January 14, 2013
By Allen Mikaelian
Although slotted into the last day of the meeting, the panel on “The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers” was well-attended and lively. Now that I’m back from New Orleans and editing articles for the February issue of Perspectives on History, ideas and concerns raised by this panel have come back to the forefront of my mind.
New Orleans was a poignant setting for this panel, as the Times-Picayune ran what may be its last daily edition on Sunday, September 30, 2012. By moving to a three-day print production schedule, New Orleans became the largest city in American without a daily newspaper. The editor of the Times-Picayune, James Amoss, was part of this panel, and his stories and viewpoints carried immense weight.
Amoss related how he and his staff were holed up in the newsroom as Hurricane Katrina bore down on the city in 2005. As the lights went out, he recalled, reporters were on their generator-powered laptops, sending out dispatches and relaying information to an audience of millions. This was happening without a printing press, without delivery vans, indeed, without porches to receive printed papers. Perhaps this moment and the praise the Times-Picayune received for its coverage lessened the pain of the decision to become a three-day a week paper.
Amoss and the Times-Picayune have been pilloried for this move, which David Nord, professor of journalism and adjunct professor of history at Indiana University Bloomington, tried to put in some historical perspective. Newspapers, he noted, were not daily until they became conveyances for daily business intelligence—shipping reports, commodity prices, and the like. It was the demand for raw business data, not news or editorials, that prompted the move to daily publication. So, was there ever a real demand or need for daily news in print form? Can a three-day-a-week paper be just as much a part of the life of a city, especially when it has a robust online presence?
This was only one aspect to a conversation that ranged widely and also included Geneva Overholser, of the University of Southern California (chair), Steven Lagerfeld of the Wilson Quarterly, and David Westphal of the Center for Health Reporting.
The panel’s discussion ranged widely, and it worth watching in its entirety. Luckily, History News Network videotaped the session, which can be found here.