been working for The TP for 4 decades and wasn't even invited to be an occasional contributing columnist.
- 53.8% of the African-American work force of The TP was fired... in a city that is a majority African-American.  (By the way... Advance Publications fired almost 100% of the African-American staff of another newspaper under its control, The Birmingham News.  Notice a trend?)
- According to a 2010 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 36% of people in NOLA have no internet in their homes.  And of these 36%, I would bet a hefty majority of them belong to the same group of the population that is most at-risk of being affected by scandals involving police corruption and post-Katrina violence, not to mention who also live in flood-prone areas of the city (namely The Lower Ninth Ward).

The Reaction:
- Mayor Mitch Landrieu: The scale-back of a successful newspaper like The Times-Picayune and firing of its staff makes New Orleans look like "a minor league city."
- The president of the NOLA city council has called it "totally unacceptable."
- "To think of not having a daily print edition saddens me, " U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said in a statement.  "It's journalists' dedication and professionalism that have made our civic, business and education institutions stronger, more transparent and honest."
- Rallies have been held to show the publishers how much support daily publication has.   How many other cities would do such a thing?
- An Open Letter from various upstanding members of the business and philanthropic communities has been published urging a stop to this decision.

As you can see, the only people who seem to want (or will benefit from) the change in publication of The Times-Picayune is the New Jersey-based Advance Publications.

Which makes me wonder:  why can't we just leave well-enough alone?  At what point was it decided that America had to be a place where everything has to be changed and updated?  Why did movie theaters, for example, have to go from being beautiful monuments of past architectural style  (like the Regency Fairfax in Los Angeles) to structures doomed for condominium development?   Why does "old" seem to constantly necessitate desecration?

As one can is most certainly aware if he or she has ever logged onto any of the various online news sources, stories are changed, updated and edited many many times before they are considered finished... but not before they are published.  One of the strongest arguments in support of printed news is that it requires a level of scrutiny that online news does not.  In an industry made great by such figures as Ben Bradlee, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, is journalistic integrity no longer of value to us?

And finally, I don't know about you but I do not want to spend my entire life looking at a screen.  But that seems to be where we are headed... movies, computers, television. Even BOOKS are on a screen. And now, it appears, we are going to have to turn to a screen of some form in order to get our news.  Suddenly, all those Ray Bradbury stories seem a bit more realistic, don't they?  In my humble opinion, if there was a ever a trend to stop it is the current mandate that new technology eradicate all former methods.  In the majority of cases, it is for the best that what is new overtakes what is old... but not always.

The most brilliant quote in all the "Save The Times-Picayune" editorials I've read came from Charles P. Pierce of Esquire:   "Gutting a profitable newspaper in a city like New Orleans is the functional equivalent in an information sense of lining up to piss into a reservoir. The main reason that newspapers are failing in this country is that they are being set up to fail by publishers who think like hedge fund cowboys, and by editors who think like corporate officers."

The current creed of the industry is that The News is supposed to make people insanely rich. I suppose we have William Randolph Hearst, Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch to thank for that.  A harsh truth about humanity is that we have become a species that values money, and this value wins out more often than not when matched against even the noblest of opponents such as truth. But, at the end of the day, we live in a world where news is a necessity.  We HAVE to know what is going on in this interconnected, fast-moving world around us.  And when companies like Advance Publications have no interest in what the people want or need- when they have no interest in the greater good... to whom will we turn?

If there is one city whose residents deserve to be heard, it is New Orleans.  If there is one city that does not like (and should not be forced) to have its traditions changed, it is New Orleans.  Why should it?  Residents are proud of their city despite its struggles.  It is a place unlike anywhere else in the United States and that's just the way the citizens of NOLA want it.

Save The Times-Picayune.

How can you help? Here are some ways.

Save The Picayune- Facebook
Save The Picayune- Twitter Petition to Save The TP
Support dashTHIRTYdash - the TP Employee Assistance Fund (these are the folks behind the Times-Picayune, and the future of journalism in New Orleans)