Harry Shearer: Could New York Be Wronger About New Orleans?
LOS ANGELES — As most anybody knows who cares about newspapers, the absentee owners of the New Orleans Times-Picayune have announced plans to quit daily print publication of the paper, turning to a Wednesday-Friday-Sunday schedule, giving rise to my new name for the publication: The Sometimes-Picayune.
I say “absentee” owners because Advance Publications, which I now refer to as Retreat Publications, is headquartered in New York City. They devised this Sometimes strategy in Ann Arbor, Mich., apparently, and are also rolling it out at three of their were-dailies in Alabama.
In David Carr’s NYTimes piece, the media writer asserts that, given the relative lack of advertising on, say, Mondays, the use of resources to gather the previous day’s news is “uneconomic.” Ad Age‘s story quotes an Advance official as saying that the company is “not clinging to this rigorous orthodoxy that the only way to serve a community is to print a newspaper seven days a week.”
Okay, let’s point out a couple of facts. The Times-Picayune, unlike the other newspapers in Advance’s little experiment, has the highest market penetration of any daily in the top 50 metro areas — meaning 60 percent of New Orleanians read, or at least receive, it in print. And New Orleans has a markedly low Internet penetration rate — according to the Kaiser Foundation, 36 percent were unwired as of 2010.
So Advance is telling those loyal print customers: buy a computer.
This, of course, all boils down to advertising. While maybe a third of the year’s Mondays have news New Orleanians really want to read — what happened in Sunday’s Saints game — advertisers aren’t particularly interested in reaching them on that day.
Where have all the advertisers gone? In New Orleans, as elsewhere, classified advertising has moved online. That onetime cash cow ain’t givin milk no more.
But another dominant advertising segment has suffered a different fate. Metro dailies’ front and living sections used to be fattened with ads from competing department stores. That’s right kids, there used to be more than one or two in each city. They were locally owned, they competed like crazy, and they honed their brands and announced their sales in full-page ads that marched through the dailies, daily.
What happened? Consonant with the conservative economic philosophies of most newspapers’ editorial boards, the department stores merged, allowed themselves to be bought up by outside firms like Federated and Macy’s, and slowly shrank in number. Did any local newspaper oppose the sellouts of local retail icons like Bon Marche in Seattle and Marshall Field’s in Chicago? In Los Angeles, May Co, Broadway, Bullock’s, Robinsons, I. Magnin’s, and Ohrbach’s once competed in the pages of the Times. They’re all gone. And the Times‘ pages are now about the size of the Weekly Reader.
Maybe newspaper owners, beguiled with the premise of buying out or killing their own competition, just thought monopolies were a good idea for retail, too. In any case, we, the readers, were the product — eyeballs for advertisers. As the advertisers disappeared, we became less valuable. We’re now only worth something three days a week.
So it’s “uneconomic” to produce Monday’s paper. At least in the current crappy economy. But newspaper reading is a habit; we’ve been told that for years. The Michigan Plan depends on New Orleanians learning a weird new habit — look for the paper on the three days advertisers think are important. On those other days, where will we turn for our news? And why shouldn’t that place be our new news habit?
It’s possible that a locally-owned newspaper would have come up with such a goofy scheme (“Hey, folks, read about yesterday’s Saints game the DAY AFTER TOMORROW!”). And I’ve always given the TP‘s NYC ownership great credit for supporting the paper during the dark days of the flood and its aftermath, when every day’s paper was uneconomic to produce.
But I can’t help feeling the way I did when the NBA’s David Stern engineered the deal that turned this year’s Hornets into last year’s Clippers (complete with urging us to vote for Chris Kaiman for the All-Star team) — New York has shafted New Orleans.