Friday, May 25, 2012


The irony was lost on no one in New Orleans: the very day that Newhouse Publishing announced the Times-Picayune would only print three days a week starting in the Fall, the paper ran a headline that included the word “Titanic.” New Orleanians are so enamored of their 179-year-old daily newspaper that the announcement felt sharply fatalistic. It is a similar sense of mourning that Coloradans felt in 2009 when the Rocky Mountain News folded. The same feeling of loss hovered over Seattle in 2009 when the Post-Intelligencer stopped printing. It is, without question, the relentless march of technology that has caused a hard cultural shift in the way Americans get their news.

 Since I worked for the Times-Picayune for nine years (until 2002), and I now teach journalism (including digital journalism) at a university, I have a pluralistic perspective on what happened in New Orleans yesterday. Technology started to take hold at the paper in the late 1990s. Prior to that we were actually using computers with the old black screens and green type and DOS operating system. We had no Internet access at that time, and really no clear idea of how technology and the newspaper business would intersect in just a few short years. But that was then.

 “Then” included a centuries-old industry that has always been dominated by older white males.
Although many of them were and are great journalists, few of them had the necessary vision about the technological future that was unfolding before their eyes. No one, for example, ever even considered the fact that a newspaper could stop printing a daily edition in favor of delivering content strictly online.

 In the late 1990s when the TP established a web site,, we wondered what it would be used for. If you check it out even today, it’s not used for much of anything. You can go there and buy yourself a book about the history of the newspaper, or you can subscribe (not likely), or you can even arrange to advertise (even less likely). What you cannot do at the web site is find out what is going on in the world. There is no news at

 Meanwhile, along comes, billed as the companion website to the newspaper. I’m not sure if the higher ups at Newhouse (the parent company) know this, but a number of journalism teachers use as an example of what not to do in digital journalism.
The site is tough to navigate, hard on the eyes (a recent redesign is themed in bright yellow, a color designers almost never use for websites) and not terribly compelling from a news standpoint. There is very little movement on the site, an element that distinguishes online publications from their static print cousins. Unfortunately, the company never quite knew how to deliver smart, informative content via the web. And now comes news that the web will be the predominant vehicle via which the company sends out its content.

Further, word comes that Jim Amoss, the highly talented and respected editor of the TP will run the new show. With all due respect to Amoss, the “new show” needs a new media leader, rather than a print journalist. Since the company has had such a poor digital showing to date, what is needed is a highly skilled digital editor, not a traditional newspaper editor. Further, working under his or her supervision, the new show needs innovative, imaginative digital designers to make the product appealing on first glance and beyond. Then it needs to pour good money into hiring a determined, highly trained investigative reporting team that can produce in-depth stories of newspaper quality.

By now, we know what works in online news. First, the site must be visually stunning. Second, it must include a smart mix of original content and aggregate news from other respected sites. Third, it must show a lot of news and visuals in the first screen,
because we now have studies that show people don’t like to scroll, so we have to give them good reasons to do so. Finally, it must be updated continually at all hours. If you really want to know what works, check out Tina Brown’s “The Daily Beast.”

This week Facebook is frantic with people lamenting the loss of the Times-Picayune daily print edition. New Orleanians have a dedicated, emotional tie to their newspaper of record. Many of them are calling for citizens to pounce on the company with letters, calls and issues of complaint. Sadly, such outcries will not change anything.

What many of them are not facing is the reality of the newspaper industry, which is the fastest declining industry in the United States, according to a March, 2012 report from the Council of Economic Advisors. The same report reveals that online publishing is among the fastest-growing industries in the nation. As usual, the numbers tell the story: Prior to Hurricane Katrina, the Times-Picayune had a circulation of 261,000. That number has dwindled to about 130,000.

If truth be told, many of those who are protesting the loudest do not read the newspaper. The readership issue is generational. Older citizens are far more likely to subscribe and read the paper. Younger people are devoted to their smartphones and Ipads,
where they can get their news on the go. Still, culturally there is a romantic attachment Americans have with their daily. It is the stuff that movies and books and Broadway plays have been made of. Memorable issues are neatly tucked away in attics coast to coast. On my own office wall is the framed February 8, 2010 edition of the TP, featuring a Super Bowl triumphant Drew Brees in a victory pose.

There is, without question, a sweet sentimentality about old timey newsprint. But sentimentality does not feed the bottom line, encourage advertisers to promote their wares in print or have the moxie to fight the onslaught of consumer technology. And the Times-Picayune decision makers simply did not have the necessary foresight to save their product, while neatly integrating digital content into their readers lives. They just didn’t. What is most disturbing to me is simply that their lack of vision will now result in hundreds of good people losing their jobs. Not just reporters and writers, but delivery truck drivers, wholesalers, technicians, accounting personnel, sales reps, human resources workers, photographers, graphic designers, administrative assistants, marketers, and so many more. In the end, newspapers are all about people, and now many, many people will face the biggest challenge of their lives.

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