A Big, Not Easy solution to the journalism crisis in New Orleans

I feel like I’ve spent most of the last week watching the Hatfields & McCoys. No, I’m not referring to the new TV series about the famous feuding families of the West Virginia hills. I mean the two fiercely divided camps arguing about the massive changes that are coming to the New Orleans Times-Picayune as well as three Alabama newspapers also published by the Advance Publications arm of the Newhouse family media empire. Barring some massively unexpected turn of events, these four papers will reduce publication in the fall to just three days a week and devote the bulk of their energies to delivering news over the Internet.

Nobody is overly thrilled about the plan – if for no other reason than the huge toll that these changes will inflict upon actual human beings. A key element of what a Mobile editor regrettably called the “exciting changes” that are coming to the newsrooms involves wholesale job cuts, as well as reports that journalists will have to re-apply for their jobs – possibly at sharply reduced salaries.

This aspect greatly pains me – and a lot of other journalists – on a very personal level. I spent three of my happiest years in newspapers as a young, energetic and often naïve reporter for the Birmingham News from 1982 to 1985. The man who arranged my hiring there became a top editor in New Orleans, and is reportedly losing his job; another ex-colleague who’s been editorial page editor in Birmingham took a corporate job just one day after the “exciting changes” were announced. I have other good friends in the Birmingham and New Orleans newsrooms, and so a lot of my thinking about this topic is driven by them, their families and their future.

But while no one disputes the human toll, we’ve seen two feuding clans when it comes to the other important question, which is how to interpret this clearly momentous development in the grand sweep of American journalism. Our Hatfields are the group that I’ll also call the Traditionalists (although I guess a cynic could call them the Luddites.) The Traditionalists are virtually overcome with grief over the loss of a daily paper to the point where they struggle to imagine life in a city like New Orleans without one. They are bitter and angry -- and their fury is largely directed toward what they see as short-sighted newspaper moguls, who they blame for “The Great Mistake” of not putting news immediately behind a paywall the moment that Internet usage surged in the mid-to-late 1990s.

The Traditionalists have a spokesman in former Baltimore Sun reporter and “Treme”/”The Wire” guru David Simon, who wrote a much-discussed article calling the New Orleans cutbacks “grievous” and arguing that quality journalism can’t be replaced by “amateurs and hobbyists.” He concluded: “Journalism is a profession; it requires careers, and careers require a living wage, and until newspapers recover a revenue stream for their online product, they have no future.”

Simon and our other grieving Hatfields/Traditionalists were hit back sharply by our McCoys in this saga, the Futurists -- or as Dean Starkman called them, The Future of News (FON) crowd. Indeed, some of their pushback took place in the comments section to the Simon piece that was published (ironically?) online. They argue that the decline of print journalism is unstoppable and though one can quibble with some of the details in New Orleans and Alabama, the owners are responsibly dealing with that inevitability before it’s too late.

The notion of paywalls succeeding for most news orgs, the Futurists argue, is a quaint and naïve misunderstanding of what readers would pay for now and what they paid for in past. Wrote Howard Owens in response to Simon: “Until publishers get smart about online -- which they still haven't done in more than 15 years of trying, and are now only digging their hole deeper with pay walls -- those newspapers have no future. Journalism will be just fine.”

At least the real-life Hatfield and McCoy feud wound down after three decades or so. When it comes to newsrooms, the Traditionalists and the Futurists seem much, much farther apart. But that’s because no one is thinking outside the honor box, if you will.

Let’s focus, for the sake of simplicity, just on the situation in New Orleans. There are solutions – not easy solutions, but big solutions, and if folks have the gumption to pull off these ideas, the Big Easy could actually have better journalism and a better informed citizenry. I would call them (although political junkies might cringe at this term) a Third Way for saving journalism in the Crescent City.

First of all, let’s stipulate that almost everyone who’s looked at the planned changes – from the stone-tablet set to the flying-cars crowd – agrees there are three big problems for journalism in New Orleans. The first and biggest one is the digital divide; with such high rates of poverty and of elderly residents, and with studies showing more than a third of homes without Internet access, New Orleans seems like the worst place in America to cover news mainly on the Web. Second, ink-stained wretches and bleary-eyed bloggers can agree there’s no way you can go from 150 journalists to only 100 and actually improve news coverage. Third, people who’ve stopped pontificating long enough to actually look at the current Nola.com agree that right now it’s pretty crappy; even worse, the current plan to the three-a-week print editions calls for simply slapping down Internet copy onto a page, which bodes poorly for quality journalism.

But there are ways to solve some of these problems. In the case of the digital divide in New Orleans, the biggest issue isn’t lack of interest in high-speed Internet but lack of money. The pending changes at the Times-Picayune scream out for a new, large-scale and well-coordinated philanthropic effort to increase Internet access in New Orleans, to levels that compare to more affluent cities.

America’s larger philanthropic organizations have been understandably reluctant to directly fund newspapers, but I think they would view an Internet-access project much more favorably. Consider, for example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Bill Gates has spoken passionately in the past about bridging the digital divide, but so far his efforts have been largely in the area of putting computers in public libraries. What about a more ambitious plan that would partner with the Times-Picayune owners to bundle tablets or other devices that could be packaged with easy access to news and public data?

An even more ambitious – yet very doable – approach to this would also aim to improve hyperlocal journalism in these poorer neighborhoods. Imagine a street-level Internet café that coordinated the charitable tablet program with a couple of hyperlocal reporters (also subsidized), who not only write but work to recruit citizen journalists, from bloggers to photographers.

One could envision a place like the poverty-stricken 9th Ward having better news coverage by 2015 than it had in 2005. The fact that we’re talking about New Orleans – the city that was almost destroyed by the federal flood after Hurricane Katrina, lashed by BP’s oil slick, and still copes with an obscene murder rate – would seemingly make it easier to solicit outside help. Is there anyone out there who could forward Mr. Gates’ email address?

The other matter is that New Orleans has issues that transcend hyperlocal and citizen journalism. Simply put, it is one of our most corrupt cities, located in one of our most corrupt states. So if there’s anywhere that needs professional journalists -- paid a traditional newspaper wage to spend three months, six months, even a year on an in-depth investigative project -- it is New Orleans. The great news is that (in the spirit of our iPad philanthropy) there’s already an app for that. This, too, relies on philanthropy and the argument that New Orleans is a city of great need; the so-called ProPublica model. Again, this would be a charitably supported venture which – like the Pulitzer Prize-winning ProPublica has done on a national level – would produce in-depth, long-form reports that could be published either on Nola.com/the Times-Picayune… or elsewhere. (ProPublica's first Pulitzer Prize was actually for a story about New Orleans that ran in the New York Times magazine.)

I don’t think philanthropy (or heaven forbid, government aid…no thank you!) alone could solve New Orleans’ journalism crisis. I don’t think anyone does. What the best philanthropy tries to do is find the sweet spots where it can do the most good – and in this case I believe those sweet spots are Internet access and subsidized investigative reporting. Advance Publications will still have to compete in the free-market media jungle, but other forces would guarantee that the essential civic functions of journalism will not disappear.

The Hatfields -- I mean, Traditionalists -- get what they want, which is a continuation of true watchdog reporting. But I believe this can be done in a 21st Century world of pixels – with a little outside help. Most of my friends and their colleagues could keep doing the great journalism they were born to do. After all, New Orleans is the city that proved anything is possible. You do remember the Saints winning the Super Bowl, don’t you?


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