On May 23, the New York Times’s David Carr reported an exclusive: New Orleans’s newspaper, the 175-year-old Times-Picayune, would cease to be a daily. Starting in the fall, it would publish only three print editions per week—on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays. A week later, New Orleanians got a reminder of why city newspapers matter. The paper that greeted residents as they opened their front doors featured a grim front-page picture: a little girl, dead, collateral damage from a shooting that tallied five victims. “I raised my camera and through the zoom lens realized with dawning horror that five-year-old Briana Allen did not have a large pink flower on her dress. A bullet had emptied the contents of her abdomen,” wrote the photographer, Michael DeMocker, for the Sunday Times-Picayune nearly two weeks later.
As reader Stephen Monroe pointed out in a letter to the paper, the photo was “a good example of why we need a daily newspaper.” New Orleanians could have learned of Briana’s death in other ways, but the ultimate source of their news would probably have been the Times-Picayune. Residents who don’t buy or borrow the newspaper tend to get their news from nola.com, which relies on Times-Picayune stories for its feed. People who prefer to watch TV or read blogs get their information from anchors and opinion makers who, even if they do their own footwork, usually begin that journey by reading the daily paper or nola.com.
Nearly two decades ago, it was easy to make fun of the Times-Picayune as a symbol of the city’s lackluster media environment. Compared with the cacophony of competing newspapers and brash voices that other cities—particularly in the Northeast—had to offer, the Times-Pic was modest, even a bit boring. The paper devoted lots of ink to sports, debutante balls, and metro columnists who ruminated aimlessly (and seemingly newslessly) on their particular neighborhoods. Its editorial columnists were earnest rather than witty. The most thought-provoking part of the paper was often the editorial cartoon. As for the news itself, well, every city had basic news and even investigative journalism; it was easy to take the Times-Pic’s for granted.
Today, it’s a different story. Cities from Denver to Oakland have seen daily papers fold, and all cities have watched their newspapers shrink. It’s easy to find free wit and snark—just go to Twitter, and you’ll get more than your fill in five minutes. What’s much tougher to find, even in cities lucky enough still to have a daily paper or two, is good, solid reporting of the kind that the Times-Picayune has traditionally offered.
The Times-Pic will inevitably do less of that. In June, it fired half of its editorial staff. As a leaner, less frequent paper faces pressure from powerful advertisers and civic leaders, it will be tempted to spin the news. Its remaining reporters, fearful for their jobs, may be less likely to resist those pressures. The owners of a tourist-dependent restaurant, say, may not want to see a dead girl on the front page of the thrice-weekly paper in which it advertises. As Times-Pic columnist James Gill wrote recently, tourism consultants counseled the city in 2009 to “remove negative crime perception and lower crime news-worthiness,” so as not to scare away visitors and investors.
So far, New Orleanians can still rely on their paper for good information about their city’s body count and on its reporters to provide context. New Orleans’s 58 murders per 100,000 residents made the city “America’s unquestioned murder capital” in 2011, “far ahead” of other cities “with serious crime and homicide problems,” wrote Laura Maggi in January. The Times-Pic features skeptical columnists, notably Jarvis DeBerry, who are unafraid to call out authority—by questioning the leadership and tactics of the police department, for example.
Good newspapering isn’t sufficient to ensure that a city protects its citizens, of course, but surely it’s a prerequisite. Gutting a private institution that competently, unglamorously has done its job makes it less likely that government institutions will do theirs. More little girls will bleed to death near their front stoops, and fewer people will be forced to think about it even for a fleeting moment as they pick up the paper to look for the sports scores.