BILL MINOR: Times-Picayune’s downgrade threatens quality

By Bill Minor

Sudden news that my old paper, 175-year-old The Times Picayune was downsizing from daily to three-a-week and cutting an excellent news staff by one-third struck me as having lost a beloved family member.
Thirty-one years of my journalistic life was in the T-P’s employ (sadly, at low pay), so I have a vested interest in what is happening to the grand old lady of journalism because it speaks loudly of how the current market is threatening the very existence of print media.
Can it be attributed to the invasion from amazing Internet technology? Or was it a very sick economy that has sent advertising revenue and readership plummeting? Both, of course. But in the Picayune’s case, there was another deep wound, that of Hurricane Katrina which brought a 30 percent drop in advertising and circulation.
The T-P has deep roots in Mississippi, beginning all the way back to its founding families and forward to its state Capitol Bureau in Jackson established in 1894 (after sending a reporter to cover the state’s 1890 constitutional convention). I filled that bureau for 29 years during Mississippi’s roughest racial turmoil and political upheaval.
Eliza Jane Nicholson, a Pearl River County native, initially the paper’s literary editor, by marriage became editor-publisher of the Picayune in 1876, a post she held for 20 years, noted as a pioneer in Southern and even national journalism history. Never physically robust, she spent much time directing the New Orleans-based newspaper from her home in Bay St. Louis. Never a mere figurehead, she built a highly prosperous, respected newspaper which always included coverage of south Mississippi. Eliza’s husband and business partner, George Nicholson – who had ties to the paper’s founders – guided her in financial matters. (Of course, the city of Picayune got its name from the paper).
Owned since 1962 by the Newhouse Family of New York, the paper was thought to have largely dodged the widespread national newspaper downsizing as it continued to burnish its reputation as a tenacious watchdog over Louisiana’s notorious corrupt politics dating to days of the Huey Long machine. Just two weeks before the cutback hit, the paper ran a deeply researched eight-part series on why the state has the nation’s highest incarceration rate and most for-profit private prisons. The Newhouses say they’ll keep quality journalism with fewer print days and smaller staff, but with enhanced digital presence. For one, I’m skeptical that feeding news incrementally on the Web is any substitute for shoe-leather reporting.
Two Pulitzer prizes came to the paper and its editor Jim Amoss for their Katrina coverage, as reporters remained at their posts even while their own homes were being wiped out. As flood waters poured into the building, Amoss and his staff, who had stayed on the job throughout the storm, were finally hauled away in the back of trucks normally used to carry bundles of printed papers.
Before I shipped out to Pacific naval combat service in 1943 (already with my Tulane journalism degree), T-P managing editor George Healy (a Natchez native) had told me they would have a job waiting for me after the war. Still on Navy terminal leave, I went to work as a general assignment reporter at the end of January, 1946. Sixteen months later, the paper’s Jackson man was sent to the Washington bureau, so I got the Jackson post, its fifth occupant since 1890. A corporate decision was made in late 1976 to close the Jackson bureau, and though I was offered less appealing jobs elsewhere by management, I decided to stay put in Jackson, take my piddling retirement, begin freelancing political columns and stringing for The New York Times and Newsweek. For a six-year span, I edited my own investigative weekly, The Capital Reporter, which won state and national awards but was economically unsustainable.
A sentimentality rarely seen in daily newspapers has always surrounded The Times-Picayune. Perhaps its because of the name Picayune (a French coin equivalent of a nickel), or just because of New Orleans’ uniqueness as the nearest thing to Paris in the U.S.
No one is pronouncing a requiem for the grand old paper just yet. However, there’s a feeling abroad, as though cafe au lait is being taken off the menu at the CafÈ du Monde or Oysters Rockefeller won’t be served at Antoine’s.
Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at edinman@earthlink.net.