This lean, ambitious examination of the digital transformation of The Times-Picayune, New Orleans’s oldest daily newspaper, evokes the Indian parable of the four blind men and the elephant.
Assembled by a commendable team of four media scholars, The Transformation of an American Newspaper (the subtitle is more serviceable as a title) is a worthwhile read, though more for its parts than for the sum of its 131 pages.
The book provides an overview of the history of The Times-Picayune, leading up to the announcement in 2012 of a bold plan by the newspaper’s corporate parents to enter the digital age—in part by abandoning its 30-year “monopoly” as New Orleans’s only daily newspaper.
The book centers on The Picayune’s transformation to digital delivery, begun in 2012—the newspaper’s 175th anniversary year as an institutional pillar of the city. A unique and protracted public uproar (2012-13) followed a (short-lived) plan to end daily distribution of the newspaper’s print editions. The mass layoff of the paper’s skilled workers endured. The book jacket reports: “More than 200 employees, including half the newsroom, were laid off in one of the poorest U.S. cities with among the lowest literacy rates and percentages of households with Internet access.” Unfortunately, the city’s ignominious indices receive short shrift in the book.
Transformation does not present a clear “big picture” describing why The Picayune’s change of technology is important to the future of journalism and New Orleans, a city nearly destroyed by the destructive floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29, 2005—10 years ago. There is also no central argument, no single “take-away.”
Unlike the parable of the blind investigators and the elephant, there are no disagreements among the four authors to stimulate critical thinking about their individual conclusions about disparate topics on other transformative periods in the newspaper’s history.
The lack of cohesive analysis is an obvious flaw, albeit not fatal. Once addressed, one can easily envision future editions of Transformation as a textbook case of American journalism.
To their credit, the authors undertook the unenviable task of both describing and analyzing the value to the public weal of a privately held newspaper at a time when The Picayune’s transformation was still a dramatic, “developing story.”
Instead of attempting to fully analyze the newspaper’s transformation before completion, the authors offer generous helpings of the paper’s rich history and colorful descriptions of the unique public outcry that greeted The Picayune’s otherwise banal restructuring plans.
The book’s highly technical “content analysis” of news coverage—before and after the “digital decision of 2012”—conducted by Vicki Mayer, an associate professor of communications at Tulane University, completes the book.
What emerges from the book as a whole is the image of a major metropolitan newspaper as a veritable mastodon—a commanding, once-dominant figure suddenly struggling to change with the times, new technology and a restive readership.
The “gutting” of American newsrooms is a grim and familiar story, according to C. W. Anderson, author of Rebuilding the News: Metropolitan Journalism in the Digital Age (2013). Anderson prepares readers with an insightful introduction into the bleak future of metropolitan newspapers like The Picayune.
He counts the casualties of the “free” information age, including closed newspapers and thousands of lost jobs. He speculates on the immeasurable effect of low-quality news on an informed democracy. He describes how changing technologies, routines and economic downturns all converge to “create a system of stress,” resulting in “demoralization, burnout and cynicism” of reporters and editors.
The proliferation of bloggers (and other citizen-journalists), the omniscience of social networks and the ubiquity of hand-held devices all compound a “cultural crisis” facing newsroom workers. Journalists may no longer feel a clear sense of purpose, “despite their increasingly desperate claims to be sentinels of democracy.”
Anderson says The Times-Picayune is one example of a “local” news outlet’s vulnerability to larger forces. “We can understand the current state of American newspapers only by zeroing in on the cities in which this future of journalism is playing out. Each story of every news outlet is a local one, but every local paper in every local city is also subject to far wider economic, organizational and technological forces that have created a sense of crisis across the American news industry.”
Alfred E. Lorenz, a historian of journalism at Loyola University New Orleans sets the stage for The Picayune’s transformation, describing how the paper was “scooped” on its own restructuring plans. “On May 23, 2012, media critic David Carr of The New York Times reported that sources at The Times-Picayune had told him that the newspaper was going to begin massive layoffs and cut publication to two or three days a week. Carr’s story pushed executives of the newspaper and the Newhouse family’s Advance Publications, its owner, to make the announcement earlier than they had planned,” even as The Times-Picayune celebrated the 175th anniversary of its founding.”
Lorenz then takes a deep dive into the paper’s history. Beginning with the founding by two journeymen printers in 1837, he describes a changing cast of owners, operators and technologies in painstaking detail. Lorenz lulls the reader into an expectation of longevity for The Times-Picayune.
We expect The Picayune to survive journalism’s current uncertain future because it has endured so much in the past: Union occupation during the Civil War; yellow fever epidemics, financial downturns, an antitrust suit brought by the United States Department of Justice in the 1950s and hurricanes like Katrina.
In terms of technology, the paper is no stranger to innovation. During the Mexican War of 1846, for example, the co-founders, George Kendall and Francis Lumsden, collaborated with The Baltimore Sun to use the Pony Express to relay dispatches, scooping competitors and even the federal government in Washington, D.C., on major developments in the conflict.
