New Orleans, newspapers and the beginning of the end

Posted on May 28, 2012



Newspapers like the New York Times may be piling up revenue from their paywalls, and Warren Buffett may be asserting his undying commitment to the small-town publications he has just acquired, but there continue to be signs that the printing of news on dead trees does not have a great and glorious future — and the latest is the news from Advance Publications that its New Orleans newspaper, the Times-Picayune, will no longer be printed daily. As painful as that decision likely is for the paper and many of its staff, not to mention its print readers, the Times-Picayune is grappling with a reality that almost every newspaper will have to face sooner or later, whether they want to or not.

David Carr of the New York Times broke the news that the paper was considering such a move on Wednesday, and his report was later confirmed by Advance, which said that it was forming a new company to manage both the newspaper and the New Orleans news website NOLA.com and would be letting go an unspecified number of staff, including several senior editors at the Times-Picayune. Instead of being printed daily, the newspaper will now only be available on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.

Who will be the next one to stop publishing daily?

The Times-Picayune isn’t the only newspaper that is making these moves: Advance announced that three of its papers in Alabama will also be moving to a three-day printing schedule instead of being daily, and another paper owned by the company — the Ann Arbor News in Michigan — stopped printing daily in 2009, dropping to just Thursdays and Sundays. But as Carr notes, the change in New Orleans makes that city one of the largest and most significant American centers to be without a daily printed newspaper, and it raises a question that is probably in the back of every newspaper publisher’s mind: who is going to be next? As journalism professor Jay Rosen put it recently:

Printing itself remains important, and a revenue generator. But the newspaper company that is still organized around that act of production is the company whose stock you should short.

Billionaire Warren Buffett has gotten a lot of attention for buying Media General and its 63 publications in a $143-million deal, as though that somehow ensures a bright future for newspapers. But while Buffett says he is committed to the kind of community journalism that the small papers he is purchasing are theoretically known for, he is a businessman first and a newspaper-lover second — and he didn’t say anything about loving print. I don’t think the Berkshire Hathaway billionaire would hesitate for a second to make exactly the kind of moves that the Newhouse family and Advance Publications are making, or even to shut down the printing presses altogether if necessary.

As Hamilton Nolan notes at Gawker, printing news on dead trees doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense when you look at it rationally — at least, not as a way of delivering breaking news or real-time journalism or anything that would benefit from links, video, etc. Will people still read printed newspapers? Of course they will, in the same way that people still go to the theater or listen to the radio. But those industries are no longer the media powerhouses that they used to be, because the majority of their audience has moved elsewhere — and so have advertisers. And that is the printed newspaper conundrum in a nutshell.

A painful transformation that more will face

These financial pressures have led to what Ken Doctor calls a “forced march” towards printing fewer papers, and it is one that has created a hue and cry in the case of the Times-Picayune, in part because of that city’s history: the disastrous floods of 2005, and the havoc they wreaked on New Orleans, is something the region still hasn’t recovered from. The newspaper heroically continued to publish during the disaster — online at least — and became a lifeline for many, although its subscription levels have declined dramatically since. And this is why some are criticizing Advance and its decision so heavily, including one impassioned open letter that says:

Journalists risked their lives for the city they loved and justly received international recognition for their hard work. It was one the finest moments for your media empire. But you are about to turn that victory into a sad defeat. All of that hard work and recognition is going to be flushed away if the daily paper ceases operations.

Is that really true though? Perhaps the audience for the Times-Picayune‘s news will have to adjust, but if anything the example that it provided when it couldn’t publish in print — when the web was the only medium available — suggests that the newspaper could be just as effective, if not more so, although some seem to doubt this. Is it a painful transition to make? Of course it is, and all the more painful for the unknown number of print journalists who will lose their jobs. But the disruption caused by the web and digital media isn’t something that can be held at bay forever, not even by the sandbag strategy of a paywall.

The harsh reality is that printed newspapers are no longer one of the dominant methods of delivering news and information to people, and arguably haven’t been for some time. That doesn’t mean the skills and expertise of journalists who work for those institutions aren’t valuable any more — if anything, they are even more valuable (although they are also facing a lot more competition from things that don’t even look like journalism). But they need to be done in different ways, and a kind of reactionary, fetishistic attachment to printing things on paper is not going to help. As Betaworks CEO John Borthwick put it at paidContent 2012, media companies need to stop fixating on specific containers for information.

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