How the digital divide developed in New Orleans & what that means for the future of news there
Come September when changes at The Times-Picayune take effect, not only will New Orleans become the largest city without a daily newspaper, its residents will likely become some of the most disconnected in the country.
New Orleans lags behind the rest of the U.S. when it comes to broadband Internet service connections, according to an investigative report produced by the nonprofit journalism organization The Lens in conjunction with the Center for Public Integrity and the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University. About half of Louisianans subscribe to broadband services while the national average is 60 percent. Those who do subscribe to broadband Internet service tend to be white and in higher income brackets, the report shows.
Only 43 percent of Americans who make less than $25,000 a year have home Internet access, according to a U.S. Department of Commerce study. "It’s clear that, in the midst of moving toward digital news, many people still need access to information that doesn’t require a computer," Jesse Hardman writes in the Columbia Journalism Review.
This is especially true in New Orleans, where half the residents make less than $35,000 a year and The Times-Picayune will emphasize digital products, Hardman states. The concern should not be about a business decision, "but on how the citizens of New Orleans are going to get important information if they are not online," he writes.
Poorer, more African American areas of New Orleans, such as the Lower 9th Ward, have broadband subscription rates between 0 and 40 percent while those living in more rural parts of the area account for subscription rates between 0 and 20 percent, Matt Davis writes in The Lens.
It’s harder to profit from the investment in broadband infrastructure in rural areas where fewer residents live further apart. Among poorer residents, broadband – and even newspaper subscriptions – tend to be luxuries for job seekers or people who are still trying to rebuild homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina nearly seven years ago. The Picayune’s decision to print only three days a week means fewer newspapers will get passed around local barber shops, beauty salons, cafes and convenience stores -- places where many people who don’t have broadband access at home often go to exchange information about what’s happening in their neighborhoods.
At the same time, private business executives and public officials seem to be in denial. They aren’t planning for a diminished newspaper presence and are holding out hope that a hero will swoop in and buy The Times-Picayune, even though the paper isn’t for sale. They also continue to support policies that favor the telecom industry rather than working to make broadband more affordable.
The other primary sources of information for poorer residents, television and radio, will have to step up their game to fill in the gap once the Picayune ceases daily publication, media observers say.
Why the Digital Divide
New Orleans is one of the most digitally divided cities in the country. The Lens’ report contains a map that shows wide swaths of the city where broadband Internet access is not prevalent, meaning people in these parts aren’t as likely to get the news that The Times- Picayune will produce via its new digital products. The gaps are due in part to affordability, but they are also due to policy decisions made by lawmakers in the state that minimize competition, which in turn helps keep prices of broadband artificially inflated and out of reach for poorer residents, media access activists say. Telecom companies in Louisiana have also successfully blocked municipally-owned broadband networks, networks built by local governments that offer cheaper, faster Internet service.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who has decried the Times-Picayune reductions, refused $80 million in federal grants aimed at expanding broadband to poor, rural areas of the state. The money was part of $7 billion set aside for broadband expansion in President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The Governor said accepting the money would have opened the door to too much federal interference in the state and would have undermined private business; The Lens reported that the decision to scuttle the plan was a favor to private interests that supported Jindal’s gubernatorial campaign.
These policy decisions have restricted people’s access to information, media advocates say.
Representatives with both Cox and AT&T U-verse said they did not expect the Picayune’s decision to have an impact on their broadband businesses. They also counter claims about a lack of competition in the market, saying people can also subscribe to satellite Internet services provided by competitors like DISH Network and DIRECTV.
Satellite is not an option for most people because of the lag-time it takes for signals to bounce from one computer, up to a satellite in the sky, to another computer, said Christopher Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which advocates for local solutions to sustainable community development. The limitations make it impossible to use satellite to make VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) telephone calls or gaming, he said.
“There are technical limitations on satellite that make it ridiculously inferior,” Mitchell added. “We have been unable to identify anyone who has purchased satellite services when they have a choice of DSL or cable. It just can’t be compared.”
