Sunday, September 23, 2012

New Orleanians inseparable from their newspaper

By Chris Rose

When I was twenty-four years old and working as a copyboy at the Washington Post, I applied for a “real” journalism job anywhere that would have me. The response I got was from the Times-Picayune, which offered to fly me down for an interview. All I knew about the newspaper was that it had a ridiculous name. And it was in New Orleans.

The night before the interview, I drank my way across the French Quarter, from the charmingly dilapidated Napoleon House—with its crumbling walls, listless waiters, and low strains of Debussy emanating from a record player behind the bar—to the famed Big Daddy’s on Bourbon Street, where the bare legs of a mannequin swung in and out of a transom window to reel in suckers. I sat at the bar with a B-drinker until six a.m.

At dawn I slogged my way back to the hotel through a humidity so thick and viscous it clung to my skin like cobwebs. A ghostly Confederate mist rolled up off the Mississippi; moisture crackled off the unsightly matrix of power lines overhead; the oddly deserted streets smelled of mule shit, sweet olive, and oyster juice that puddled in the cracks of the old brick banquettes—a toxic stew known as Bourbon Street Gravy.

What land is this? I wondered.

I want this job, I thought.

I need this city, I knew.

The interviews were perfunctory. I told all the right lies.

Then I was given a take-home assignment. They gave me a copy of that day’s newspaper and asked me to read the paper cover-to-cover and grade it.

Back home in Washington the next night, I searched out an empty desk at the Post during my dinner break, pulled out a Sharpie, and began studying the paper. Here’s what I remember:

First, the name: Back then, the paper was still called the Times-Picayune/the States-Item, a mouthful of a masthead in homage to the four New Orleans newspapers that had merged and folded themselves into one another over the years to form a single monopolistic entity.

Below that, the bylines. The random edition that I had been assigned had four staff-written stories. The bylines read: Emile Lafourcade, Ron Thibodeaux, Lovell Beaulieu, and Dean Baquet.

It sounded like the lineup for the baseball team at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, known around these parts as U. La.-La. There was no doubting the authenticity: These folks put the “local” in local newspaper.

I was charmed by other novelties I had never seen in a newspaper before—at least, not in the rarefied pages of the Washington Post. For instance, the obituaries used nicknames. In the days preceding my visit to New Orleans, men named “Concrete,” “Side Porch,” and “Man-Man” had gone to their eternal rest.

The paper also ran a high-society column, one of the last of its kind, accompanied by photos of stiffly posed rich white folks clutching cocktails and staring at the camera. Chronicling the passing of seasons, milestones, galas, and charities celebrated by the genteel—and gentile—gentry of Uptown New Orleans, the feature was called, fittingly, “Social Scene” by Nell Nolan.

The column was written that day—as it has been for thirty-three years—in an alliterative style, something along the lines of, “Promenades of perfectly poised petites filles and dazzling debs delighted their peers and patrons at a pair of purposeful parties....”

The paper’s Washington Bureau was a staff of one, a National Press Club legend who had covered nearly every major party convention since 1940, filing his columns from the same Royal typewriter for the six decades he worked at the paper. His name was Edgar Allen Poe. Not kidding.

The paper’s peculiarities seemed limitless. In a city renowned for its music and food, it had neither a restaurant nor a music critic. In a political environment so openly corrupt as to mimic self-parody, there was no editorial cartoonist.

The newsroom was populated by misfits, divorcees, jesters, nighthawks, alcoholics, cokeheads, and homosexuals. Like the city it served, the paper not only tolerated eccentricity, but rewarded it.

It was a different era, to be sure, for both the paper and the city.

New Orleans had a black mayor named “Dutch”; the white suburb next door to the city had as its sheriff an obese Chinese cowboy; and the governor, a glib, silver-haired Cajun gambler and lothario, had won office after declaring the only way he could lose the election was to be caught in bed “with a dead girl or a live boy.”

The stories, the people, this place. Like the governor’s legion of conquests, I was seduced. I wanted in. I wanted to be a part of a newspaper that precisely mimicked its city’s rhythm, pace, funk, self-obsession, weirdness, and general otherness like no other daily in America.

In a city with a dozen distinct accents, the Picayune was the voice of them all. A million stories. A million storytellers. Some of the best there ever were.

While living on Pirate’s Alley behind the old cathedral, where he toiled away on his first novel, Soldier’s Pay, William Faulkner published his first stories in the Times-Picayune.

William Sydney Porter was a young, ambitious reporter on the run from legal troubles in Texas, where he had been accused of embezzling four thousand dollars from his employer. To avoid detection, he changed his name to O. Henry.

