Outcry After NOLA's Daily Paper Cuts Back (With '60 Minutes' Video)
The following script is from "The Paper" which aired on 60 Minutes on Jan. 6, 2012. Morley Safer is the correspondent. Deirdre Naphin, producer.
It's hardly news that the newspaper business is on the ropes. Some papers have folded completely, others have reduced the number of pages. Virtually an entire industry in free fall due mainly to easy access to the web, offering news practically as it happens.
The most recent casualty is the New Orleans Times-Picayune, an institution that's seen the city through good times and the worst of times, a part of the very fabric of a unique American city. Last October, The Times-Picayune began publishing only three days a week-making New Orleans the largest American city without a daily paper. Advance Publications, owned by the Newhouse family, decided on major surgery for the paper, before the economics of publishing killed it outright. We visited New Orleans, just prior to the amputation.
There's no doubt New Orleans is a city like no other. A wonderful ethnic cocktail, a place that dances to its own rhythms and a town devoted to its traditions, like The Times-Picayune, the legendary newspaper that had published every single day in New Orleans for 175 years.
Mitch Landrieu: The tradition of waking up in the morning and breaking that cup of coffee and opening up that paper, it seems to be going by the wayside. When you take away a venerable institution like The Times-Picayune you really kind of take away a piece of the soul of a city.
Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, says the loss of a daily paper is a terrible blow to a city that has had more than its fair share of misfortune.
Mitch Landrieu: People in this city were worried that it was going to send a message to the rest of the country that we weren't a big league city because we're not going to have a daily paper.
Morley Safer: But the facts of life are that newspapers are folding all over the country. It's a dying business.
Mitch Landrieu: It may be. But that doesn't mean that people have to like it.
New Orleanians may be outraged that the paper now publishes only three days a week, but they still start those days with their coffee and beignets and their Times-Pic.
Established in 1837, it was called the Picayune because that's how much it cost -- one picayune -- an old Spanish coin. The paper became a civic watchdog, a nemesis of corrupt politicians like Huey Long. Classic American writers like O. Henry and William Faulkner wrote for the paper. It won several Pulitzer prizes, most recently for its reporting of Hurricane Katrina.
David Carr: It has a central role that newsmen like me dream of. And it's hard to not have a crush on it.
David Carr, a reporter who covers all things media for the New York Times was one of the few things that worked in a city that generally doesn't.
David Carr: Schools aren't great. Public housing doesn't go very well. They have problems with their police. They've always had a really good newspaper.
Morley Safer: If it works, how come it's going under?
David Carr: Delivering a newspaper, like, making it thump on your doorstep, it's a really hard business. It's an expensive business. What the Newhouses did is said, "You know what? This only really works three days a week. So, let's cut to those three days." That's when it pays.
As sad as it is to witness local newspapers die or slowly disappear, technology and the economic facts are inescapable. The lumbering and expensive process of rolls of newsprint being fed into gigantic presses that spew out tons of newspapers which must be loaded on to trucks that drive into the night to ultimately deliver the paper to doorsteps, diners and newsstands. It seems almost quaint when you consider that the same news, only fresher, can be dispatched at the speed of light to millions at a fraction of the cost and yet The Times-Picayune still showed a profit.
David Carr: I think that The Times-Picayune was making money but the trend lines for all of Newhouses' newspapers, including The Times-Picayune, was down eight to 10 percent every single year. So it's sort of an existential threat.
So Steve Newhouse, chairman of the company's digital arm, announced a massive restructuring to build a viable future for the paper. The focus would shift to the paper's 24-hour website. A print edition would be published only Wednesday, Friday and Sunday/ More than 200 people would lose their jobs; press operators, copy editors, photographers and distinguished senior reporters. The changes were called painful but inevitable.
Steve Newhouse declined to be interviewed. He referred us to Jim Amoss, the highly respected long-time editor of the paper.
Morley Safer: Did you agree with the decision to start publishing only three days a week?
Jim Amoss: Well, we'd been grappling, as all metro newspapers in this country have with what's happening to our industry. And that is a steady decline in circulation, a steady decline in print ad revenue. And the solutions there aren't many. One is to act as though nothing were happening and continue business as usual. And to me, that's presiding over a gradual irrelevancy and a gradual death.
Morley Safer: What you're saying is that the patient was dying and the only way to save it was to cut off all four limbs and replace it with an artificial one?
Jim Amoss: The patient, and by that I would say the national patient has been in a lingering illness for a very long time. And some of the doctors are standing by and wringing their hands. And some are walking away and saying, "This is an incurable illness." And others are actually trying operations that have a good chance of succeeding.
The company is hoping that by reducing the number of publishing days at many of its 35 regional newspapers it will drive readers to their websites...
David Carr: They are determined, determined, to transform these newspapers into digital franchises. But if you think of most newspapers are in the emergency room, right? They're all wounded one way or another. And you pick The Times-Picayune, one of -- really, one of the stronger papers in America, and say, "Ah, we'll do major surgery on that one." Seems odd.