Todd Smith, a spokesman with Cox Cable based in Atlanta, told Poynter that the Picayune’s decision is part of a trend of more and more people moving applications online and more customers using broadband in more ways. The company offers several different tiers, with escalating price points based on a customer’s use.
“The more people use broadband, the more likely they will need a higher service tier with higher speeds,” Smith said. “That will continue especially with The Times-Picayune driving people to broadband and other apps that are driving people there.”
Basic internet service from Cox Cable in New Orleans costs about $40, according to its website; the company is currently running a promotion that lets subscribers receive the first month free. AT&T’s U-Verse is slightly more than a daily monthly subscription to the newspaper, which is $18.95.
Sue Sperry, a spokeswoman with AT&T U-verse, said the special pricing of $19.95 a month is to entice people who have never had broadband service. Broadband users who want or need faster speeds, however, pay more. Packages can cost as much as $80 per month, she said.
Sperry said AT&T’s broadband network is one of the newest systems in the country, having been completely rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina destroyed nearly everything in its path in 2005. She took issue with the characterization that service is slower in some parts of town than in others, though it may be that those in poorer neighborhoods can only afford the most basic – and slower – broadband packages. “The same system in New Orleans East is the same system in the 9th Ward,” Sperry said. “Most of our effort now, though, is in enhancing our wireless network since more customers are now accessing the Internet via mobile devices.”
Prices vary for AT&T wireless data packages as well. Customers could pay more based on the type of mobile device and the amount of data they use.
Even with mobile, service can sometimes be more spotty (dropped calls or slow downloads for example) in certain areas of a city than others, and mobile isn't always ideal for filling out forms, watching video or playing educational games.
When asked about municipal broadband networks, Sperry said they do not provide a level playing field for competitors like her company. AT&T and Cox would both have to pay taxes, but the municipal networks would not, she said. The networks are also very hard to build, she added. Sperry referred Poynter to a colleague with expertise in legislative policy, but that colleague declined to answer questions.
AT&T and Cox are the only broadband providers for residential customers in New Orleans; business customers, however, have their choice of broadband carriers, including specialty providers in the market.
Only one municipal broadband network exists in Louisiana. It’s in Lafayette, not New Orleans. The $150 million network almost didn’t materialize due to stiff opposition from telecom lobbyists, primarily from competitors Bell South (now AT&T) and Cox Communications, that included a lawsuit to stop the project on unfair competition grounds; Lafayette won the case.
The town’s municipal network offers cheaper service and is now listed as one of the fastest in the country. After Lafayette’s network was completed, telecom lobbyists prevailed in persuading state legislators to put further restrictions on building municipal networks, including giving the telecom companies first right of refusal. This means that telecom giants have the authority to shut down any municipal network before it can get off the ground. The fight is part of a larger trend happening all across the country. Since the law was passed in Louisiana, no other municipal network has been built.
The domino effect
AT&T’s Sperry said she’s unsure if customers will flock to NOLA.com, the paper’s website, once the changeover happens in the fall.
“Nobody knows how subscribers will react once this all happens. What will need to happen,” she emphasized, “is that NOLA.com needs to make sure it has enough bandwidth to handle the traffic that may come to its website, especially on a major news day.”
Sperry pointed to the presidential inauguration and death of Whitney Houston as examples of news events that can cause NOLA.com to freeze or go down if the newspaper doesn’t have the infrastructure to handle a large amount of traffic to its site.
Sperry, a former journalist who moved to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, expressed sadness and uncertainty about the Picayune’s decision to reduce publication of its print product. In a telephone interview with Poynter, she lamented over friends at the paper who recently lost jobs and about the amount of wire copy the paper already runs in its business section.
Sperry, who doesn’t like reading the newspaper online, said the Picayune's recent decision to bet so heavily on digital is very unpopular and she worries about a domino effect. “If The Times-Picayune has to do it, then every other newspaper will do it,” she said.
