25 May 2012
Head Paper Now! It's More than Ink and Paper and Profits
Late Wednesday night I learned via a post on facebook David Carr's report that The Times-Picayune as I know and love it will no longer be no more. This is one of the saddest pieces of news that I can fathom for the civic, cultural, and institutional life of this great city. I would like to issue a plea to the owners of the T-P to reconsider. All I have is my story and some insights to the peculiarity of New Orleans life and the paper's relation to it.
My story. Like most kids I learned to basically read and compute by following baseball box scores. I was given the Sports section, after dad was finished with it, and the Kids page that ran on Wednesdays. Reading the paper (The News and Opinion sections) was a grown up activity. My father instilled in me the need to be an informed citizen and to not make my mind up on any issue until I had conducted proper and thorough research. In high school I slowly moved towards adulthood by reading the News section. In college my history teachers required us to subscribe to the Christian Science Monitor. Also while in on a chance for extra credit I attended a lecture by Randall Robinson on current Haitian affairs. After the lecture I weaved my way forward to ask him a question on how to be informed on worldly affairs. Although he was being pulled by my professors so they could host him at a reception, he took the opportunity to lambast me (really, intellectually to kick my a$$) on how it is my duty as a citizen of the U.S.A. to be informed by critical sources, particularly the New York Times. In divinity school the dean of students told a brief story on Rev. Gardner Taylor's advice to young preachers: one, read the reviews of the Arts in the NYTimes; two, listen to me and do what I do. From that day on I have read the daily copy of the paper from the town I inhabit and the NY Times, either at my house or the coffee shop or the library.
When I received my first call (preacher talk for first job) the first thing I did was to subscribe to the Charleston Gazette, even though I couldn't afford it. To me it was the sign that I was now, officially, an adult. My continual growth as an adult has included three kids, coaching baseball, lovely years of marriage, and Op- Ed pieces (my first hangs on the wall beside my desk) and home delivery of not one but two papers.
I love the paper. It is a shared institutional, civic, and cultural media. The paper, even a bad one, forces the reader to read and review articles he or she normally would not. Sure, I read papers on the web, but I only read the articles I want to - that is the beauty of the web but it is terrible for public discourse. What good does it do me to read only about the Twins, religion, the weather forecasts, and restaurant reviews? A full paper with investigative reporters, creative arts reviewers, sports writers (actual writers), a thoughtful editorial board, critical copy editors, & etc. serve the public, raise the possibility of an informed public, raise the consciousness of the public, challenge the public and private sectors, and show us the reflection of our community, i.e. are we really the community we say and believe we are? An online version of the paper cannot do this!
A report today interviewed a professor at Tulane University which stated that none of his students raise their hands when asked if they read the paper. I say that logic is pure hogwash and that the professor is constipated. Why? Recently I have had the opportunity to lecture at a local private university, whereupon I took the opportunity to conduct my own survey. These were some of the sharpest students I had ever been around, for the record. Who has the best fried chicken in town? Popeyes, most had never heard of Dunbar's or Willie Mae's Scotch House. When I asked if they listen to WWOZ, only one person had heard of it, they all listen to Magic something or other. So is Willie Mae's and Dunbar's and OZ going to close because current college students don't know about them? And when I asked them what they had for breakfast most didn't eat it. So does that mean General Mills and farmers in Iowa are going to cease to exist? Has this particular professor ever implored the importance of reading the paper to his students? Has he ever used his position to kick their intellectual a$$ to read the paper, to be informed, and to think about the powers and principalities (preacher talk again, I know but I cannot help it) at work in their city?
Furthermore, the paper in New Orleans is unique. One cannot judge its penetration simply by circulation and bought papers. Why? Because the paper, like a meal here, is shared, it is passed around. I cannot count how many neighbors and family members share a paper. I cannot count the number of times one paper is read by different people at a coffee shop. Someone buys the paper then leaves it on the table for future readers. And by the way most of the people reading the paper in coffee shops are younger than me!
Online news is great but it is ephemeral. There is no iconic web headline that we save, frame, or cut out to share with friends. I think a business model of mutual beneficial news sharing both print and online surely can work. What about endowing the paper? Every subscriber pays a one time $10 fee each year for the endowment to support continued coverage and reporting, not corporate sponsorship. A guaranteed $1 million every year!
If this great city is going to continue to be a great world city it needs a great paper! (I am sure a great copy editor, like the current copy editors at the T-P, would curtail my usage of the exclamation point).
Posted by G. Travis Norvell at 12:40 PM