As New Orleans prepares for life without a daily newspaper, the nonprofit New Orleans news organization The Lens wanted to illustrate how central The Times-Picayune is to the community. Lens Managing Editor Steve Beatty, a Times-Picayune alum, first talked Sunday night with Bevil Knapp, a former Times-Picayune photojournalist, about documenting locals reading the paper Monday and Tuesday -- days it will no longer be available in print after Advance Publications reduces the printing schedule and staff later this year.

Knapp, whose husband still works at the paper, began the project at the landmark Morning Call coffee shop and then went to another coffee shop, Fair Grinds.

“And every one in there had a newspaper, it was just wild,” she said by phone. “It was so neat to see that many people who love the paper and they do their morning crossword. I said, ‘How are you gonna get your morning crossword?’ He said, ‘I'll have to go online and print it out.’ ” Knapp is skeptical that readers will develop the online habit. “The group of people in that photograph had been going to that same place 20 years,” she said. “They meet every morning and have their coffee and read their paper so the people at the coffee shop -- this is their ritual.”

While walking through the French Quarter, Knapp ran into Monsignor Crosby W. Kern, who reads the paper every day, and “he said he was very upset.” His 96-year-old mother reads the paper daily, Knapp said, “and now she's not going to be able to get her news.”

Everywhere she went Knapp asked people how the changes would affect them “and to a person they were upset. ‘I don't know how I'm gonna get my news. I don't go online. I'm not going to read the paper online,’ ” they told her.

Knapp also went to Wilbert "Mr. Chill" Wilson’s barber shop. “I walked in there and he said, ‘Oh my gosh, The Times-Picayune helped make me what I am today. I wouldn't be here if not for The Times-Picayune. They've done so much for me and for our community.’ ” Wilson helps with community benefits and is getting ready to do one for a young person who needs a heart transplant, Knapp said. “He calls the paper and he'll ask them if they're interested in covering it, and he calls the TV station. That's how it works,” Knapp said. “All these things are layers and layers of impact, the fallout from losing our daily paper.”

Wilbert "Mr. Chill" Wilson, shown above reading The Times-Picayune, has framed articles about himself on the wall of his barber shop. (Photo by Bevil Knapp, republished with permission)

The city has endured so much tragedy, Knapp said, and “the spirit of resilience is so great here that we need that paper. That paper speaks volumes about us and our community and helps define us and helps keep us going. How great is it to wake up and read a success story about somebody who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina -- two family business and five properties -- and they've rebuilt their home and they've rebuilt their lives in the 9th ward... It lifts your spirit. It helps carry us. I think it makes us better. It gives us a sense of community.”

That community includes The Lens, which has been publishing in New Orleans for two and a half years though it is still awaiting IRS approval of its 501(c)(3) status 21 months after applying for it.

“By total coincidence,” managing editor Beatty told me by phone, The Lens’ main funder “came through with a new two-year grant” the same day that The Times-Picayune announced it would be cutting back.

“It's a bittersweet time for me and my colleague editor,” Jed Horne, who was part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for its Hurricane Katrina coverage," Beatty said. We “want to scoop the Picayune and beat them to the punch on stories they're not doing, but we don't want them to go out of business.”