NEW ORLEANS (CN) - New Orleans became the largest American city without a daily newspaper today as the Times-Picayune officially goes to three-days-a-week circulation.
Three major newspapers in Alabama - the Birmingham News, the Press-Register of Mobile and the Huntsville Times - will also be scaling back to three days a week.
Though an astonishing one-third of New Orleans is not wired for Internet, publishers ostensibly cut circulation for the 175-year-old paper to make a better online product.
As the Times Picayune prepared for the change in circulation Friday, the Southern literary magazine, The Oxford American, held a symposium in New Orleans to mark what the magazine's publisher Warwick Sabin called the Times Picayune's "devastating blow to the media landscape" here.
Of the two panels presented during the New Journalism in the South symposium, one, "The Life and Death of a Great American Newspaper: Reorganizing the Times Picayune," focused exclusively on The Times Picayune's drop in circulation. Four writers and editors, including former CNN vice president Kim Bondy, discussed the implications of the new circulation plan, which takes effect Monday.
"What is a newspaper for? What does it mean when you don't have one?" asked Roger Hodge, the new editor of The Oxford American and former editor of Harper's Magazine.
Bondy, a New Orleans native, said that she had learned to read by flipping through the Times Picayune with her grandfather at the stand he ran.
A newspaper is a way of keeping track, "something that documents your daily life," Bondy said.
Andrew Nelson, a visiting professor at Loyola and contributing writer for National Geographic Traveler, said his social media students don't necessarily have the same connection with a print newspaper as older generations do.
When the Times Picayune announced its intended cutback in circulation, Nelson said a student asked him what the problem was with the Times Picayune simply switching from print to online content.
The student had said, "I've never read it in print," Nelson remarked.
Alex Rawls, writer and editor of MySpiltMilk.com, said the switch from print to online content is positive.
"For me, I think this transition is good," Rawls said. "Time to break out of the notion that there is one voice in the city that matters."
But the online-to-print shift is only as positive as there are people with Internet access. For the nearly one-third of New Orleans residents who are not connected to the Internet, and for older residents who aren't accustomed to going online, the switch to not having a printed daily paper will be especially hard-felt.
Nola.com, the Times Picayune website, also has a reputation for publishing fewer and lower quality stories than those found in the print edition.
"The website is just terrible," Nelson said, to much applause.
Nathanial Rich, a contributing writer to The Oxford American, said the Newhouse family that owns the Times Picayune has been misleading at best about its intentions for the newspaper.
"They were being dishonest in their stated goal of advancing journalism," Rich said. "First, their website is garbage. Obviously they aren't spending money on it. Secondly, they fired a bunch of their top reporters. Clearly we are dealing with a blatantly, plainly dishonest enterprise."
Bondy agreed. "They're clearly now in the business of providing content, not a quality paper" she said.
"We did our part: we bought the paper; we read the paper; we subscribed to the paper. They changed, and without giving us a say," Rich said.
Bondy had a similar observation. "If it was truly about money: sell. They could have sold to someone who was interested in making a paper."
The proposed drop in circulation was first announced in May. In June, 200 Times-Picayune reporters - half the newsroom - were laid off.
Throughout June, rumors circulated that a local entity would purchase the newspaper from Newhouse, even after Steven Newhouse, chairman of Nola.com's parent Advance.net, told The New York Times: "We have no intention of selling."
New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson offered to buy the paper in July to preserve its seven-days-a-week circulation. Newhouse declined.
For the first time Monday, the Baton Rouge Advocate will begin delivering a New Orleans edition of the paper to New Orleans subscribers.
Nelson worried what will happen to Newhouse's other titles.
"There is a state that is about to undergo a massive experiment - that is Alabama," Nelson said. "Papers across the whole state are owned by Newhouse."
"What does it mean when the entire state doesn't have access to a published daily paper," he asked.
Carl Redman, executive editor at the Baton Rouge Advocate, appeared on the next panel in the symposium. He said the Advocate only just began taking subscriptions from New Orleans residents last week. "They were so overwhelmed they crashed our lines," Redman said.
While the Advocate is eager to provide a daily paper to New Orleans residents, at this point the paper will be limited in scope, he added.
"We can't dig as deep or as wide as the Times Picayune did," Redman said. "Hopefully eventually we'll be able to do something like that."
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