Monday, July 9, 2012

The Murder of the Times-Picayune: Part One

first in a six-part series analyzing the destruction of our city's newspaper


Speaking at the 2010 Jackson Square rally against BP, surprise guest Dr. John let 'em have it with no problem. "Dis was no accident," he said of the fatal explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. "What happened out there was a MOIDAH! It was a moidah, and now they got the moiderers in charge of the moidah scene!"

Just as BP would have you believe the systematic criminal negligence that killed those men on the oil rig was an accident, just as the Army Corps of Engineers would have you believe the 2005 flooding of New Orleans was a "natural disaster" caused by Katrina, so there are those who want you to believe the death of New Orleans' storied daily newspaper, the Times-Picayune, is not murder.

There are those who will say the loss of our paper is the inevitable result of cosmic forces, a death attributable to natural causes. It's because of the internet, because of changing times, because the newspaper isn't profitable any more.

Those are all lies.

The Times-Picayune was murdered, and it was murdered for money. Specific men with names and addresses murdered the Times-Pic for money. It's a long and sordid story, and it's one I'm not sure we can rely on corporate-owned media to accurately report.

The account that follows draws heavily from multiple sources. Wherever I can, I've linked to those sources as I quote them. The links are just citations; you don't need to follow the links to understand my essay or the arguments I'm making. Most of all, what I write here stands on the (perhaps unwilling) shoulders of the tremendous ongoing work done by the Gambit, particularly the coverage provided by Kevin Allman.


On a panel at Harvard in spring 2007, Content Director James O'Byrne, then a Features Editor at the Times-Pic, discussed the difficulties of having out-of-town brass making decisions about New Orleans news coverage. "So there is clearly this thing where editors who make decisions about coverage think they know what New Orleans looks like, and they don’t. They don’t have a clue..."

He was speaking specifically about Katrina. In its aftermath, he said, "Our staff shrunk with our circulation; it was 265 before the storm and right now we are around 200, which isn’t bad. Our strategy to focus a lot of our efforts over the last 20 years in the suburbs paid off in big ways. No one was fired."

"No one was fired," marveled Susan Feeney of NPR. "That’s a pretty big issue when every other newspaper in America is laying people off."

We'll get to layoffs. For now, the point is that the Times-Picayune in its last twenty years indeed focused hard on the suburbs; the mostly white, mostly conservative suburbs. The comment sections are overwhelmingly full of people from outside the city, most of whom hate and revile-- and yet cannot stop thinking about-- New Orleans. White, right-wing suburbanites also made up the bulk of the print edition's subscribers, and it was thus their tastes and their prejudices the newspaper flattered and sought to please, to whatever degree it deviated from the perspective of the ancient, dwindling Rex/Comus Uptown elite.

Whither this withered elite? Post-Katrina, this same Uptown ruling clique gathered in a fancy Dallas hotel to devise the now-notorious Green Dot/Reduced Footprint plan that would have converted black neighborhoods to greenspace. Similarly, this hometown one-percenter set greeted the devastating news of the Times-Picayune's demise by convening in a stately Uptown home and deciding what should be done.

But oh, what a shock to their sensibilities-- rather than their internal consensus having immediate force of law, these Boston Club Brahmin have been given the brush-off. You'd think they were non-whites trying to join Comus!

Quelle horreur-- the Newhouse family declines to sell them the Times-Pic, and that bounder Ricky Mathews, the out-of-town overlord appointed by the New York Newhouses, doesn't seek to please these garden-district dress-up dukes and doyennes. Why, far from kissing Rex's mystickal Ring, he's sashaying around town with that no-account megadeveloper Sean Cummings!

Alack, the moldy Comus-tose "elite," so used to lording it over the puny pond Pontchartrain, have now learnt a terrifying lesson: under global capitalism, their blueblood family trees and exclusive carnival-club memberships really don't mean shit. They can write angry letters to the editors and demand the caddish Newhouses hand over the reins; they can stack signatories to the sky. Their old money merely mumbles. They've got no pull.

Welcome, Krewe of Comus fuddy-duddies, to the ugly realities of capitalism. Welcome to the only game in town.


I think it's important, as we mourn the murdered Times-Picayune, that we don't lionize it as something it wasn't. Still, for all the negativity I express above towards the newspaper's role as servant of the cotillion cults and online playground for white supremacy, I love the Times-Picayune and I'm outraged by its destruction.

