David Simon: End of daily publication for Times-Picayune ‘grievous news’

David Simon, whose HBO series “Treme” chronicles life in post-Katrina New Orleans, told Poynter that The Times-Picayune’s decision to cut publication to three days a week and cut staff is “grievous news as it would be for any American city.” He praised the newspaper’s “strong civic work,” particularly its investigations into police brutality and Louisiana’s prison industry:

Katrina seemed to give the paper a sense of itself for several years afterward and Newhouse was reluctant to be ruthless after the flood.

But New Orleans isn’t immune. No one is. And this slow suicide — as the great Molly Ivins called it — will continue unabated until the industry swallows hard and takes its product — every last newspaper — behind a paywall.

And if they don’t do that?

If not, then it is the day of the “citizen journalist,” which is to say, the day of the amateur. And American institutions, or for that matter the world as a whole, will not be held accountable by individuals doing this as a hobby.

Related: Sen. Landrieu on Times-Picayune: ‘To think of not having a daily print edition saddens me.’ | Simon’s 2009 CJR piece: Build the wall

Simon’s email

It’s grievous news as it would be for any American city and yes, the TP had endured better than most and done strong, civic work in the aftermath of Katrina. Their investigations of the New Orleans Police Department’s patterns of brutality during and after the flood, as well as a recent series of articles on how Louisiana has become the world’s prison capital by giving its corrections function over to raw capitalism, were particularly great. Katrina seemed to give the paper a sense of itself for several years afterward and Newhouse was reluctant to be ruthless after the flood.

But New Orleans isn’t immune. No one is. And this slow suicide — as the great Molly Ivins called it — will continue unabated until the industry swallows hard and takes its product — every last newspaper — behind a paywall. Either newspapers create an online revenue stream or they die. Online advertising isn’t enough and the pennies thrown from on high by aggregators are irrelevant. Either content and copyright matter, or they don’t. If they don’t, then this is over.

But people want news, and they want people who can report the news in a comprehensive, consistent and unbiased way. For the entire history of journalism, they have been willing to pay as subscribers. That, I believe, is still true. If newspapers can reinvest in their content and if the industry as a whole embraces a consistent and unequivocal pay wall, then there is a future. If not, then it is the day of the “citizen journalist,” which is to say, the day of the amateur. And American institutions, or for that matter the world as a whole, will not be held accountable by individuals doing this as a hobby.

The New York Times took that deep breath, and now, they’re seeing revenue. They are a unique product, true — but so are most metropolitan papers within their regions. Either the rest of the industry follows the Times and lives — or dies trying. Or it continues to circle the drain, dying slowly.

What I wrote three years ago in CJR about this still applies, in my opinion. The big papers need to go first. The Washington Post is late, and ridiculously so. The LA Times, too. And once they are in, then the regional papers need to assert for their copyright and begin charging for content online, the same way that newspapers have always charged subscribers for content.

Would it be easier if the industry hadn’t gutted itself first. Sure. It’s a long road back. But it’s the only road.

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  • http://profiles.google.com/johnwcowan John Cowan

    Subscriptions haven’t paid even the costs, never mind the profits, of newspapers for nearly a century.  Circulation wars were called that for a reason: every additional paper sold in an attempt to beat the competition was more money lost, just as every additional soldier put into the field increases cost.  (Now, of course, competition among dailies hardly exists.)

  • http://twitter.com/stew_winkel Stew Winkel

    It has to be wide spread. I love newspapers, and am a Boston native who moved away. The Boston Globe recently put a lot of its articles behind a pay wall, and I just am not going to pay for news when I can get similar news other places for free. 

  • robelroy

    Cue comments by the Jay Rosens and Matt Ingrams stating that this just show the “arrogance” of media, who claim only they can tell the masses the truth. Well, Jay and Matt, journalism is serious business on serious ground. Tell me where are your citizen journalists? Tell me what stories they have broken? Tell me about the amazing Wikileaks saga that has now totally and irrevocably died? Every time I see journalists get cut from papers, now even I get happy, but not for the same reason. Now journalists have to take the fates of their home papers seriously. So, you say a paywall prevents you from being seen by the masses? Guess what, when you have a job at a gas station next week, you won’t be seen by the masses either.