A newspaperman writing about the role of journalism is in great danger of appearing a pompous ass.
But your correspondent will fearlessly run that risk.
You know the drill, so we’ll keep it short, merely averring that democracy needs a vigorous press and attributing the sentiment to Thomas Jefferson. It has to be said again because the decline of that other New Orleans newspaper continues apace.
Such is our commitment to public service that the travails of a competitor do not inspire the joy they might in other industries, least of all amongst columnists with their need for a constant supply of news to keep the wheels turning.
The woes of The Times-Picayune, which has just carried out a third round of layoffs, are hardly unusual these days. Newspapers all over are cutting staff and expenses as readers and advertisers flee to cyberspace.
It is true that the industry’s problems have been exacerbated by spectacular mismanagement at the Picayune. When the paper went to three days a week, it practically invited the competition in and left itself even more reliant on website revenues that were never going to sustain its newsgathering operation. But the prime of The Times-Picayune was over regardless.
The new regime isn’t about to admit it, however, and announced the latest purge in a press release that would have elicited peals of laughter had it been delivered to the newsroom by an outside corporation. The gist of it was that these savage cuts are a sign that business is really good.
It was not couched in such plain language, because it appears that bean counters run the show. Thus we are informed that management is “restructuring its news operation to reinforce its core journalistic mission.” Those layoffs become “operational efficiencies.”
Such ghastly management-speak cannot conceal the sheer absurdity of the proposition that reducing troops constitutes reinforcement. It is claimed that “the newsroom will continue its long-standing emphasis on public interest and watchdog journalism,” but there clearly aren’t enough investigative reporters left to match what the Picayune did in its heyday. The Picayune is evidently pinning its faith on a website focused largely on entertainment and sports, which is purportedly “the place where New Orleans comes to talk about what is important to them.”
Maybe such fluff is indeed what readers say they want, but it is not exactly vital to democracy. “Public interest and watchdog journalism” will always be the raison d’etre of newspapers. Given the entrenched corruption of our public institutions, a loss of reporting manpower is a particularly grievous blow in Louisiana.
Sure, journalism is a business, but nobody goes into reporting to get rich. No pompous remarks on the press’s obligations to the public, and no sign of regret about the many livelihoods lost over the last couple of years, can be discerned in the Picayune’s public pronouncements, however.
When the Picayune’s owners, the Newhouses, having grown fat on their New Orleans monopoly for many years, went to three days a week, a huge outcry arose from readers. Steve Newhouse, however, was not overcome with appreciation or sympathy for the masses. He made it clear his mind was made up and he wouldn’t sell the paper regardless of how much “noise” there was out there.
Announcing the latest layoffs, president Ricky Mathews allowed it had been “a difficult day” and “aligning our costs with the business realities faced by media organizations around the country is a tough challenge.” Our hearts go out to him.
Certainly with the rise of the Internet that other New Orleans newspaper has had to grapple with forces beyond its control, and retrenchments may continue in newsrooms across the country for a while yet. But newspapers, if they are to be of any use at all, cannot peddle what everyone knows to be untruths.
It is a waste of time for the Picayune to characterize mass layoffs as “changes (that) are designed to focus on topics that are important to readers.” It is perfectly obvious that shifting the emphasis online, whereby Steve Newhouse imagined he was anticipating a glorious future, has meant the loss of plenty money.
Neither Newhouse nor anyone else can figure out how to bring in enough online revenue to restore America’s newsrooms to their former strength. Still, while journalism may be a diminished force, there’s still plenty to be pompous about.
James Gill’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.