The city of New Orleans has been mired in an epic drama this summer over the fate of its 175-year-old daily newspaper, the award-winning Times-Picayune. The whole episode has been precisely the kind of colorful, high-stakes local story for which newspapers were made. In May, the paper’s current owner, the Newhouse family and its Advance Publications, shocked the city (and its own employees) by announcing that the T-P would lay off a large portion of its staff and begin publishing this fall only three days a week, an unheard-of production schedule for a metro of such size and weird news output. The Times-Picayune is slated to instead become a mostly digital outfit: NOLA.com.
Citizens' groups and local businesses quickly penned open letters of protest. The city’s most influential names – including the archbishop, the presidents of all of the local universities, Wynton Marsalis, Archie Manning and Wendell Pierce – pleaded with the Newhouses to sell to someone who would value the T-P and print it accordingly. New Orleans Saints NFL owner Tom Benson even stepped up and said he would happily be that guy (as previously noted, he has bought some other things in New Orleans lately).
Next came the politicians. In late July, the city council passed a unanimous resolution urging the Newhouses to continue printing a daily.
"A city that’s created Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner should be a city of print," the city council president said, according to the Times-Picayune (this drama reserves particular empathy for the character who must cover the demise of his own newspaper… for the dying paper in question).
U.S. Senator David Vitter even sent chairman Steven Newhouse a wonderfully blunt personal letter:
Maybe you truly believe that your new model for the Times-Picayune will serve the region well. I do not. More importantly, no citizen of the region whom I’ve spoken to about this does. And I literally mean no one.
Vitter scoffed at the Newhouses’ plan to build a digital empire out of the disarray that has long been considered one of the worst websites in the business: “As a single member of our Congressional delegation,” he wrote, “I actually have far more Facebook followers than your whole enterprise.” (It’s true! As of August 1, the senator’s page had 43,984 "likes." NOLA.com had 26,035. And this is a guy with a prostitution scandal in his recent past.)
From outside of New Orleans, this entire story seems most perplexing for the fact that seemingly everyone in the city wants a daily newspaper except for the people who have the power to print one – and those people, the Newhouses, have steadfastly refused to sell to new owners who share the community’s wishes. This odd misalignment of interests speaks to a larger question: To whom does a newspaper really belong? Especially when it is the only newspaper in town.
Does the Times-Picayune belong to the Newhouses, the latest in a line of 175 years' worth of stewards, who may do with it whatever they want today? Or does it belong, in some larger sense, to the city itself?
No one can force the Newhouses to blow money the family doesn’t want to on a dying newspaper model. But if other deep pockets in the city are eager to do that – and so many in New Orleans want them to – then that option should be on the table.
New Orleans should have a daily newspaper not because daily newspapers are a great business model (they’re pretty clearly not), nor because daily newspapers play some special role in civic life (although there is some evidence that they do). New Orleans should have a daily newspaper because the community there has decided that it values a printed product seven days a week, because members of that community are willing to continue investing in that idea, and because the Newhouses alone shouldn’t have the final veto. The paper is a community asset that reports information about the community back to itself ("To read a newspaper is to know what town you’re in,” wrote Michael Sokolove); the Newhouses just have temporary control of the presses.
Yes, Tom Benson could start up his own daily (and a couple of outlets have already said they intend to compete with NOLA.com). But it is the Times-Picayune name, history and tradition that belong to New Orleans and not the Newhouses. If no one else in town were offering to carry it on, this would be an entirely different question. But because New Orleans has voiced the demand, and someone is willing to supply it, it feels as if the Newhouses are standing between them holding hostage something that isn’t entirely theirs to begin with.