Lorenz’s “Historical View” lays a durable foundation for future research by other media scholars.
Frank D. Durham’s chapter, “Inescapable Reality,” explores The Picayune’s lack of leadership during another era of historical transformation, the New Orleans school integration crisis (1960-61).
Drawing heavily on the classic work by the British historian Adam Fairclough, Race and Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana, 1915-1972, Durham describes The Times-Picayune under the “ardent segregationist” leadership of its president, John F. “Jack” Tims, and its editor, George W. Healy. Facing the “unprecedented crises” of the civil rights era, The Times-Picayune abandoned its long-held loyalty to racial segregation without acknowledging the harsh, discriminatory laws designed to repress African-Americans. The Picayune joined “business-led” pragmatists who either favored or bowed to the constitutionally mandated integration of public schools—opposed by Louisiana‘s pro-segregation governor, Jimmy Davis.
Durham’s emphasis on the press’s “framing” of the racial crisis may annoy or intrigue the reader. “Framing” is an often-used analytical tool for this media scholar, an associate professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Washington, Madison. In Transformation, “framing” sometimes, ironically, gets in the way of Durham’s interesting roll-out of historical evidence.
Sherry Lee Alexander, a professor of mass communications at Loyola University, New Orleans, ushers the reader into a more liberal, progressive era at The Picayune under the editor Jim Amoss and its publisher Ashton Phelps Jr. Under Amoss, a former investigative reporter who became editor in 1990, the paper won all four of its Pulitzer Prizes, including two in 2006 for its coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The newspaper also won critical community support that no doubt helped to sustain news operations, despite a 42 percent drop in advertising between 2009 to 2012, according to fellow scholar Vicki Mayer.
Advance Publications, the corporate parents of The Times-Picayune (and some two dozen other media markets nationwide) responded to the downturn in ad-supported revenue at the New Orleans paper with a “slow downsizing of the workforce.”
In 2012, Advanced announced its “digital first” strategy for The Picayune. The plan called for reducing print publication to three days a week, redirecting readers to a website affiliate (www.nola.com) and carrying out a major reorganization that will put at least 200 people out of work. (Another 100 were laid off after the Picayune printing plant closed in January 2015.)
First implemented at Advance newspapers in Michigan in 2009, the “digital first” strategy later guts Advance newsrooms from New York to Oregon and Pennsylvania to Alabama by 2013 with little public outcry. The response in New Orleans is quite different.
In a city with a colorful history, live music and proud cultural traditions, local resistance to Advance’s decision to downsize and digitize the daily newspaper, appears to spread—or “pixilate.” “New Orleanians were talking about the announcement as if it were a hurricane heading towards the Gulf (of Mexico),”Professor Alexander writes.
The Advance plan, briefly, left tourism-dependent New Orleans as the first major city without a daily newspaper. The Newhouse family ignored attempts by prominent civic and business leaders, including the owner of the New Orleans Saints, Tom Benson, who offered to buy The Times-Picayune. Advance’s disinterest only fueled public protests. A prominent civic activist started a web site, Save The Picayune. Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans, head of the nation’s second-oldest Roman Catholic diocese (after Baltimore), joined the presidents of the city’s colleges and universities in signing letters of protest. In a uniquely local sop, Mardi Gras parade floats ridiculed Advance executives by name.
A Baton Rouge publishing family launched The New Orleans Advocate to fill the daily void. The Picayune responded by increasing its print editions, albeit with confusing delivery schedules and format changes. The New Orleans Advocate hires laid-off Times-Picayune workers and star reporters.
Unlike what happened in other American cities, the digital transformation in New Orleans spawned an old-fashioned “newspaper war” that continues to play out today.
The book closes with an intriguing technical examination of Picayune news coverage by Professor Mayer and her Tulane students. The chapter is provocatively titled “More but Softer: Before and After the Digital Decision at The Times-Picayune, 2012.”
The editor Jim Amoss succeeds in finding flaws in Mayer’s methodology for measuring the quality and quantity of digital news content. Amoss invokes the “ebb and flow of the news cycle,” a standard defense journalists use to remind their own business executives that news production is not like making widgets or baking cookies. Professor Mayer succeeds in discounting the Picayune’s editorial promise that its transformation will “significantly increase its online news-gathering efforts” 24 hours daily and result in “enhanced printed newspapers” with “richer and deeper” news, sports and entertainment. “We might say that these claims are not altogether false, but neither are they completely true,” Mayer says.
Amoss’s response is an obvious coup for the Tulane communication students. The only criticism I would make here is of the absence of a glossary for journalism’s new “click economy.”
If other reachers don’t reach the same conclusions about Transformation as this reviewer, they are clearly focusing on different parts of the same proverbial “elephant.”