As New Orleans may become biggest U.S. city without daily paper, I remember lessons about Times Picayune and Hurricane Katrina
I remember walking into a coffee shop just a few blocks from the Le Richelieu Hotel, inside New Orleans' French Quarter, just five months after the flood which ravaged the town after Hurricane Katrina.
I was in the last day of reporting on an extensive feature story I would write about how the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper was trying to recover after the hurricane and floods -- just like the city it served.
And what struck me, upon entering that coffee shop on a Sunday morning, was that there were only a handful of people sitting inside. And every one had a copy of the Times-Picayune open, scanning for information.
So it was with a heavy heart that I scanned the stories Thursday, noting the Times-Picayune planned to cut back publication of its print product to three days a week and focus on its digital platforms, making New Orleans the largest city in America without a daily newspaper.
In one swoop, owners Advance Publications managed what Katrina could not; hobbling a newspaper which served a community where, when I wrote my story, something like 67 percent of the city's residents read the newspaper. (according to Poynter.org, that market penetration rate still stood at 60 percent for the newspaper alone in 2011.)
This was something readers and staffers feared might happen in the early wake of Katrina flooding, as the city's population dipped and it was tough to know whether subscriptions would be renewed as they ran out. Poynter.org notes that the newspaper's daily subscription levels fell by nearly half after the storm; from 257,000 daily in March 2005 to 134,000 currently.
For my story, I had spent time at editor Jim Amoss' house, where a stranger's car sat curbside, abandoned, with groceries still in the back seat. I had visited with Renee Peck, the homes and garden editor who saw a tornado damage her home just as workers were finishing up fixing the destruction from the flood. And I helped pull insulation and old flooring from the home of advertising employee Charlotte Jackson, joining a crew of Times-Picayune employees "gutting" the homes of staffers badly damaged by floodwaters.
I also noticed back then that the newspaper's web site operations had been mostly based in a building five miles away from the newspaper, established as a separate corporation. Before the Katrina flooding, there was one desk for web staffers inside the newspaper's newsroom.
But the hurricane and the flooding pushed the web site and newspaper into working more closely together -- one website staffer shed tears while showing me online video of employees and their families who had ridden out the storm at the Times Picayune headquarters, piling into delivery trucks the next day to flee the rising floodwaters. The website became the newspaper's sole voice for days after the hurricane passed.
Now Advance says it will form one corporation to oversee its newspaper and website, NOLA Media group, to shift its emphasis to digital products. But since online ads often draw 10 percent the revenue of print ads, how will they maintain the reporting staff needed to keep up coverage?
Given that it has taken Advance close to seven years to unite the newspaper and website after the Katrina example, I wonder how the company will supercharge its online products, even as it implements cuts rumored to affect 30 percent of the staff.
And I also wonder if this is a sign of the future -- given similar cutbacks in publishing in Detroit and layoffs at USA Today -- or perhaps just a sign of one company making a very risky move.
For the sake of the newspaper industry nationwide, I'm hoping it's the latter.