Pioneering novelist George Washington Cable wrote about Creole culture for the paper. The esteemed biographer and former managing editor of Time magazine, Walter Isaacson, wrote for the paper. The aforementioned Dean Baquet went on to win Pulitzer Prizes at the Chicago Tribune and New York Times and later became the first African-American managing editor of the Times.

I ended up working there for twenty-five years, through a period of astonishing flux, fluidity, and recalibration in the industry, a time that formed me as a reporter, writer, storyteller, and advocate.

I got my Pulitzer there; a whole bunch of us got them for the paper’s submissions for Breaking News Reporting and Public Service the year after Hurricane Katrina, and, as things stand now, they’ll likely be the last such awards ever won by the Times-Picayune.

That’s because what has matured into one of the country’s truly indispensable regional newspapers—historic, aggressive, influential, and entertaining—is getting out of the daily game. Starting this fall, the Times-Picayune will publish just three days a week, putting its resources in, and betting its future on, its companion website,

Advance Publications, the publishing empire run by the Newhouse family and owners of the Times-Picayune, were forced to announce these draconian measures earlier than planned, on May 24, when—with no lack of irony—the New York Times website broke the story first and, in effect, scooped the Times-Picayune on its own obituary.

It was, to be sure, an inauspicious launch of a new era.

Back in journalism school at the University of Wisconsin, forward-thinking instructors warned us the day would come when daily newspapers would be a relic of the past. But they also told us we’d all be piloting sleek hovercrafts across the lunar landscape. I mean, who could believe it?

Sure, I’m far from objective—a self-styled, ink-stained wretch and True Believer—but anyone with even marginal intelligence could reason that as long as there were subways, park benches, box scores, and men’s rooms, there would be newspapers. Every newspaper is vital to its community: the chronicler, watchdog, record keeper, yada yada. It’s a given. Especially in New Orleans.

The Times-Picayune, after all, is different. Or maybe that’s the wrong word. It’s more that New Orleans is different. In New Orleans, the Picayune is woven so deeply into the cultural fabric that it’s impossible to overstate its role as informer, arbiter, entertainer, cheerleader, advocate, and companion.

Among the scores of Letters to the Editor published since the paper’s announcement to go digital, many have implored the owners to reconsider, calling the morning paper a “friend.”

Has anybody in Westchester County ever called the New York Times his or her “friend”? I realize that the rest of America, in its post-Katrina fatigue, is pretty tired of hearing New Orleanians, the city’s acolytes and defenders, always carrying on about how it’s the most unique city in America, but, the fact is, it is. Get over it.

And so, too, is its newspaper. The two of them are like one of those old married couples who are together so long they begin to resemble each other, complacently set in their ways, conspicuously behind the times, proudly provincial, hopelessly devoted, unwaveringly faithful, inextricably bound to tradition and heritage—a hallowed union of soul mates so naturally at ease, so connected, so dependent upon each other that it’s nearly impossible to imagine one without the other.

Everything changed with Katrina. At a time when the institutions and individuals of New Orleans were called upon to either step up or fade away, the Times-Picayune stepped up. While the national media—from NPR to Geraldo Rivera— wrestled with their stories in their own styles and efforts, each faced the same obstacle: They could see the water, the wreckage, the devastation. They could bear witness to the place where it happened. But nobody else understood the people it happened to—not like the hometown paper.

The Times-Picayune went to war. Occasionally, in the past, its critics accused it of safe, staid, or predictable reporting. Then, forced to flee their building in delivery trucks as the water rose, the reporters and photographers who stayed behind dug in wherever they could find dry quarters. The next several months produced important and exemplary journalism.

The tone of the work was anything but staid. It was urgent. It was angry. It advocated. And unlike the dispatches of a thousand well-intentioned but befuddled correspondents from across the nation, it was accurate.

While major newspapers and networks expressed astonishment that so many people had stayed behind for the storm, the Picayune hardly questioned it. In a culture where some folks consider passage across parish lines to be onerous and unnecessary, where hurricane parties are annual rites of defiance, where “home” is the most important four-letter word in the English language—the men and women of the Picayune understood. After all, many of them, too, had remained. With millions of Southeast Louisiana residents scattered across the country, became the Picayune’s lifeline of news and information. In what the paper hopes will become the new norm, the site got millions of hits a day.

Through its stories, blogs, and forums, thousands of disjointed families and friends found one another. It provided stability amid the chaos. Some folks claimed it saved lives. And it raised hell.

The Times-Picayune published an open letter to President Bush, calling for the head of FEMA director Michael Brown. A week later, he resigned.

The paper targeted FEMA, NORA, NOAH, and a bunch of other acronymic quasi-governmental agencies whose mission, it seemed, was to squander as much tax money as possible while making it as difficult as possible for residents to return and for homeowners to rebuild.

