Is a city without a daily paper doomed—or fertile ground?

What happens to a city’s journalism—the actual news coverage, not the pensions of the reporters—when its flagship newsroom sinks? If we’re talking about New Orleans, where the much-honored and much-loved Times-Picayune has ceded its daily presence, the answer appears to be: competition and experimentation.

New Orleans isn’t the first city to lose its major daily but it is one of the largest and no newspaper has arguably played a more vital role in its community in recent years: the Times-Pic called Katrina before it happened , won a Pulitzer for its reporting on the storm  and has been honored for its dogged investigations of the aftermath , including one of the nation’s worst police scandals. So it was understandable that the citizenry greeted Advance Publications’ May announcement that the newspaper would publish just three days a week and lay off more than 200 of its employees (including 84 of 173 in the newsroom) with an outcry. There were demands to sell the newspaper  and even rallies to protest the changes .

Just a few months later, however, there’s growing evidence that a community that cares about where it gets its news creates enough of a marketplace for the news to adapt and survive. Already the Baton Rouge-based newspaper The Advocate will start a daily, seven days a week, newspaper to New Orleans on Oct. 1, and according to an article from the town’s alt-weekly, the Gambit, between 800 to 1,000 residents have already subscribed to the paper. That’s peanuts compared to the Times-Picayune’s weekday circulation of 134,000 but the Advocate’s N.O. edition doesn’t even exist yet.

“We’re going to put a relatively small bureau in New Orleans and do a New Orleans edition that will have New Orleans content and hope to service some people who want a daily newspaper,” said Carl Redman, The Advocate’s executive editor.

A print competitor

Subscriptions to the Baton Rouge paper are priced at $14.95, which  undercuts the $16.95 cost for the Times-Pic’s three-day paper. On the other hand, The Advocate’s newsstand price will be $1, and the Times-Pic’s current price is 75 cents.

While nothing’s been said about local advertisers, publisher David Manship told the Gambit that he’s already discussed possibly having advertisements placed into the Orleans edition paper for large companies like Macy’s and JC Penny. Redman said the paper already provides coverage to other areas of Louisiana and will capitalize on its experience as the state capital paper as it heads into New Orleans.

Redman said the paper plans to cover state, local and national news, but doesn’t want people to think The Advocate is trying to replace the Times-Picayune.

“We’re not going down there to be The Times-Picayune, we’re not going down there to be the end-all, be-all of New Orleans news: we’re going to be what we are,” Redman said, who told Ebyline that the paper and the family that owns it was contacted by friends, family and strangers requesting they bring a daily newspaper to New Orleans.

Non-profit options

Local outlets are also seizing on Advance’s moves as an opportunity. New Orleans broadcast stations such as Fox 8 and WWNO (the local NPR station) are now collaborating with The Lens, a foundation-funded, non-profit investigative website, to find and develop stories that can be then turned over to be used at broadcast stations, according to an email from Jed Horne, news editor of The Lens.

Horne predicts a period of intense competition among traditional and digital news outlets in New Orleans as they maneuver to grab a share of the Times-Pic’s readership and advertising dollars. And he doesn’t count the Times-Picayune out, either.

“It seems likely that market dominance will be re-established eventually in some form or fashion—whether by a daily newspaper-turned-website that recoups revenue streams sufficient to beef up its staff or a TV station developing the kind of multi-platform approach—broadcast plus a really strong website—that basically crushes the newspaper’s legacy operation,” said Horne, referring to Advance’s plans for a revamped digital strategy at the Times-Pic. “Meanwhile, you’re likely to see a lot of flux and interesting experimentation.”

Horne also predicts more experimental hookups like the one that non-profit ProPublica conducted with the Times-Pic and which resulted in an important series on police violence after Katrina.

Who’s the watchdog?

The big question mark when a city’s major daily folds, or scales back dramatically, is who will pick up the tough, sometimes expensive, rarely rewarded job of watchdog journalism? The Lens’s Horne said that the watchdog work that dailies once performed better than anyone else is being scattered among a variety of outlets ranging from small upstarts like The Lens to sophisticated operations like ProPublica.

The Advocate’s Redman said he believes the Times-Picayune can still provide watchdog reporting in spite of the changes it’s going through.

“I hope that the Times-Picayune continues to do the kind of in-depth, watchdog journalism that they have always done. There’s no reason that they can’t do it on a three-day-a-week basis on a hard-copy edition and there’s no reason they can’t do it on a website,” said Redman. But Redman also points to several New Orleans-based outlets like The Lens and Gambit, the free alternative weekly newspaper, as likely heirs to the daily’s heritage of hard-hitting investigative coverage.

“The other flavor of accountability has to do with the day-to-to day coverage and being a presence at the city council meetings to make sure there’s a witness to the goofy things our public officials could do, or the fine things that they do, and there’s no reason to believe that they’ll be any less of that in New Orleans,” Redman said. “I think what’s happening now is what you see all over the country and that is you probably have more choices for where you get that [watchdog reporting] then where you used to.”

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