New Orleans is about to become the most prominent American city without a daily printed newspaper.
This fall, the Times-Picayune, a 175-year-old New Orleans institution known for its Pulitzer-decorated coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, will begin printing its paper edition only three times a week, on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.
The plan, which is to be accompanied by staff cuts and a stronger emphasis on online coverage, was announced yesterday by Advance Publications, the company behind the Times-Picayune, which is owned by the Newhouse family. Reasons for the restructuring include “tremendous challenges in terms of both revenue and the 24-hour news cycle,” Steven Newhouse, Chairman of advance.net, Advance Publication’s digital arm, told The New York Times.
The Newhouse family's is the last major newspaper company to have kept its digital business separate from its print business, noted news industry analyst Ken Doctor on Newsonomics. As part of the planned online expansion, the Times-Picayune and NOLA.com, its website, will be remodeled into a new company, the NOLA Media Group.
“We did not make these changes out of desperation,” Newhouse told the The New York Times; “We have a very strong operation in New Orleans.”
The first part of Newhouse’s statement is difficult to verify. Daily circulation for the Times-Picayune before Katrina stood at 261,000, and by March of this year it had plummeted to 132,000.This is partially attributable to the devastating effect of Katrina upon New Orleans’ population, which according to census data was 71% in 2010 of what it had been before the deadly hurricane. It also fits into a grim trend for paper and ink: data from the Audit Bureau of Circulations shows that papers with a circulation of 25,000 or higher have seen an average drop of 21% in circulation between 2007 and 2012, reported The New York Times. “Everyone knows that print editions are going the way of the steam engine,” wrote Doctor on the subject.
The second part of Newhouse’s statement, however, is corroborated by the figures: the Times-Picayune’s penetration rate is among the nation’s highest, with somehwere between 65% and 75.5% of the city's 340,000-strong population reading the newspaper.
The news they read, however, tends to really be on paper. “It is a profoundly print habit” in New Orleans, wrote Doctor. “How will its readers really adjust to the other four days a week of digital-only, if they’re not strongly digital," he wondered. The “big worry” according to Doctor is that “breaking the daily habit makes newspaper companies far less essential far more quickly.”
This risk is likely to be compounded by patchy broadband access, particularly in the city’s poorer areas. A 2010 Kaiser Foundation report showed that 36% of New Orleans residents do not have Internet access in their homes, reported The New York Times, and a joint investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University published in The Lens in March 2012 revealed that “subscribers to high-speed Internet services in New Orleans are generally white and in the higher income brackets.”
For three days during Hurricane Katrina, the newspaper was unable to publish its print edition, but continued to cover the devastation on its website. Some are hopeful that the increased awareness of the paper’s web presence that stemmed from this period, during which it won two Pulitzer prizes, will help to smooth the transition from an ink- to a link-based publication.
John McQuaid revealed his doubts yesterday on his blog for Forbes: “For more than a decade, Advance Publications…has pursued a web strategy that is only lightly tethered to newsgathering…These sites are not very attractive and are notoriously difficult to navigate," he wrote. "Meanwhile, the newsgathering institutions that provide a lot of their content have little online identity of their own… The effect of this is to diffuse the paper’s institutional voice and the journalistic cohesiveness of the online product.”
Jed Horne, who was an editor of the Times-Picayune from 1988 to 2007 and is now the news editor of The Lens, added: “News gathering – serious news gathering, as distinguished from hour-by-hour blogging and tweeting – is an expensive, labor-intensive proposition...It takes a lot of warm bodies – far more than web economics can afford – to crank out the full spectrum of news and investigative work that a thriving city needs.
"As the staff has been slashed and slashed again during the recent downturn, The Times-Picayune has done a heroic job of disguising the damage to its news gathering army. It’s to be wondered whether the big cut ahead will be the point of no return.”
Advance Publications has confirmed that there will be cuts, but has not confirmed the number of Times-Picayune journalists who will lose their jobs. According to Doctor: "The loss of as many as another 50 newsroom jobs, bringing the vaunted newsroom down to 100, from a pre-Katrina high of 265, is a major loss, and can’t be painted otherwise."
The first American newspaper to stop daily publication was the Ann Arbour News in Michigan, another Newhouse newspaper. Meanwhile the UK's Johnstone Press is going full steam ahead with its plan to transform into a "digital first" brand, re-launching five of its daily papers as online publications with weekly printed editions by the end of this month.
While newsrooms the world over suffer painful cuts and coffee-stained crossword fans lament, trees everywhere are breathing a sigh of relief.
Photo Credit: juggernautco via Flickr, Creative Commons