Starting this fall, New Orleans will become the largest U.S. city to go without a daily newspaper, but it won't be the first.

That distinction is held by Ann Arbor, Mich. In 2009, Advance Publications stopped printing the paper all but two days a week, cut the staff and started focusing on its website. The company expanded the model at several more newspapers in Michigan earlier this year.

The question — in New Orleans, as well as in Birmingham, Mobile and Huntsville, Ala., where Advance is doing the same thing — is whether Ann Arbor is the model that Advance should follow.

How has the online-only approach fared in Ann Arbor? And does that say anything about whether it will work in New Orleans?

Mixed results in Ann Arbor

Rick Edmonds, Poynter's business analyst, has heard mixed assessments of Ann Arbor's online focus. “On the one hand, they liked it enough that they did it with the rest of the Michigan papers. On the other hand, I've never had the impression that it's been a real financial success, and it has the typical difficulty of trying to generate meaningful online ad revenues.”

Mary Morgan, publisher of the online-only Ann Arbor Chronicle — yes, a competitor — was more critical. AnnArbor.com's staff has been cut, she wrote in an email, and the site has dropped features that were supposed to differentiate it:

You can find isolated community voices who offer a positive take on some aspects of the publication. However, with respect to its overall journalistic success, it's fair to say that the general sentiment in the community ranges from disgruntled resignation to outright loathing. ...

Having watched the debacle here as it continues to unfold, I find it incredible that the Newhouses would impose this on another publication, particularly one as storied as The Times-Picayune. It's truly baffling. Or maybe not: Owners who don't live in a community — or in the same state or region —see these publications as commodities to be optimized.

Though the Picayune's approach is modeled on Ann Arbor's, the city of New Orleans has more in common with the home of another experiment in curtailed circulation: Detroit.

The Detroit Free Press (owned by Gannett) and The Detroit News (owned by MediaNews) still print the papers, but they deliver only three days a week; on the other days, readers can buy slimmed-down editions at newsstands.

Edmonds said there are downsides even to that approach. Big news sometimes breaks on days when the newspapers aren't delivered. Some older residents have complained that by the time they hear someone has died, the funeral already has occurred. (Detroit News Managing Editor Don Nauss said that could be the result of people preferring paid obits in the home-delivery editions.)

New Orleans: A newspaper city

One thing that may work in the Picayune's favor, Edmonds said, is that it relied so heavily on its website for its Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The newspaper wasn't published for three days; even after it resumed, the website was the central source of information for the Katrina diaspora. That may have strengthened the community's relationship with the website.

Market research, however, shows that print still rules in New Orleans, even as the paper's circulation has dropped by almost half since Katrina:

  • March 2005 circulation: about 285,000 Sunday, 257,000 weekday
  • March 2012: about 155,000 on Sunday, 134,000 weekday

Some of that is the typical decline of the American metro newspaper; the rest is due to the fact that the city hasn't regained all the residents it lost in the storm. (The 2010 census put the population at 71 percent of what it was in 2000.)

But many of those who remain read the paper. The Times-Picayune had the fourth-highest market penetration in the country in 2011, reaching 65 percent of adults via print and online, according to PEJ's State of the Media.

What makes that notable is that newspaper readership generally correlates with higher income and educational level, according to the report.

When you look at just print, The Times-Picayune has the highest market penetration among the top 50 designated market areas in the U.S., said Deirdre McFarland, vice president of marketing for Scarborough Research.

The newspaper reaches 60 percent of adults, according to Scarborough. And although 24 percent of adults visit the newspaper's website weekly, most of them read the paper, too. The website adds only 5 percentage points to its overall reach, which Edmonds said is typical.

"It is a profoundly print habit" in New Orleans, wrote media analyst Ken Doctor:

How will its readers really adjust to the other four days week of digital-only, if they’re not strongly digital — and don’t have great digital products to consume. Big worry: Breaking the daily habit makes newspaper companies far less essential far more quickly.

Adding to the challenge is Internet access, particularly in poorer parts of the city that contribute to the Picayune's unusually high penetration rate. According to The New York Times, 36 percent of New Orleans residents didn't have Internet access at home in 2010.

report on broadband access concluded:

Subscribers to high-speed Internet services in New Orleans are generally white and in the higher income brackets. ... This issue is about more than convenience for watching movies and listening to music; increasingly, high-speed Internet access is essential for effective education, civic engagement and economic opportunity.

And news.

Who did that report? The Center for Public Integrity, American University's Investigative Reporting Workshop and The Lens, a nonprofit news site in New Orleans.