The New Orleans Times-Picayune and the Future of News

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The linchpin of my college education was not an inspiring teacher or a life-altering class but the Washington Postdelivered daily to my dorm room. The Post is a great newspaper and reading it everyday cover-to-cover was at the core of my understanding of politics - more informative, timely, and relevant than any textbook or professor.

For someone who grew up reading newspapers, their decline is deeply troubling. Newspaper readers are more engaged in and knowledgeable about politics and public affairs. And, innovative and community-minded newspapers can build social capital, hold public officials accountable, and link citizens to their government.

Within this context, the decision by The New Orleans Times-Picayune to move from a daily newspaper to a three-day a week printing schedule is unnerving. Part of this is specific to the local context. The Times-Picayune has been uniquely relevant and influential during the rebuilding process both as a source of news and as a voice for the local community. Has any paper been more important locally since 2005 than the Times-Picayune?

But part of it is much deeper. This decision has the eery feel of a canary singing in a coal mine. Isn't this just the foreshadowing of the end of the printed newspaper? Aren't all "papers" living on borrowed time?

Online sources provide the news quicker and more efficiently, and for younger demographics (18-34) online news is increasingly the primary news source. Anecdotally, It is more and more common to hear college students say they do not read a local newspaper at all.

The question then isn't how to save print but how to transition the content of newspapers onto online digital platforms in a manner that allows news organizations to profit. Print is not entirely dead, but to survive newspapers will have to shift away from providing the "news" as updates and information and toward providing unique community perspectives. They will also have to focus increasing on local or niche oriented content - content that other publications can't or won't provide - but that consumers want and need.

The tragedy of many newspapers is that to cut costs, they moved increasingly to wire service content, cutting their short-term costs but limiting their long term viability. Daily newspapers that rely heavily on news stories that can be found quickly and easily online will be replaced by google searches and news aggregators.

As someone who thinks often about the future of democracy, the decline of newspapers worries me greatly as it could easily translate into a weaker democracy, less informed citizens, and less accountable policy-makers.

But it is also worth remembering that it is information that serves as the currency of democracy (and not newspapers). The question is not how to save the paper but how to create digital information sources that can effectively play the role once played by newspapers. For better or worse, this is the future of news.