10:30 am Jun. 8, 20121
Wherever there's big U.S. news, there's a small local paper that stands to enter the spotlight.
With the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal, it was The Patriot-News of Harrisburg, Penn., which won a Pulitzer this year for its coverage of the disgraced former Penn State football coach now on trial for allegedly molesting young boys. With the deadly tornadoes that tore through a swath of rural Missouri a year ago this week, it was The Joplin Globe, which didn't miss a beat chronicling the devastation around it even after it had lost one of its own.
The decision by New York-based Newhouse Newspapers to scale The Times-Picayune's print schedule back to three times a week and lay off dozens of employees in the process is a very different sort of tragedy. But it has in a very similar way propelled a 40,000-circulation New Orleans alt-weekly called The Gambit into the national media-news feed.
A 31-year-old New Orleans institution with a local owner and a full-time editorial staff of eight, The Gambit has been following the still-unfolding Times-Picayune saga perhaps more closely and consistently than any other outlet. (It does have the hometown advantage, after all.) Its coverage has been spread around the web by all the usual media-news aggregators (Romenesko, Mediagazer, Poynter, etc.) and picked up by larger general-interest publications like The New York Times, which initially broke the news about the Times-Picayune's imminent semi-shuttering on the night of May 23.
The Gambit wasn't that far behind.
"I spent a lot of that night driving around talking to people," said Kevin Allman, The Gambit's editor-in-chief and resident Times-Picayune beat reporter, of the 2:40 a.m. time-stamp on his first dispatch about the Picayune's pending fate.
Allman said he'd been chasing the story for the previous few days after hearing from Picayune sources who'd developed a creeping suspicion that something was amiss. The paper's management had always been open and upfront with the rank-and-file about goings-on at the paper. Lately, with a new publisher in place, Picayune brass seemed curiously silent, and executive meetings were suddenly being held outside the building. People started to speculate.
"That was the genesis of it, these off-campus meetings," said Allman, who didn't seem at all bitter that he ended up getting scooped by the Times' David Carr. "There were a few things in Carr's story I was looking to get a second source on. He also had some facts I didn't know."
We asked Allman for some local perspective on what the Picayune's print reduction means for the local media economy.
"Going to three days a week raises some class issues about who can read the news," he said. "We have some of the poorest broadband penetration in the nation. And I think it discounts our very large elderly population, who've been fiercely loyal to the Picayune for most of their lives. I think the impact on them is going to be tremendous."
The notion of news being printed on paper everday and distributed in boxes and racks throughout a city might seem quaint to digital evangelists smugly counting down the days until all news is served up on handheld devices and computer screens. But New Orleans is an old-fashioned city, and the level of print penetration there is higher than it is in other U.S. metropolises, said Allman.
"People still talk about what's on the front page of The Times-Picayune," he said. "It cuts across a lot of social classes. All sorts of people still read the physical paper. When you go into a coffee shop, you see folks reading it. It's not always like that when I travel to other places. So the thought of that being taken away just seems like another blow."
Carr made the same point in a recent Times column on what he called the "doomed romance" of the Picayune, a local treasure that came to signify survival and resilience in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
"I return to New Orleans often — to fish, eat and dance," he wrote. "But it is a particular pleasure to sit in one of the city’s many coffee shops and watch plain old folks jaw over The Times-Picayune, brandishing it like a weapon when they want to make a point."
"Access to news is being lost here no matter how good the journalism is," said Allman.
As The Gambit reported on May 27, the Picayune's new editorial structure will look something like this:
The reporters/content providers have been told to gather information and post it online as it comes in, rather than filing traditional long-form stories. They will be providing updates throughout the day on NOLA.com and other platforms such as Twitter, and expected to take photos and video as circumstances warrant to augment the content they file online — though this information-gathering will supplant, not replace, the paper’s photographers.
The plan was presented to newsroom employees as a positive change, “freeing” them from being concerned about how their work would appear in the newspaper edition in terms of word length and story elements.
A similar model was put into place when Newhouse replaced Michigan's Ann Arbor News with a daily website called AnnArbor.com and a thrice-weekly print edition of the same name.
"No offense to its staff, but AnnArbor.com, online at least, is a constantly updated blog, which gives equal play to impaled cyclists and rabid skunks as it does to politics and crime," wrote former New York Times Detroit bureau chief and Ann Arbor resident Micheline Maynard on Forbes.com recently. "The printed edition is newspaper-like, but with a different style and less gravitas than its predecessor."
Many New Orleans residents worry that the same fate will befall Picayune 2.0. Asked if he shared this concern, Allman remained neutral.
"They say they're going to stay vigorous and be in-depth and hold up the quality, and I have no reason to doubt that," he said.
If the quality of Picayune content does deteriorate, however, it would seem to present an opportunity for The Gambit and other smaller shops in town. Allman doesn't look at it that way.
"I want to see what [Newhouse parent] Advance [Publications] does over there before we can decide what the city needs, and what it may not be getting in terms of news coverage," he said.
In the meantime, there's still a big story to tell. Allman's been putting in longer hours, filing Picayune items for The Gambit's print edition and the web, checking in with sources regularly—even if they just need a shoulder to cry on, he said—and keeping up on all the minutea as the paper prepares to transition to its new incarnation.
The next major newsbreak will probably happen when newsroom staffers find out who gets to keep their jobs and who gets handed pink slips. Allman expects to run a big cover story at some point, too.
"I wouldn't say we want to own the story," he said. "I'd say the more people writing about this, the better."
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