Since nobody hauling in seven figures annually knows what to do with the newspaper business in the post-modern era, especially in communities like New Orleans, I’ll throw out an idea that Rich Beckman and I came up with over dinner a couple of years ago.
Granted, we had imbibed a bit of the grape before embarking upon the serious discussion of my master’s thesis and how I would share the short films I’d shot in Miami’s Overtown community with the people there. But looking back today through the continuing and spectacular unraveling (can you say “Journatic”?) of that-which-once-made-newspapers-great, the method we devised for disseminating multimedia content within one of the least-wired ZIP codes in America now seems like a not-so-outlandish notion. Besides that, it actually worked on a very small scale.
So, I will now throw another admittedly half-baked piece of pasta against the wall we’re all watching crumble (you know, that last one… the only one that’s left holding up the business model above our heads), and it is this:
The impending Death of the Daily in New Orleans will leave fewer newspapers to be passed around at “barber shops, beauty salons, cafes and convenience stores” by the great number of folks on the far side of the city’s digital divide.
Yet, based on my experience creating broadband-friendly journalism in Overtown, a community where residential access to broadband is virtually nonexistent, I believe it is possible for newspapers that are truly committed to their most marginalized communities, as I hope the Times-Picayune is, to continue to engage those communities on a daily basis even after the daily printed version of their publication is history.
“Overtown: Inside/Out” was my thesis project at the University of Miami’s Master’s in Multimedia Journalism program, where I worked with Beckman, Knight Chair for Visual Journalism. From late 2009 through the first half of 2011, I shot and produced short films, the kind normally suited for Internet distribution, in Overtown, a neighborhood with one of the highest poverty rates in the country. In many ways, it is similar to parts of New Orleans where the loss of a daily newspaper will be felt most acutely.
Because I wanted to go beyond the parachute-style journalism that typifies mainstream media’s coverage of poor communities –“respond to murder, get sound bites from cops and neighbors, get out” — I moved into Overtown and lived there for several months.
Because I wanted to involve the people of Overtown (“Towners,” as they call themselves) as deeply as possible in the project, as co-producers rather than mere subjects, I procured four electronic kiosks originally intended for use during a cruise ship’s boarding process and hacked them into portable, interactive multimedia stations with video recording capabilities.
I then loaded my videos onto their hard drives and placed the machines in just the kind of public spaces from which daily newspapers will soon disappear in New Orleans — a barbershop, a barbecue restaurant, a coin laundry and a convenience store.
The kiosks had no keyboard or mouse; all user-input was through the touch-sensitive screens. Viewers were told that the kiosk’s camera would record them as they watched and commented on the videos. As a cue for responses, each video began with hip-hop artist Desloc Piccalo, an Overtown native, explaining that at the end of the video he would ask the viewer these questions:
- “How does seeing this film make you feel about Overtown?”
- “Should this film be shown outside of Overtown and how would that make you feel?”
- “What should be the next subject we film for ‘Overtown: Inside/Out’?”
The four kiosks were active in Overtown for about 12 weeks. During that time, the preloaded video content was played about 1,300 times. Towners left several dozen video responses on the kiosks. My original videos and the video responses are archived at Overtowner.com.
Carl Lewis, co-owner of People’s Barbecue, one of the venues that hosted the kiosks, believes similar devices could be one way to allow “Digital First” newspapers to continue delivering content to residents of communities like Overtown.
“People enjoyed it, they were intrigued by it and they understood what the thinking was behind it,” Lewis said in a recent telephone interview. “Once they got over the initial skepticism about the technology, they gravitated towards it. Younger kids took to it faster, the older people took a little longer, but eventually they got involved too.”
Even in neighborhoods like Overtown, restaurants like People’s Barbecue and other small businesses routinely access the Internet for credit card transactions. ATMs are common in convenience stores just about everywhere. It seems to me that the same connections that allow these devices to function could be adapted for the distribution of content via kiosks by entities like NOLA Media Group.
Even though I love the smell of newsprint in the morning, I can’t remember the last time I bought a physical newspaper. I also can’t argue with Ricky Mathews, NOLA Media Group’s president, when he says that the Times-Picayune’s “best path to success lies in a digitally focused organization.”
It is not a newspaper publisher’s job to provide Internet access to its readership.
But I strongly believe that it is a newspaper’s job to provide relevant news and information to the communities it serves, with neither favor nor prejudice based on the speed of the Internet connections within those communities.
Charles “Stretch” Ledford is an Assistant Professor of Journalism in the College of Media at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His latest project, “Virtual Dugout,” is a mobile app that uses augmented reality to enhance the fan experience for followers of University of Illinois baseball.