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Good times, bad times in the Big Easy

I always imagined I’d be the Indiana Jones of journalism, a globetrotting adventurer covering conflicts and mysteries on the edges of the map.

Until I took my first plane ride years ago and realized I am deathly afraid of flying.

To deal with that fear, I force myself every time I get on a plane to recognize that there’s nothing I can do if the plane goes down. It’s just my time, and I might as well enjoy the view while I can.

I’m still terrified the whole time we’re in the air, but there’s a strange kind of peace in my heart about it.

That’s a pretty good analogy for what it’s like to be a journalist in the new millennium.

Nowadays, every time your editor or publisher calls an all-staff meeting, you just assume it’s going to be another round of layoffs or buyouts. You say a little prayer for your colleagues as you watch newspapers close up shop or shrink so small you wonder how they do it.

But there’s nothing you can do about it. So you just put your nose back on the grindstone and enjoy the view while you can.

I had that feeling when I saw the headline earlier this month that the New Orleans Times-Picayune, one of the oldest newspapers in America and a repeat Pulitzer Prize winner, had been bought and all of staffers given the pink slip.

As I read more, however, I realized that, in some ways, the end of that American tradition is a good sign for journalism.

The pessimists will point out that the Times-Picayune suffered all the same ailments as other belly-up papers: declining readership and ad revenue leading to a slow bleed of staffers and pages until it was all gone.

At least 30 American dailies have closed since 2004, and another 26 merged with competitors, according to a tally kept by NewspaperOwnership.com (see the full list here: https://tinyurl.com/y8lfthh4). Many papers still standing are owned now not by media companies, but by financial firms more interested in profits than Pulitzers (see the Denver Post’s revolt against its owners here: https://tinyurl.com/y7xpvg3h).

But that is not the story of the Times-Picayune.

Amid all the layoffs and buyouts and cutting print publication to three days a week (a decision that drew official condemnation from Louisiana’s governor and legislature), the Times-Picayune continued doing powerful journalism.

So, too, did the Advocate, a Baton Rouge-based paper that had launched a New Orleans edition after the Times-Picayune cut four days of print. The Advocate, bought in 2013 by a grocery store magnate named John Georges, scooped up many of the Times-Picayune’s laid-off staffers and the two papers battled for scoops and advertising revenue for seven years before the Advocate won.

Georges bought the Times-Picayune this month.

It is a bad thing that a city the size of New Orleans now has only one newspaper. Cities need a diverse set of voices and journalists do their best work competing for a scoop.

It is also bad that New Orleans will have fewer working journalists in town. The Advocate is sure to pick up some, but not all, of the Times-Picayune’s recently laid-off staffers. When you have fewer cops working the streets, more crime goes unnoticed. When you have fewer reporters, more politicians get away with corruption.

Still, this is a story of a newspaper moving into town and, within seven short years, becoming mighty enough — and money-making enough — to take over the big dog in town.

And it happened in 2019, during what is supposed to be the waning age of newspapers.

And it was a takeover led not by a venture capitalist hoping to make a few bucks, but by a Louisiana grocer who, according to the New York Times, got into newspapers because he was “looking to play a civic role but hadn’t figured out how.” And he did it not by cutting newsrooms to the bone and chasing clickbait, but by hiring talented journalists and publishing important community news seven days a week.

It also is a story that shows people are hungry for that kind of newspapering.

When the Advocate first moved into New Orleans, before Georges owned it, the publishers hoped to sell 10,000 copies a day. They sold double that the first year, and kept growing from there (read more on the Advocate-Times-Picayune story from the New York Times, https://tinyurl.com/y5rvh2e9, and the Advocate, https://tinyurl.com/y48klht6).

That is one plane ride I’d be happy to take, and a view to enjoy.

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or jhinkley@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.