In mounting a defense of the Times-Picayune I'd would point, as many have, to the their awesome recent series on Lousiana's world-beating incarceration rate. I would direct readers to the work of unwilling hurricane prophet Mark Schleifstein. I would invoke the inarguable heroism of the Times-Picayune staff during the post-Katrina flooding, and most of all I'd let others who have said it better speak for themselves.

A superb post on The Lens by New Orleans hero Karen Gadbois makes three very important points: The Times-Pic was always indispensable even to its harshest critics : most of what's worthwhile about "digital journalism" draws from print, usually from work done by paid professional reporters : those in charge of the Times-Pic's bottom line have been blind to the newspaper's strengths for a long time.

Award-winning historian John Barry, author of Rising Tide, told The Nation simply, “This is one of the dumbest decisions by any newspaper publisher ever.”

For a digital-media perspective, WWNO brings us a report that includes words from Robert Morris, a round-the-clock energizer bunny powering the "hyperlocal" Uptown Messenger website. Morris and his site are a living and very accomplished example of what a small, dedicated tech-savvy team can accomplish. Still, he's horrified by the layoffs. He sees the loss of reporters, not the reduction in print frequency, as the big story. After all, he says, "No city has ever been made better from fewer journalists."

Beyond all of this, beyond all the ways the murder of the Times-Picayune hurts our community, it's simply unacceptable that New Orleans be the laboratory for this misguided digital experiment, and that the lives and careers of hard-working New Orleans journalists be sacrificed to this experiment.

In a smug contrarian essay for the Gambit, cashed-out patrician Jack Davis finds "opportunity" in the hundreds of firings and the death of a 175-year-old newspaper. Note that word, opportunity; we'll see it again. According to Davis, "This is a rare opportunity for New Orleans to lead the nation, to be the pioneer in digital transformation... This experiment was bound to happen in some substantial American market sooner or later... We just drew the short straw, and became the test tube."

The furious final words in defense of the Times-Picayune against this vivisection should rightly go to activist Brad Ott, who commented in response to Davis' head-patting condescension:
This aspect is another major reason why this scheme needs to be vigorously resisted. Since Hurricane Katrina's August 29, 2005 landfall and the resulting federal flood, we denizens of New Orleans have been experimented upon -- mostly with devastating consequences.

More than 7,000 certified Orleans Public School educators and support staff, most of whom were African American women, were summarily fired and replaced by fresh-out-of college Teach For America docents to lead to the largest collection of privatized charter schools in the nation (with only marginal improvement).

Our public housing developments, most of whom had ably survived the storm, were demolished after locking out their leaseholders (indeed -- many residents were unable to retrieve their possessions!) and replaced with so-called "Choice neighborhoods" -- which have effectively locked out most of the original HANO residents.

And our main trauma center Charity Hospital was shuttered even after its workers and the U.S. military had its first three floors ready to reopen within one month of the storm. Subsequently Lower Mid-City has been demolished, displacing hundreds of residents and scores of businesses to make way for a medical complex in which its needed financing still remains to be secured.

So now New Orleans is part of an experiment in newspaper media. This is no accident. We were chosen (along with sister papers in Birmingham, Huntsville and Mobile, Alabama) BECAUSE WE IN THE DEEP SOUTH DON'T MERIT MUCH NOTICE...

Brad Ott calls out Mayor Landrieu over the destruction of Lower Mid-City -- photo by John McCusker, Times-Picayune 


a six-part series on the destruction of New Orleans' daily newspaper
Part  One - Two - Three - Four - Five - Six
written by Jules Bentley


  1. Exciting stuff!

    1. Thanks! Yeah it's just getting started... it gets a hell of a lot wilder...

  2. This is truly incredible. Thank you for writing this. This is the work of a real journalist.

  3. yep yep yep yep yep yep yep <3

  4. Excellent work and incisive analysis. That means it's biting...

  5. I've not finished reading this, but next please take on the Kidnapping of The Advocate, once Baton Rouge's daily paper and outstanding in the state. Bought by John Georges, it's now almost a caricature of itself and in no way represents Baton Rougeans. (I confess, I am a journalist who worked for The Advocate for more than 40 years.)