Sperry isn’t the only person worried about the derivative effects of the newspaper’s decision.
Mitchell, of The Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said it is hard to know how many people who don’t have broadband are paying for a subscription to the newspaper or regularly read it outside the home.
“Those people tend to have other priorities,” he said. “What concerns me more is that most of the news that is generated in cities comes from the newspaper and cutting back the schedule like this shows that the newspaper is struggling. That’s worrisome because it means fewer investigations, which generally means that poor people get screwed more.”
Also fearing that more newspapers will follow The Times-Picayune’s example, Mitchell said he sees an impending “golden age of corruption” because fewer watchdogs will be holding public officials accountable.
When asked what, if any, response local elected officials might have to severe cutbacks at The Times-Picayune, a city spokesman referred Poynter to the Louisiana Technology Council. The council is an association of large companies formed to address the technology component for the New Orleans' economy; a phone call to the president of the council was not immediately returned.
New Orleans, with its scenic streets and storied past, already has a history of corruption. Ironically, the city’s former chief of technology, Gregg Meffert, pleaded guilty and was jailed for taking kickbacks. A free municipal broadband network he started was shut down in 2008 due to low usage, but The Lens report also suggests that the project is now tainted due to Meffert’s arrest. (Coincidentally, Meffert’s former boss, former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, is currently under federal investigation for allegedly receiving favors in exchange for city contracts. Nagin, a former executive with Cox Communications, recently hired a prominent defense attorney.)
Sandra Gonzalez, a general assignment and features reporter for WGNO in New Orleans, remembers that The Times-Picayune broke the story about Meffert. She said the paper was very aggressive in reporting the story and recalled its strong reputation for investigating government corruption.
In the past, the newspaper broke news while local television and radio stations followed-up and confirmed the stories, Gonzalez said. Calling TV the “poor man’s news source,” Gonzalez said the advent of the Internet, and especially social media, has caused local TV news to become more competitive.
Gonzalez acknowledged, however, that not having a daily newspaper could leave a huge hole in the city's news coverage.
“There’s so much poverty in New Orleans, and people don’t have access to the Internet,” said Gonzalez, in the midst of covering the National Association of Black Journalists convention taking place there. “Who knows where all of this is going? Radio and TV will have to step up its game and fill the gap in terms of holding public servants accountable. Somebody’s got to do that and keep that going.”
As for access, until broadband infrastructure is distributed more equitably, there’s always the library.
Mitchell said one way to make broadband more accessible and affordable in New Orleans is by figuring out how to build a municipal network connecting libraries, schools, and other public facilities. “Libraries are the first place to improve connectivity,” he said. “Taxpayers are paying too much for too little. Taxpayers and cash-strapped school districts shouldn’t be overpaying for these services through government contracts awarded to private companies.”
Tony Barnes, Head of the Information Division with the New Orleans Public Library, said 5,700 people accessed computers at the system’s main branch in May. That number does not include computer access at its other 13 library branches. He’s unsure usage will change once the newspaper changes its publication schedule; the library isn’t anticipating a surge, he said.
Barnes doesn’t see an “awful lot of New Orleanians coming into the library to read the New Orleans newspaper online,” he said. Those who do read news online tend to be people from other states or countries, he added.
Most people use the library computers to access medical information, look for jobs or housing, or to file forms for government services such as unemployment assistance, continued Barnes, a 25-year library employee who subscribes to The Times-Picayune, even though he can read it for free at work.
Barnes said he prefers to hold the newspaper in his hands while he reads. Barnes is also skeptical about whether the Picayune will follow through with its planned changes.
“It’s life, I guess,” he said. “But there’s the distinct possibility that the current status will change. There have been quite a few offers being made to the publisher to please sell the newspaper to an independent group that can keep it going. So that’s not out of the question that it might happen. I haven’t given up hope yet.”