It feels like a typical late-spring New Orleans weekend.
But on this day, only a week after learning of the daily printed newspaper’s impending change, something’s bubbling under the surface. Residents put on the jovial Cajun front for visitors, but before I can finish asking about the Times-Picayune reducing its print schedule to three days a week, they’ve already spit out a mouthful.
As she was nearing the end of her 14-hour day giving tours, the driver of a mule-drawn carriage told me she was upset about the newspaper’s changes.
“That means if (the New Orleans Saints) win a ballgame, we can’t read about it the next day.”
I asked if she thought the newspaper’s website, NOLA.com, could replace the four days the Times-Picayune will no longer print. She laughed.
“No. No, no, no. It’s a joke. You can’t find nothing on there. I get on there and look everywhere; don’t know where nothin’ is. It’s not organized.”
She thinks the most popular part of the website is the live-streaming cameras set up throughout the French Quarter (including within businesses) to give the online world real-time views of whatever is in front of the camera at any given time.
She warned ladies to be careful “at the corner of Canal and Decatur. You’ll be on the Internet,” she said with a grin.
I wonder, what is the Times-Picayune doing wrong with their online news product if live-streaming cameras are more popular with New Orleans residents than coverage of their beloved city?
The New Orleans paper has a higher reader penetration than any other major city in the country. More than 75 percent of the city’s residents read the Times-Picayune regularly.
In 2010, 36 percent of residents here were without Internet access. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, the paper’s circulation was double the rate of March 2012’s numbers. Apparently, however, the Times-Picayune was still profitable to pay employee bonuses in 2010 and 2011.
With these facts taken into account, I question the intentions of the paper’s owners. Are they trying to sharpen the Times-Picayune’s digital presence, or is it more likely they’d rather increase profits at the expense of serving the city?
I ate lunch at NOLA Grocery and Po-boys, almost a literal hole in the wall in the Warehouse District of New Orleans. It’s somewhere between a convenience store and a restaurant. The walls are covered in decade-old posters announcing local concerts. All except for one wall, which is plastered with Saints-related newspaper pages.
“This is our year!” proclaims one newspaper box ad from the early 1990s. The trusty Times-Picayune logo rests at the bottom of the ad.
I settled for a crawfish Po-boy and chatted with a big guy in a hairnet named Murray. When I asked for his last name, he said, “Just call me, Murraaaay!”
He’s the owner of the place. “I’m the cook, dishwasher, janitor, you name it,” he said.
Murray is a New Orleans native, “born, raised and I’ll drown here,” he told me.
He opened the grocery four years ago “because of a little lady named Katrina.” Before the hurricane hit in 2005, he worked as a high-end sunglasses retailer. But when tourism weakened, so did his salary. After a few years, he found a new living in his own business.
“Just me and some buddies sat around a table taste-testing different recipes ’til we could say, ‘Yep, that’s what it tasted like as kids.’ That’s how I picked my recipes. They’re family secrets.”
At my mention of the Times-Picayune, he slapped the edge of a dish towel on top of the counter. The silliness in his personality disappeared behind an angry gaze.
“The city is irate,” he said, staring into my eyes with the first hint of seriousness.
“How’m I gonna read ’bout my Saints on Monday morning? Huh? What will I do when I’m in the bathroom? What will I do when I need to pour out my crawfish on newspaper?” he asked with earnest frustration.
Murray scoffed at the paper’s solution of online news four days a week. His complaints echo the carriage driver from the night before.
“Look, I’m not gonna get up in the morning and look at my computer. If they want us to use NOLA.com, they need to make it look like a newspaper with sections — metro, sports, whatever and one-line headlines — and take all that ad stuff off there. You can’t find anything.”
He told me of a friend who owns a print shop. “We’re talking about doing an interim paper for the days the Times doesn’t print. We’ll distribute in boxes around the city. It’s easy to find boxes and leave them outside places.
“If they’re not going to print, it’s time for somebody to step up and say, ‘Screw the Times,’” he said with conviction.
Murray said blaming the economy was no excuse for changing the print schedules. If it’s a matter of money, New Orleaneans will take care of it, he said.
“If they say they need 20,000, 25,000, 30,000 subscribers to keep printing, guess what? They’ll get it. Same with our Saints. Hadn’t ever had a sellout year, but then they threatened to take them away from us, and now we have the longest waiting list (for tickets) in the country,” he told me. “Bring back my Times, man!”
Over the course of our conversation, Murray punctuated his rants with that phrase “Bring back the Times,” even though the printing schedule isn’t scheduled to change until September.
New Orleans is a city with plenty to mourn. Her bruises from Katrina and the BP oil spill are still healing, but the shining beacon that defended and protected her in the days after is now being reduced to more than half its printed power. And for what? A profit margin? How does Newhouse, the Times-Picayune’s parent company, expect to turn a profit on an online product that few of the residents I spoke with trust?
Maybe the Saints coverage is at the top of their list of concerns, but why shouldn’t it be? If The Anniston Star stopped publishing Saturday editions, it would have mamas, daddies and coaches countywide lining up to protest the lack of Friday night football coverage. Football is always regarded as a “religion” in the South, but really, it’s a rallying point for the community. Whether times are green or sallow, that gathering place reinforces the traditions of a community and symbolizes hope for future success.
The death of a daily printed newspaper in New Orleans represents an alienation of thousands of readers who deserve better. While residents may mourn the loss of football coverage today, they’ll also mourn the absence of a credible, reliable information source which keeps the city one so steeped in history and traditions bound together in their everlasting battle to rise above the water and survive.
The Times-Picayune is duty-bound to meet its community’s needs. Instead, it is dismissing the duty of comforting the afflicted who are unable to log on and sync up four days a week. I would wager those residents are the ones who need the newspaper the most.
Rebecca Walker is a former reporter at The Anniston Star. She visited New Orleans recently as part of her job as the coordinator of student publications at the University of North Alabama. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.