Morley Safer: Did they anticipate the kind of outrage that the announcement produced?
David Carr: They knew they were going to get some blowback. I don't -- I don't think they expected the gale force winds, the hurricane winds that came at them. I mean, people were frantic.
Advertisers declared their objections. Rallies were held for fired employees and "Save the Picayune" posters sprung up throughout the town. The city council passed a resolution urging the owners to continue printing daily and an open letter was published where local worthies warned that the Newhouses were losing the trust of the community.
Anne Milling: If the Newhouses have given up on New Orleans as they have why not just sell it? Don't hold us hostage.
Anne Milling, a local philanthropist, is one of several prominent New Orleanians who supported the protest. She was joined by Gregory Aymond, archbishop of New Orleans and Lolis Elie, a writer and former Times-Picayune columnist.
Morley Safer: Why this outrage over a newspaper cutting back?
Lolis Eli: Part of what happened -- particularly after Katrina was a sense of community. And Times-Picayune was a big part of that.
The paper published -- literally -- through hell and high water. Dozens of reporters kept the world informed about what was happening while even their own homes were flooded. In the aftermath, the paper became a beacon of civic solidarity.
Anne Milling: We've recovered a great deal. But we still have a long way to go. There's serious issues before us that we need that daily watchdog voice.
Morley Safer: Archbishop, this has more to do with Mammon than with God. How come you got so deeply involved in it?
Archbishop Aymond: I got deeply involved because I'm from New Orleans. I was born and raised here. I have a great love for the people in the city and our tradition. But besides that I really am concerned about the elderly and the poor. This puts them in a very disadvantaged position.
The reduced paper was portrayed as a bold step into the digital future but New Orleans is one of the least "wired" cities in the country with more than a third of the city without Internet access.
Anne Milling: That's huge in terms of the population in this community. And you can say, "Well -- well, maybe these people don't read the newspaper." But I can promise you, you can see people black, white, young, old, Hispanic, Vietnamese buying newspapers at drug stores, grocery stores, sitting at coffee shops. People read The Times-Picayune.
Morley Safer: Well, I think what the suggestion is that the future looks very bleak for the paper. And like any business, they gotta look ahead.
Archbishop Aymond: But one of the puzzling things for me is that we know that there are others, specifically Mr. Tom Benson who is willing to buy the paper.
Tom Benson, a local billionaire owner of the New Orleans Saints football team offered to buy the paper to keep it printing daily. He was told that the paper was not for sale...
Morley Safer: If someone is foolish enough to want to buy a newspaper and you're in the business of showing a profit, you'd think you'd jump at the offer.
Jim Amoss: Well, I think our owners are also in the business of newspapering and journalism and care about the preservation of the news report that we are going to be able to deliver in this town. I know that sounds terribly altruistic. But I've just seen so much evidence of that being the case.
Morley Safer: Did you expect that this decision would be made with such outrage?
Jim Amoss: Well I'm a product of this community. This is my hometown. I think I know it well. And I understand the sadness, I understand the anger, and we all have something in common. And that is that we're driven by a passion for this city.
Lolis Elie, the former columnist, has the passion but doesn't believe the abbreviated paper will satisfy it.
Lolis Elie: How can half as many people cover the same amount of news with half as many resources? We fear for the quality of the journalism.
Though the owners promised an improved website and created new jobs to service it, Elie says it's geared toward fun and games rather than watchdog journalism.
Morley Safer: You feel that a newspaper online is a toothless watchdog.
Lolis Elie: It's not the same if I call you and I say, "Morley, I'm going to put this story online two weeks from now or, you know, three days from now." It's not the same thing.
Jim Amoss: There is no law of nature that says that kind of journalism is inextricably linked to ink on paper. We fully intend to continue to produce the kind of public trust journalism for which they know us.
Morley Safer: New Orleans is a kind of reporters' delight.
Mitch Landrieu: Yeah.
Morley Safer: You'd have to agree, yes?
Mitch Landrieu: Well, of course, it is. Yeah. We tell good stories down here.
Morley Safer: We tell good stories and--
Mitch Landrieu: Or we make good stories.
Morley Safer: There's a lot of hanky-panky goes on.
Mitch Landrieu: Yes, sir.
Morley Safer: Do you think that the city and state are going to suffer because the watchdog isn't on watch in quite the same way?
Mitch Landrieu: Right. I hope not. The more robust press we have the better everybody is. So I'm hoping that that is not going to suffer.
The great steel presses of The Times-Picayune are mostly silent now, reduced to working less than half the time. The questions is: Will it become less than half of what it once was?
And there are rumblings that an even larger Newhouse newspaper, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, founded in 1842 and with a circulation close to 300,000, could soon be next.
Scroll down for video.
View more: Web stories vs. newspaper reports
Jim Amoss, the longtime editor of The Times-Picayune, addresses whether the quality of the paper's reporting will be affected by moving to a digital platform. Will journalists be judged by the amount of online traffic their stories receive?