Abandoned, lied to, ripped off, and generally failed by government and big business, the people of New Orleans found their unified voice through the Picayune. It seemed like, together, they gave a colossal middle finger to Washington, the insurance companies, and the incompetent mayor and corrupt city agencies that bumbled, groped, and grifted their way through the disaster.

The people gave the paper love. Reporters were treated like heroes by returning residents and businesses. In the year after the flood Times-Picayune staffers couldn’t pay for their own drinks.

If there’s another institution New Orleanians came to consider family after Katrina, it was their beloved Saints, whose Super Bowl victory in 2010 erased forty-three years of bad football memories and five years of labeling by critics, cranks, and commentators around the country who told New Orleanians they’re stupid to live where they do and the way they do.

The reopening of the Superdome itself sparked howls of indignation from around the country; the city was criticized for having no sense of priority or respect. Subsequently, folks around here interpreted receiving the Vince Lombardi Trophy as a big fuck you to the rest of America.

This June, Saints offensive lineman Zach Strief characterized the way New Orleanians feel about the bounty controversy, how the team and city felt unfairly singled out for a practice presumed to exist in many—if not most—NFL locker rooms.

“It’s something that we’ve all felt before,” he said. “It’s a familiar feeling. The circumstances change, but the reaction of the city clinging together doesn’t. In New Orleans, we circle the troops and get into our defense mode, and we don’t let anybody attack us without us all being there together. It’s a really unique relationship that we’ve always had with this city here.”

You can feel that relationship everywhere in the city these days. Once again abandoned—this time by Northeastern corporate media barons; this time, once again, by outsiders—folks in New Orleans are pissed off that, with the dash of a signature, some hands raised in a corporate conference room, or simply by royal decree, that somebody else, somewhere else, can take away their cherished daily newspaper.

But this time, the paper is not very well positioned to step in and save the day. Back in 2005, the work of the Times- Picayune was driven by the most elemental of human-survival instincts. It was nothing less than a fight to save the city. And now, no less urgent, the newspaper staff—and the city that stands with them—fight to save the soul of the city.

“We did some research going into this effort, and we knew what we were doing was going to be culturally traumatic.” These words were spoken by Ricky Mathews, the new publisher of the Times-Picayune, whose appointment by Advance Publications was timed to usher in the “new online journalism” of New Orleans.

Culturally traumatic, the city, the suburbs, the exurbs—they went nuts.

Adding to the ignominy of Advance’s botched announcement and the scoop by the New York Times, folks outside the newsroom were informed of the paper’s extreme makeover by afternoon radio talk shows and local evening news broadcasts—perhaps confirming another of Mathews’s statements: that yesterday’s news delivered today just doesn’t cut it in today’s high-speed environs.

It is unknown how many Letters to the Editor have been received on the matter, but the paper has published between two and six almost every day since the announcement. The prevailing theme has been that yesterday’s news is not only acceptable to the readers of the Times-Picayune; it is crucial.

One by one, protesters have lamented the loss of their morning ritual, that sacrosanct time of awakening and reflection, where reading the paper is every bit as vital as bathing and breakfast. They share it with their spouses. They read it from back to front. They do the crosswords. None of which, they have reminded Mathews, is easily accomplished on a computer tablet.

It has bordered on self-parody how many have mentioned chicory coffee—its taste, smell, and consistency—as a constant companion to the paper; for twenty-five years, I thought that stuff was just a bitter ruse for gaming the tourists.

Then again, I go to Café du Monde for beignets at least once a week. And I drop seventy-five cents in the newspaper box on the corner every morning.

This is, after all, New Orleans, a sensual, crumbling, bricks-and-mortar culture, suspicious of the inventions and encroachments of the twenty-first century.

There are still Mardi Gras krewes that refuse to light their parade floats with electric or fiber-optic lights, instead relying on teams of flambeaux carriers—day laborers carrying long kerosene torches to illuminate the richly detailed design and construction of the floats.
Unshuttered, screenless windows are the norm in the French Quarter, Bywater, and Ninth Ward; central air-conditioning is still considered a luxury item for the well-to-do.

It’s also where an astonishing one-third of the population is not wired to the Internet—a seemingly dire statistical threat to the new business paradigm being established by Advance Publications for the Times-Picayune, which needs to coax the city online if it wants to survive. (The same thing is happening across the South: See the infographic on the next page for details about how this print-to-online shift is effecting newspapers and jobs in Alabama.)

To salve those readers who can’t or refuse to make the transition online, Mathews again uttered memorable words. “We’re extraordinarily committed to print,” he said. “We’re keeping the three days advertisers have told us they want. It’s going to be like getting three Sunday newspapers a week.”

