News1The transition to web-based news continues to divorce journalists from their paychecks. The Times-Picayune is just the latest example. By Walter Pierce

“Saddle up the dinosaurs, we’re riding to Chernobyl!”

The depressing chime of the death knell for daily newspapers — with an emphasis on paper — took on a shriller, more fretful tone last week when the venerable Times-Picayune, the Pulitzer-winning daily that has been the dominant source of news in the Crescent City for more than a century, announced it will cut its circulation down to three days this fall and focus its energy and resources on digital news.

By year’s end a paper version of the Times-Pic will be available only on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. No more Monday recaps of Saints games in print. And let’s imagine the frantic raids on recycling bins next crawfish season in the metro area. Can you even have a crawfish boil and not cover the table with newspaper?

It also means that tens of thousands of New Orleanians who were habituated to life’s daily pulse in the 20th century — folks over 50, let’s say — will have to make a wrenching transition to this new(s) reality. And unfortunately the T-P’s brave new world will not be realized without layoffs, likely significant layoffs.

Like the Titanic’s band, the paper’s editors played as lively a tune as possible when they announced the changes last Thursday, citing the company’s incoming president: “[T]he need to reallocate resources to accelerate the digital growth of NOLA Media Group will result in a reduction in the size of the workforce.”

Gannett, parent company of The Daily Advertiser, is no stranger to reallocating resources. Just ask the hundreds nationally and dozens locally laid off over the last few years as the media behemoth adjusts to the digital age. Gannett, too, is repositioning itself to focus on digital delivery. Fortunately our local daily will remain daily, at least for now.

Citing sources, New Orleans weekly Gambit reported that the T-P newsroom staff will likely be reduced by a third, and those employees learned of their march to the guillotine from a New York Times article that broke online at 11:30 p.m. last Wednesday. The Times-Pic brass announced the changes hours later after its hand was forced, and Gambit further reported that only a select number of management personnel were privy to the downsizing before it was announced.

The knell signaling the end of daily newspapers as we know them has been ringing for at least a decade, and newspapers themselves share the blame for their precipitously declining health. When the World Wide Web became a necessary application of news gathering, most papers made their locally generated content free on their newfangled websites. How could they not? In cities with two competing dailies — what a relic of the 20th century! — if you didn’t make your content free and your competitor did, you were at a significant disadvantage.

The Pandora’s Box had already been pried open in 1999 when America Online convinced the Associated Press to sell its stories to AOL, which provided AP news from around the world to AOL subscribers. For free. The AP is essentially a resource-sharing operation of which virtually all daily newspapers are members. The Daily Advertiser is an AP paper, as are The Advocate and The Times-Picayune, so their stories are fed into the AP machine daily just like everyone else’s. By 2000, subscribers to AOL, CompuServe and other Internet providers could get AP content including, often, stories from their own daily newspapers for free. Once the dailies started rolling out their own websites a couple of years later, anyone with a computer and modem could get daily journalism — an expensive, time-consuming and critical-to-democracy enterprise — pumped into their homes free of charge. What was the news consumer’s incentive to buy a print copy after that? Circulation of print dailies began to plummet, and the incentive for advertisers to invest in print declined with it.

Of course, Katrina delivered a swoon-inducing blow to the T-P, flushing thousands of subscribers from the city. But the die had already been cast. Newspapers were on a collision course with a future that doesn’t give a damn about nostalgia, especially the quaint news-reading habits of a bygone era.

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