Times-Picayune to cut back to publishing three days a week

May 26, 2012

New Orleans, a city that cares deeply about its traditions, learned Thursday that one of its bedrock institutions will undergo a major makeover: The Times-Picayune, the city’s daily newspaper with a 175-year history, announced it will cut back to publishing three days a week.

The change, which was taken because of declining print revenue in a digital age, is scheduled to take effect sometime this fall. When it happens, New Orleans will be the biggest city in the country without a daily newspaper.

The reaction to this wrenching change in New Orleanians’ way of life was a combination of shock, incredulity, anger and sadness, expressed in telephone calls, e-mails, tweets and Facebook (savethepicayune) and at savethepicayune.com, a Web site that civic activist Anne Milling bought Thursday morning.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Milling, a longtime member of the newspaper’s editorial advisory board, called the Times-Picayune “part of our tradition: You wake up with a cup of chicory coffee and read the newspaper.”

The proportion of New Orleanians who read the Times-Picayune is the highest in the nation, and the people who read it daily responded en masse to the news. Telephone calls poured into the newspaper Thursday from subscribers who were irate at the prospect of losing their daily paper.

New Orleanians can be a contrary lot. They will happily stand for hours in freezing temperatures to snag cheap beads in a parade, and they will loyally support a less-than-stellar football team for more than 40 years — and go crazy when that team wins the Super Bowl.

They are just as passionate about the newspaper. In addition to keeping up with news, they want to see the major events of their lives recorded in its pages, from the cradle to the grave.

Those ties were strengthened in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when the Times-Picayune and nola.com, its Web site, became not only the area’s major source of news but also a community bulletin board where evacuees could learn about their neighborhoods. For its performance, the newspaper’s staff won a host of honors, including two Pulitzer Prizes.

“This paper was the lifeline to tens of thousands of people scattered all around the country,” civic activist Babs Johnson said.

The prospect of losing this daily mix of information made her feel “furious on top of being completely shocked,” she said.

As dazed Times-Picayune staffers tried to cope with the uncertainty while going about their jobs, they received plenty of messages of support from across the United States and even from Britain and the Netherlands.

Newspaper alumni waxed nostalgic about their times at the paper.

“It’s an incredibly sad and shocking announcement,” said Rebecca Theim, a former political reporter who lives and works in Las Vegas. “Anybody who has had the pleasure of living in New Orleans and working at the Picayune feels like there’s always a tie there. Even though I’ve been gone almost 18 years, it continues to be the place that shaped me the most professionally and the place for which I have the most affection.”

Politicians joined the refrain. Even though politicians elsewhere might regard newspapers as a necessary evil, New Orleans officials know that the newspaper is a respected way of reaching lots of readers — and voters.

“To think of not having a daily print edition saddens me,” U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said in a statement. “Its journalists’ dedication and professionalism that have made our civic, business and education institutions stronger, more transparent and honest.”

Her brother, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu (D), agreed.

“We don’t always agree, but the newspaper provides a critical service for our city by helping to keep the public informed,” said the mayor, who delivered the newspaper when he was a boy.

“I look forward to talking with new management and others who have a stake in the future of the Times-Picayune to discuss how we can help the newspaper grow and not diminish,” he said.

Coincidentally, the Times-Picayune’s front page Thursday was dominated by a story about a model of the doomed oceanliner Titanic bobbing in Lake Pontchartrain that made Causeway commuters do double-takes.

The Times-Picayune is part of Advance Publications, a Newhouse family company that announced a similar change for its three dailies in Alabama: in Mobile, Birmingham and Huntsville.

A new company, the NOLA Media Group, will oversee the newspaper and nola.com.

Jim Amoss, the Times-Picayune’s editor, will run the combined content operation. Ricky Mathews, who will succeed Ashton Phelps Jr. as publisher, will be its president.

The changes were announced to newspaper staffers in a series of tense meetings Thursday after David Carr broke the news in the New York Times.

In reacting to the announcement in the online publication the Lens, news editor Jed Horne, the Times-Picayune’s former city editor, was guardedly optimistic about the newspaper’s ability to find the right balance of digital and print media and have enough people to do the job.

“If it happens,” said Horne, “it will almost compensate for the time when New Orleans had a daily newspaper and, not infrequently, a pretty [darn] good one.”

— Times-Picayune

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