So imagine New Orleans, another storied locale, without the newspaper William Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson read when they were habituÃ©s of the French Quarter back in the Roaring Twenties, and had their doings chronicled in the old Times-Picayune. (Recommended reading: "Dixie Bohemia" by John Shelton Reed, dean of Southern sociologists, aka the De Tocqueville of Dixie.)
. . .
It was sad to watch the Des Moines Register draw back from its state's borders; it was like watching a whole state shrink. At least the Fort Worth Star-Telegram retained its authentic cow-town character after Amon Carter's heyday in the last century, when aeroplanes used to drop bundles of newsprint way out on the high plains or along the dusty arroyos of West Texas to demonstrate its statewide circulation.
And when the late great Arkansas Gazette gave up the ghost, not just a tradition but a living, vibrant organ was stilled. Competition, the midwife of quality, was lost when this state's Great Newspaper War ground to an end, and readers were the real losers. Just as the whole state was.
. . .
It's been painful, if at times comic, to watch the Times-Picayune commit slow, computer-assisted, over-managed suicide in New Orleans, tying itself into ever tighter knots. The Times-Pic may never have been one of the country's great newspapers, but it was surely one of the most colorful ones, as picturesque as its city. Now it's gone from printing only three days a week (some daily newspaper!) back to publishing daily, kind of. Because readers will have to go out and hunt up the printed version themselves. For an additional price.
Huh? If you can follow all that, you're doing better than I am. Worse than the confusion ("Honey, do we get a paper today or do I have to go down to Canal Street?") is that each of these disimprovements is ballyhooed as an improvement, as another Exciting Change For Our Readers!
When the Times-Pic announced it would no longer be a daily, its front-page headline trumpeted: "Newspaper to move focus to digital . . ." though it had to add a subhead as fair warning: "In fall, paper will cut weekly editions to three."
And now, as its best staffers leave and Baton Rouge's Advocate fills the vacuum in New Orleans, the Times-Pic has had to retreat from its retreat. It's decided to print a daily version after all, just not deliver it most days.
The absentee landlords at the distant, impersonal Newhouse chain seem to have realized they had to do something to stanch the flow of readership. And once again the Times-Pic's abused (and diminishing) readers have been assured that an Exciting Change is in the works, this one to reverse the last Exciting Change:
"Today, we are announcing a new and exciting addition to our print products. Beginning this summer, we will publish TPStreet focusing on breaking news, sports and entertainment. It will appear in a tabloid format, publishing on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. The new publication will cost 75 cents, the same as a current weekday copy of The Times-Picayune."
What? What's that mean, exactly? Errol Laborde, the refreshingly honest editor of myNewOrleans.com, explained what was going on:
"Imagine being served a nice sizzling sirloin steak and a baked potato, but then the waiter comes and takes away the steak. You sit there for a few minutes staring at the cooling potato and then the waiter returns and announces, 'I've got exciting news. We're increasing your meal to make it more bountiful. We have a burger for you, but it's over on the counter. You will have to go get it.' Then the waiter continues. 'This is just another way that we are enhancing our customer service. By the way, the price of the burger is the same as the steak.' Welcome to Newhouse's where the service is medium rare."
What's going on is the suicide in stages of a newspaper that was once as dependable a staple of life in New Orleans as baguettes and beignets. Instead, the customer is being served some tasteless simulacrum called, and only called, a daily newspaper. And this in New Orleans, where distinctive local tastes and loyalties were once supreme.
Now the Crescent City is to get a digitized, deracinated, desiccated substitute for a newspaper. Which may or may not be on your doorstep tomorrow morning or at a newsstand not near you. It's like being served Postum instead of a cafÃ© au lait. Worst of all, this was no murder, it was suicide by incompetence. Call it death-by-management.
(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)