New Orleans isn’t buying the argument. Two hundred employees were informed in June that they would lose their jobs when the paper shifts to a majority-online existence in September. The cuts were not conceived by what anyone has divined to be logistical—or logical.

Half of the newsroom was terminated, prompting readers to question how the paper’s—and the website’s—coverage could remain comprehensive and in-depth. Newsroom cuts seemed random, an equal blend of new folks and forty-year veterans, both managing editors, and the editorial cartoonist.

The restaurant critic, a two-time winner of the James Beard Award—the Academy Award of food writing—was fired, then replaced, then rehired, in what seemed either a grotesque case of miscommunication or the paper’s single concession to protesters’ appeals, which came all the way from New York City’s restaurant industry in this case.

The employees who have been told they will be let go formed a Facebook page where friends of the Times-Picayune began a digital meeting room for venting, consoling, and sharing job listings from around the region and the nation.

In a short time, the page morphed into a minor insurgent movement as members began discussing an organized boycott and plotting ideas on how to start a competing newspaper. It’s the longest of long shots, to be sure, a world of costly real estate, infrastructure, tech, planning, marketing, selling, and circulation directives.

It’s all a headache and a mystery as to how it’s done in the twenty-first century—actually starting a daily newspaper from scratch. The only thing that everyone knows is that the people want it.

True story: For the first three days after Hurricane Katrina, the paper published online only, an unwitting model for the future, perhaps. Then the Times-Picayune contracted with the Houma Courier and Mobile’s Press-Register to print its papers—eight pages with no advertising or syndicated features—and ship them to New Orleans.

It was impossible to find. I was living and working in the city, and writing for the paper, and in the first several weeks laid eyes on only a handful of editions.

One day, while visiting a hotel suite at the downtown Sheraton which was serving as a makeshift newsroom, a guy walked in the room with several bundles of that day’s paper. On a whim, I grabbed a stack and headed out into the streets.

When I arrived at the first responder’s emergency post outside of Harrah’s Casino, I was mobbed by local cops, firemen, and EMTs, who reached for copies like sub-Saharan refugees grabbing for water or baby formula.

I walked into several French Quarter bars with copies and was greeted with joyous calls of “The Times-Picayune!” Driving towards Uptown, I spied two women who appeared to be in their sixties sitting on their front porch fanning themselves in the crushing afternoon heat. I pulled over, greeted them, and asked if I could step inside the gate.

They eyed me suspiciously until I held up the newspaper and identified myself. “Oh my God!” they said in unison and rushed down the steps to embrace me. Then they stepped back and I handed them each a copy of the paper.

Tears rolled down both of their faces. One said very softly to herself, “The Times-Picayune,” and clutched it to her breast. They thanked me and returned to their porch, holding each others’ arms and their papers, lost in the reverie of a familiar feeling in their hands, the return of a cherished ritual, a fabled institution, their daily bread.

I left the Times-Picayune in the fall of 2009. Given the circumstances of my departure, maybe I—maybe we all—should have seen the writing on the Facebook wall. The paper was already in distress at that point; that much is clear.

It was the first of my twenty-five years in which the staff did not receive at least a modest cost-of-living raise. We were already taking two mandatory unpaid furloughs a year. An aggressive early-retirement purge thinned out the elderly ranks.

The preoccupation with the website was already in full bloom; “blogging” was the daily mantra, all the better if it were video. We were feeding an insatiable beast; it felt like half of my output never even made it into the paper—just the website.

Like so many others of my tenure and temperament—stubborn ancients, I suppose—web reporting is anathema to everything I love about newspapering: getting a tip, developing leads, fleshing-out the details, then telling the story.

Now it stops with the tip. Just verify (hopefully!) and post it. I didn’t write stories anymore; I “produced content.”

When a general buyout was announced, I took it. With no plan or even forethought, I signed up the day the offer was made and filed what turned out to be my final byline—a story about taking my three young kids to Nashville to see a Bruce Springsteen concert.
Despite impassioned appeals from the mayor, the governor, and the archbishop; despite public rallies and letter-writing campaigns; despite advertisers’ and subscribers’ vows to pay double their current rates...nothing.

Despite boycott threats, mass subscription cancellations, and a workforce with shockingly low morale...nothing.

Desperate New Orleanians have turned to Warren Buffett, Saints owner Tom Benson, and even the state of Louisiana, among others, to step in and buy the paper. In late July, Benson made a formal offer, but Newhouse uncategorically declined. Clearly, it’s not for sale.

The deed is done, the plan is forged, the bets placed. Come September, New Orleans will be the largest American city without a daily newspaper. And a friendship for the ages will face another challenge, maybe its biggest.

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