There’s something happening in New Orleans. Now almost two weeks since Advance Publications announced that the newspaper there, the Times-Picayune, would reduce its print schedule to three days per week and cut newspaper staff, citizens in New Orleans are rallying, demanding that Advance save that city’s daily newspaper.
The community rallying behind that paper is as diverse as they come. Grassroots community organizers, musicians, celebrities and business heavies have voiced their support. An online petition to keep the paper as a daily now has more than 4,000 signatures. New Orleans musician Evan Christopher wrote an open letter to Warren Buffett begging the Oracle of Omaha, whose investment firm recently bought 63 newspapers, to buy the Times-Picayune, too, and Buffett wrote back, saying he was watching the situation with interest.
“I don’t know any of the facts on their profitability but was really surprised when they made the announcement,” Buffett wrote. “It seems to me that three days a week is simply unsustainable over the longer term. Either a publication is a newspaper or a periodical and I think three days a week crosses the line.”
A lot of new-media industry opinionators questioned Buffett’s wisdom when he bought the 63 papers from Media General. But it’s one thing to judge Buffett. It’s a very different thing, when he’s the one judging you.
But this column isn’t about media business models. I wrote more than my share about that last week. No, this column is about newspapers and the communities they serve — what’s happening there vs. what’s happening here.
At the “Save the Times-Picayune” rally, Women of the Storm founder Anne Milling spoke to a local TV affiliate, arguing that there was something special about New Orleans. “You have to try. You have to reach for the stars and maybe you get a moon,” she said. “And who knows? Maybe they’d realize that this community is different than the other markets they’re talking about.”
Those other markets? Birmingham, Huntsville and Mobile.
And those differences are already apparent. Something is happening in New Orleans, but it’s not happening here.
On Monday night I asked on Facebook and Twitter why there was no such outcry in Birmingham or the two other Alabama cities, and I think the discussion was interesting (and far more substantive than anything you’ll get in the comments sections of AL.com). I’d prefer you read those comments for yourself, but aside from the expected whining that the Birmingham News has not placated one confirmation bias or another, there was a common thread of disappointment running through most of the responses — not disappointment that the News would no longer be a daily newspaper, but disappointment in the News.
Some of that disappointment is warranted and some is not. What’s clear to me is that the key to having a good newspaper and maintaining a good audience is knowing when to defy readers’ expectations and when to live up to them. Historically, the News has done a poor job of doing either.
The News spent decades building a bad reputation for itself. It defended segregation and was not willing to hold up a mirror to the city it covered. Slowly it moved to the right side of history, but when it did, it did so with reporting that was stripped of any voice or editorial latitude. In part, I think that was the News’ way of defining itself against the Birmingham Post-Herald, which was a more writerly paper with stronger positions and a more distinct voice. That has changed too, but again, slowly. From the pages of the Post-Herald, Ted Bryant kicked ass years before the News would even let itself have a metro columnist.
In many ways, the News is now paying for the sins of its fathers, and perhaps that isn’t fair. But even in recent years, when Larry Langford plowed through piles of cash at Jefferson County and Birmingham City Hall, the city had a booger hanging from its nose, but the News was too polite to say so. It treated Langford’s kooky ideas as though they were real news, but seldom with the incredulous eye of a good newspaper. It was an opportunity for the News to go toe-to-toe with a lunatic crook. Sure, Langford would have fought back like hell, but everyone knew how that story was going to end. The News could have come out of that fight the city’s hero. Instead, it let Birmingham fend for itself.
I hope that wasn’t the last chance for the newspaper to show its colors, because I know lots of good reporters and editors there, and I know they are capable of heroic acts of journalism. The Times-Picayune gets credit for staying in New Orleans when even the cops had abandoned the city, but the News had its mini-Katrina moment after the tornadoes last year, and it performed admirably.
If I could give any advice to my friends at the News it would be this:
I got into the business because over a spring break in high school I got stuck at home helping my dad plant pine trees. At night I read Lewis Grizzard’s If I Ever Get Back to Georgia I’m Going to Nail My Feet to the Ground, and I caught the newspaper disease. Sometimes I pull that book from my shelf and reread the first chapter, just to remind myself why I’m still in the business, and when I talk to journalism students, I recommend they read it too.
When I go back to that book, this is what it still says to me: If people are going to hate you, make sure it’s for the right reasons. If you’re going down for a fall, make sure it’s on your own terms. (And if they kick you while you’re down, play dead, and maybe they’ll panic and run away.) Do your best work now, because there’s no guarantee you’ll have a chance later. Don’t be boring. When writing a headline, go with the funny one that might get you fired. Raise as much hell as you can, and the rest just might take care of itself.
At least, I hope so.
And if I could give any advice to this city, it would be this:
Great cities need great newspapers. It might not matter today whether newspapers are digital or print, but no city has become great without them.
New Orleans realizes that. It’s time for Birmingham to realize that, too.
The Messenger Shoots Back is a column about political culture.