Times-Picayune scales back, but can an iPad produce the same intimacy?

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The Times-Picayune
  • The Times-Picayune
Six years ago I was asked to help choose the journalism awards that the American Planning Association would be giving for "outstanding coverage of city and regional planning issues." One entry, from the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, stood above the others by so many heads and shoulders that there was actually a brief discussion of taking it out of the competition. The Times-Picayune had an unfair advantage of sorts: while the other papers dealt with run-of-the-mill local planning concerns, the Times-Picayune got to look into New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which in 2005 wiped out much of the city.

Said the citation:

"In 'Ruin and Recovery,' the Times-Picayune cast a wide net to answer the hundreds of questions facing New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Looking for clues about what the city could do next, the newspaper sent teams of reporters to other locales that had coped with natural disasters, including four U.S. cities, Japan, and the Netherlands.

"What resulted was a series of articles about regrouping and rebuilding. In reporting on successes in other places, the newspaper also lit a fire under its own city. One headline read: 'Grand plans can't happen unless a fractured city rises to the challenge.'

"Not only did the Times-Picayune report on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — it did so after evacuating its offices and setting up shop elsewhere in the state. Many of the newspaper's reporters and editors also lost their homes."

I recalled those spectacular editions of the Times-Picayune as I read the memo the newspaper's publisher sent Thursday to his staff. The memo, like so many others that have been written by newspaper executives in this troubled age, perfunctorily couched bad news as good news.

In the fall, announced publisher Ashton Phelps Jr., the newspaper will launch the "NOLA Media Group, a digitally focused company . . . that will develop new and innovative ways to deliver news and information to the company’s online and mobile readers. . . . Also this fall, The Times-Picayune will begin publishing a more robust newspaper on a reduced schedule of Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays only."

And Phelps made it clear what that means: "The need to reallocate resources to accelerate the digital growth of NOLA Media Group will necessitate a reduction in the size of the workforce. Press reports have necessitated our giving you this news now. We realize it will make people anxious. but we do not know enough today to be able to announce how the changes will affect individual employees."

There are compelling advantages to digital publication, not least at a time when reporters must grab their laptops and flee their flooding homes and offices. But a digital medium cannot do what the Times-Picayune did after the 2005 flood, when it gave New Orleans a comprehensive, vivid, and inspiring report on the broken city's way forward. The Times-Picayune presentation was a keepsake. We bookmark websites, but we do not lay them away for grandchildren.

A couple of years ago my family spent a week in New Orleans. I bought the Times-Picayune each morning and read it with breakfast, and felt that much more there in New Orleans because I overheard it talking to itself. Will the NOLA Media Group and an iPod produce the same sense of intimacy? I doubt it. Of course there will still be USA Today, for travelers who go somewhere and prefer to feel that they're anywhere.

Last night I happened to read, in a recent New Yorker, a profile by Larissa MacFarquhar of business teacher Clayton Christensen. Christensen made his name, MacFarquhar explains, with his studies of industries in which new technologies brought "the big, established companies to their knees." The paradox Christensen unraveled was that by conventional standards the new technologies weren't more advanced than the old ones. "The new products were low-end, dumb, shoddy, and in almost every way inferior. But the new products were usually cheaper and easier to use, and so people or companies who were not rich or sophisticated enough for the old ones started buying the new ones, and there were so many more of the regular people than there were of the rich, sophisticated people that the companies making the new products prospered."

The divide between print and digital has more to do with age than with wealth and sophistication. But the results are the same. The Times-Picayune is going with the flow, offering a cheaper, easier version of itself at the expense of the old full-bodied model that was sufficient to bring New Orleans—when the city needed it most—magnificent journalism.

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