Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The T-P Rally & America's Petri Dish

On Monday afternoon, New Orleans protested in New Orleans fashion. The Save the Times-Picayune Rally in the parking lot of the Rock 'n' Bowl featured beer, costumes - including Joan of Arc and an accompanying knight - and music. Kermit Ruffins joined the Lonely, Lonely Knights to wing a new song, "Do the Times-Picayune," and Allen Toussaint played a set of his classics backed by Rod Hodges and Rene Coman of the Iguanas with Carlo Nuccio on drums. Pianist Bob Andrews finished his set with a version of Smiley Lewis' "Shame Shame Shame," taking a tip from Treme and rewriting it for the moment as "Shame Shame Shame Times-Pic'yune."

As rallies go, the event was more a chance for past and present Times-Picayune employees and paper supporters to vent their frustrations at the decision by Newhouse to make Nola.com the focus and cut staff, salaries, and the daily paper down to three days a week. "This is not a part-time city; we don't deserve a part-time paper," organizer Michael Tisserand said from the stage. Many in the crowd wore T-shirts that read: "The Times-Picayune: We publish come hell and high water" - T-shirts that were given to the paper's staff after its coverage Hurricane Katrina - to remind Newhouse of the implicit promise that it had made to them. "This [promise] is being broken in ways we couldn't have imagined," said Lolis Eric Elie, who wrote at The Times-Picayune until he took the buy-out and left in 2009.

Frustrations ran high. Nobody likes the current state of Nola.com and its emphasis on the newest news, which at the moment of this writing is:
1. Police morale support group
2. Shrimpers meet in Plaquemines to hear federal turtle protection plans
3. A seat belts are for law enforcement officials too editorial
4. Olsen twins win fashion prize
5. An op-ed piece on Gregory Aymond's killing
6. Cissy Houston to write a Whitney Houston bio
7. Report on woody debris in West Bank levee delayed again
8. Independence woman dies in traffic accident near Tickfaw
9. Navy renews charter of civilian-owned, state-operated ship
10. Kenner Mayor Mike Yenni should have sought bids before renewing garbage contract editorial

If you read your iPad at 8:30 a.m., those would have been your headlines.

The uncertainty about the future of jobs and the future of journalism was conversation topic number one. Some took the delay in informing staffers of their futures with the paper/website as a sign that the outcry was having an effect, while others figured the postponed announcement had more to do with mundane, bureaucratic housework and that nothing had changed. 

A regular question was "Why us?" There are less newsworthy towns to experiment on and ones with less loyal readerships, and that's the heart of my anger at this situation. The daily paper has been a part of my life since I clipped the funnies out of the papers on one cross-country and made my own book of comic strips in a photo album. I still read the paper on my back porch with the dog first thing in the morning, but Newhouse is not responsible for my routines. I'll start my day another way, and it will continue to start. 

Ultimately, I'm also not sold on anti-Nola.com argument. It sucks but it's solvable, and AnnArbor.com has already solved some of them. I'm conscious of the act of reading a paper, so I'm aware of the way I can be drawn to a story I wouldn't have chosen based on its headline, but I suspect that the more time I spend reading on Nola.com, the more I'm going to become conscious of other forms of opportunity reading (for lack of a better term). Writing on the web can be as rich and in-depth as writing for print if not moreso because of the possibilities that links make available. The younger readers who interact with Nola.com first aren't less intelligent for doing so, and they probably have their own nuanced reading experience that we'll discover when it becomes our primary interface with the news. 

The question is will it? Will Newhouse continue to value the news-gathering work done by The Times-Picayune's reporters? Will it still take 20-plus paragraphs-long stories? Will it create a context that values and encourages such work? Based on what we've heard so far including the plans to move the staff into new office space in the CBD, it sounds like they have other priorities. And to sacrifice jobs and cut salaries for people who have succeeded in ways most newspapers envy is cruel. 

What upsets me most is that once again New Orleanians are the guinea pigs for an experiment. Since Katrina, we are America's petri dish. Want to test theories on education? New Orleans is broken - go there. Want to test theories on public housing? New Orleans' projects have been emptied - go there. Now Newhouse wants to test its ideas about 21st Century publishing on us, and in each case, the realities of our lives are taken for granted. Our children are test subjects, our poor are simply a demographic in mixed income neighborhoods, and we're potential clicks for a publishing house. In each case, our lives are devalued and our interests discounted. The people who will lose their jobs are not abstract entities or job titles; they have families and car payments and lives. Our traditions (more likely habits) are what they are, and they're part of the fabric of our lives. For Newhouse to dismiss our lives and the impacts the decision will have so summarily is a profoundly hostile act that will not be forgotten.

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