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Journalism under water

Once upon a time, the New Orleans Times-Picayune wasn't able to publish a newspaper every day. You may have heard about it: Hurricane Katrina. The year was 2005 and people knew even less about getting news to folks over the Internet -- but that's what the intrepid staff of one America's great newspapers did, as best as they could. And did it ever work.

The Times-Picayune newsroom -- and its relentless push to get the story out through any channel it could -- saved lives:

Donley said that an aide of Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, the commander of the relief efforts, had tasked a group of people with monitoring the NOLA View blog, and were taking notes and sending out rescue missions based on the postings."In fact, one time we had some server issues," Donley said, "and [the aide] wrote us frantically saying, 'Get this up as soon as you can, people's lives depend on it. We've already saved a number of lives because of it.'"

Seven years later, the world has come full circle. Once again, readers in the Crescent City won't be getting a printed newspaper every day. This time, however, the cruelties of Mother Nature are not to blame. This catastrophe is completely man-made.

The Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans confirmed on Thursday that it would cut back its print publishing schedule to three days a week and lay off an unknown number of staff members.

In an article posted on its Web site,, Thursday morning, the paper reported that a new company would be formed called the NOLA Media Group, which would include the paper and the Web site. The newspaper will be home delivered and available in stores on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays only. The Web site, meanwhile, will increase its online news-gathering efforts "24 hours a day."

Later in the day, three Alabama papers were similarly restructured: The Birmingham News, The Huntsville Times and The Press-Register of Mobile.

While the Times-Picayune won an incredibly well-deserved Pulitzer Prize for its mostly online Katrina coverage, it would be a mistake to assume  that the citizens of New Orleans will be well-served by this. The main reason is quite obvious: The newsroom is going to have significantly fewer bodies than it did in 2005, something that the owners of the paper downplayed in their self-serving coverage of the moves.

We'll also have to see if another rumored change takes place, which would be requiring reporters to re-apply for their jobs at a substantially lower salary. That would mean that the most experienced reporters -- i.e., the ones who know where the bodies are buried in one of America's most corrupt states -- would all but certainly be driven out of the business, to support their families in some other way.

There's been a flurry of news coverage about the changes at the Times-Picayune -- it truly is a landmark event in the downward spiral of print newspapers -- but there's one major aspect of all this that nobody seems to be talking about. The digital divide. I found this post-Katrina survey (PDF file) by the Kaiser Family Foundation that said in 2007, four out of 10 New Orleans residents had very limited or no access to the Internet.

UPDATE: The most recent figure, according to a 2010 Kaiser report, is 36 percent without home Web access.

The bottom line is that New Orleans remains one of the poorest and one of the oldest cities in America, the two leading indicators for limited Internet access. That doesn't mean that all of those folks are reading a newspaper every day. But some of them were -- and so these are the people who'll be shut out of information four days every week. The same people you saw on rooftops or begging for help at the New Orleans Convention Center six years ago. If anyone in America needs more access to better information -- not less -- it would be these folks.

You might also say there's no cause for alarm because the Newhouse chain that owns the Times-Picayune and the Alabama papers has already done the same thing in Michigan, killing off the university town paper The Ann Arbor News and going digital. But there's little comparison between an upscale community packed with professors and students and a place like New Orleans.  The journalist Micheline Maynard, who hails from Ann Arbor and currently works for Forbes, wrote this today about what life's been like there without a printed newspaper:

Earlier this year, when tornadoes struck nearby Dexter, Mich., many of us relied on WXYZ-TV, which has a sophisticated social media network called the Backchannel. And yes, has six Web pages of tornado coverage in its archives. But we all ached for the days when the coverage would have printed in the Ann Arbor News for days running.

The disappearance of The Ann Arbor News is a void that for many of us will never be filled, especially those of us whose births were printed in the paper. The loss is even bigger for less Web-savvy residents like my mom, who complains that she and her friends now don't hear someone has died until after the funeral.

Getting back to Louisiana...did I mention that the whole state is corrupt? Fabulously so. It's the state that's given us, um, colorful politicians like Edwin Edwards and Rep. William "$90,000-in-the-freezer" Jefferson. There was massive malfeasance or ineptitude at the heart of both the Katrina disaster (botched evacuations, levees) and the more recent Deepwater Horizon spill from which the Gulf Coast is still struggling to recover. This is a state that has a higher concentration of chemical and oil plants than anywhere in the world, and a state government that does a poor job regulating it. Even their pro football team turned out to be corrupt, for God's sake.

Why would they possibly need journalists?

This news some 1,500 miles away is more personal for me than you might expect. The man who gave me my first real break in newspapers, Times-Picayune managing editor Peter Kovacs, is said to be losing his job. And the place where he helped get me that job was the Birmingham News, where I worked from 1982-85 (no, that's not one of my famous typos). I still have good friends at both those papers, and my heart goes out to them.

As for whether places like New Orleans and Birmingham need journalists, I think some Times-Picayune reporters and photographers answered that question prety well the other day, producing a pretty amazing eight-part series called "Louisiana Incarcerated" that tried to answer the question of why the Bayou State sends more people to prison than just about anywhere else in the planet. Last night, some journalists were reportedly calling the series the last great piece of journalism ever to be produced by the T-P.

We'll see. There will still be journalists in New Orleans. There just won't be enough. A city that is still under water can never get enough sunlight.

Note: Edited slightly from original to reflect more current Internet access numbers.