The beginning of this week marks the grand experiment of making New Orleans a two-newspaper town again, as its longtime occupant at the end of the week will defer from publishing every day with an outsider starting to publish daily. Regardless of what happens, those interested in state and local politics likely will end up better off, one way or the other.
The owners of the New Orleans Times-Picayune earlier this year decided to go to a thrice-weekly print publication schedule and to concentrate on online delivery. The privately-held firm has stated cost considerations as the factor in an industry that has shown dramatic contraction as digital delivery makes an inexorable march to becoming the medium of choice. Already, a sister publication, the Ann Arbor (MI) News, has gone completely digital, and other outlets in the chain are making a similar transition as is the T-P.
This decision prompted the Baton Rouge Advocate to announce a foray into publishing daily in New Orleans, although with a barebones operation that would cover only news and some sports. This may appear audacious in a market where the dominant market leader, in one of the highest-penetration newspaper consumption areas in the country, asserts it cannot stay in business in the long run with daily printing. Why that’s the case The Advocate’s bigwigs need to understand if they don’t want the black ink used in publishing to be overwhelmed by the red ink from financial losses.
How New Orleans ranks orders things was explained best to me when I arrived in town to stay (for a few years) in the 1980s, just out of business school and being groomed to take over a department in a bank holding company. An extremely old hand at the bank, who had started in the mailroom prior to the Great Depression, told my supervisory skills class an interesting nugget of information. In the then-recent past, a study of community attitudes in many large cities had been conducted, New Orleans included. Among other things, the study assessed the importance that people ascribed to different societal sectors in what defined the life of their city, the sectors being business, politics, the social scene, or religious institutions.
In almost all of the other cities, the rank ordering, from most to least important, gave by surveyed citizens was business, politics, religion, and society. In New Orleans, he related, the ordering was the exact opposite, with his point being that we were entering a climate where business just did not have much clout compared with other sectors.
I suspect not much has changed in the intervening nearly 30 years. Business probably has come up a bit and religion faded some. But people still go mad over the Saints and Carnival and religious institutions still play an outsized role in the community. In part these attitudes explain the old phrase that captures how the area views itself relative to the rest of the world: there’s the right way, the wrong way, and the New Orleans way.
There is such a high penetration rate in New Orleans for the T-P, well above 50 percent of households, because of its coverage outside of what is considered “hard” news plays to these societal and religious interests. Even politics conforms to that, to some degree, for the interest in political happenings for many comes not from an interest in policy, but in viewing politics as, congruent with those other areas, another form of entertainment with its own large personalities, internecine conflicts, and the potential for juicy scandal.
So if The Advocate comes in and ignores that, it’s going to have a rough time. One reason why readers of the T-P have acquired such a proprietary attitude about something that is not their property, some of whom appear to have taken the reduced printing schedule as a personal insult, is that it fed that need in a place that overemphasizes entertainment and underemphasizes achievement (except on the football field). It will be interesting to see if that change in mindset can happen with the new entrant.
As interesting, the T-P decided in response that it would ramp up coverage in Baton Rouge for its expanded online offerings, presumably providing more of a statewide focus that logically would include politics. And, the way the world works is having two entities concentrating in the same two locations will produce more and better material for the reader than one each isolated in one spot each.
With the T-P taking a more statewide approach that should include politics and The Advocate, if it has figured out its strategy correctly, also increasing political coverage if only to present a product of quasi-entertainment to a market that sees the subject as such, consumers of state and local (to those areas) political news benefit. This competition even may encourage greater diversity and breadth, instead of the steady diet in selective story choice that slants moderately-to-heavily to the political left.
Reduced ignoring of stories that contradict the tenets of liberalism and/or the appearance of more that validate conservatism could go a long ways to helping both entities survive in their current or contemplated forms. Technological changes in part have caused the steep print readership declines throughout the industry because the more educated and informed public recognizes the leftist bias pervasive in most of the traditional mainstream media and now has a chance to flee it, taking the revenues they bring, with the explosion of delivery platforms online. The same dynamic, as long as The Advocate and T-P are open to it, will shape state and local coverage as well.
Thus, even if this all crashes and burns – The Advocate can’t make a go of it in New Orleans, and the T-P finds an expanded Baton Rouge bureau too costly – from the standpoint of political coverage it will fail because their story selection, if not the actual story content itself, will cover insufficiently the public demand in today’s market for balance in news gathering. As such, the political news consumer will be no worse off but with the possibility of being better off if one or both prove responsive.
This necessity of responsiveness also applies to the core businesses. As costs of production go way down, sources of information such as this space geared to political analysis, news aggregators such as The Dead Pelican, and combinations of aggregators and providers of original news and commentary such as The Hayride and BayouBuzz that highlight material the old media pays little attention to or ignores, will fill the gap if the vacuum grows. Again, the consumer of political news prospers.
If the likes of the T-P and The Advocate don’t respond this way, they will cater to increasingly narrow audiences in this area while simultaneously digital competition increases, and as a whole will become platforms less seriously devoted to political coverage while increasing coverage of “soft” and lurid (like crime) “hard” news in order to sustain themselves in a market where every trend has turned against them. No splashy entrances into new markets will change that fact.
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