The Times-Picayune’s Shrinking Is A Sign Of Challenging Times

Members of the Louisiana Legislature took a few minutes off from their busy schedule last week to comment on the announcement that The Times-Picayune of New Orleans sometime this fall will begin publishing print editions just on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Newspapers have undergone major transitions since the digital age began, and the economic collapse in 2008 sped up the changes.

New Orleans got hit by a double whammy. It also had to deal with the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. Its most recent average paid circulation was 133,557, according to a news report in The Advocate of Baton Rouge. The newspaper said that is down 49 percent compared with March of 2005, a few months before the hurricane hit. A chunk of the loss is attributed to the fact many residents never returned to the Crescent City.

Some lawmakers criticized the way the announcement was handled. The news first appeared in The New York Times. The Advocate reported that Times-Picayune employees were “dismayed at both the nature of the news and its well-guarded secrecy.”

This isn’t the first time newspaper employees have been shocked by last-minute announcements of this nature, and, unfortunately, it won’t be the last.

The Picayune isn’t the only major paper making the transition. The newspaper is part of Advance Publications Inc., a Newhouse family company. Its three dailies in Alabama — at Mobile, Birmingham and Huntsville — are making similar changes.

Picayune writer John Pope said, “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, emails, tweets and Facebook…”

I found it extremely satisfying to hear so many comments from readers of the Picayune who talked about how much they are going to miss that early morning cup of coffee and their daily newspaper. One of my most pleasurable moments during the New Orleans Saints football season is to sit at my sister-in-law’s kitchen table in her West Bank home on Sunday mornings and read one of the best newspapers in the country.

Consider the significance of what the announcement means. It’s going to make New Orleans the largest city in the country without a daily printed newspaper. And Pope said the proportion of New Orleanians who read The Times-Picayune is the highest in the nation.

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a New Orleans native, said, “To think of not having a daily print edition saddens me. Its journalists’ dedication and professionalism have made our civic, business and education institutions stronger, more transparent and honest.”

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the senator’s brother, set the tone for the way all public officials and newspaper readers should react to the news.

“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,” the mayor said.

Landrieu is, in essence, saying, “Let’s play with the hand we’ve been dealt.”

The American Press has been doing just that since the nation’s economic crunch caused the loss of much national advertising, a situation that is industry-wide. Staff reductions and savings in all areas of our operation were essential for survival. The hard times aren’t over, of course, but the Press has been able to keep its head above water.

Much of our effort in recent years has been concentrated on expanded local news coverage, and our readers are the beneficiaries. The Shearman family that has owned the newspaper since 1943 knows our primary job is to give readers local news that will keep them informed about events that affect their daily lives and information they won’t get anywhere else.

I can’t remember another time in my over 50 years at the American Press when there has been so much local news on our daily pages. The digital age does create new competition, but we are making even better use of that avenue for providing more up-to-the-minute news to our electronic readers.

Mayor Landrieu, the Manship family that owns The Advocate and the American Press owners all have the right attitude about the recent turn of events at The Times-Picayune. They accept it as a personal challenge to better serve their communities.

David Manship, publisher of The Advocate, even sees some pluses. He said his paper will look for ways to increase its presence in the New Orleans market and take advantage of any opportunities that might come along. He had the following message for employees in an email message:

“The way people get their news is changing and we will need to offer them many ways to receive it, whether it is in the printed form, over the computer, or through some form of mobile device,” Manship said.

The American Press has already found new ways to serve its readers, and that will continue to be our goal. We’ve been a daily newspaper here for 117 years, and we aren’t ready to “throw in the towel.”

Enjoy your Sunday paper, and many more to come.

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].

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