News that The Times-Picayune would cease publishing daily editions went off like a bombshell this week. From the newsroom to the state Capitol to boardrooms and barrooms across the metro area, people found it hard to believe that the paper’s owners were abandoning four days of news coverage in print.
In some ways, it’s a sign of the times for America’s newspapers. Yet it’s sad that New Orleans has to be on the forefront of such an awful development. Despite the TP’s rosy coverage of the news, there’s nothing good about the paper dropping to three days of printed circulation.
From the inevitable layoffs among the paper’s extremely talented staff to the diminution of a powerful voice for reform in local and state politics to the probable loss of in-depth investigative reporting, this is bad news all around. It leaves a huge void in local and state politics.
To get just a glimpse of how important newspapers are to a democracy, think back to the founding of the Republic. The Founding Fathers, in an effort to “sell” the new Constitution, adopted a set of amendments to it — the Bill of Rights — and led off with the words, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” No other industry enjoys specific constitutional protection against official incursion. Unfortunately, the Constitution cannot ward off the Internet or a bad economy — or lousy ownership.
Although Gambit has competed against the TP, I’ve always had a soft spot for the daily. How could I not? I got my professional start there, learned the craft during the last days of old-school journalism. I used to bang my stories out on nightly deadlines — on typewriters — and on newsprint. City editors smoked cigars and chewed out reporters, just like Walter Matthau in The Front Page. The characters we wrote about were nothing compared to the characters in the newsroom. I loved it.
The world was different then. We couldn’t imagine a world, or even a city, without a daily newspaper.
Our publisher back then, Ashton Phelps Sr., was a legendary figure who literally wore white linen suits and chomped on Cuban cigars. When I left the paper, he called me into his office, wished me well, and told me to call him if I ever wanted to get back into the newspaper business. He meant it.
He was succeeded as publisher by his son, Ashton Phelps Jr., who became a great publisher. Ashton Jr. took the reins of a paper that for years had been a cash cow but a journalistic backwater and, without hurting its bottom line, brought it to national prominence. Under his stewardship, the paper won four Pulitzer prizes in less than 10 years — a phenomenal accomplishment.
Above all, Phelps let his reporters do their jobs, and they loved him for it. When he announced his retirement in March after more than three decades at the paper’s helm, it signaled not just the end of an era but also that things were about to get ugly. He no doubt saw the handwriting on the wall, and he wanted no part of it. I don’t blame him. What happened last week was a betrayal of his legacy — and of the years of hard work of hundreds of great reporters, photographers and editors.
Back in the day, when I was banging out my stories on a typewriter on long sheets of newsprint, we’d end our stories with the hallmark “-30-” after the final paragraph. I never thought I’d be putting a -30- on the story of my old paper.