New News in New Orleans
By: Cameron McWhirter & Keach Hagey | Wall Street Journal | 07/26/2012
National Public Radio, the University of New Orleans, and a group of business and community leaders will announce Friday the creation of a nonprofit newsroom to compete against the city’s for-profit newspaper, the Times-Picayune.
The planned operation, funded annually by $1 million to $2 million in memberships, donations and sponsorships, will have a staff of 10 to 20 producing news for the Web, mobile devices and radio.
The announcement comes two months after the Times-Picayune’s owners, New York-based Advance Publications Inc., said it would cut staff and reduce print publication to three days a week this fall, making New Orleans the largest U.S. city without a daily print newspaper. In June, it announced it was laying off about 200 people.
NewOrleansReporter.org will be operated by WWNO, a local NPR affiliate owned by the University of New Orleans, a state university. NPR plans to provide technical and journalistic expertise for the new operation—part of a broader national effort by NPR to build up affiliate news operations. WWNO already switched to a heavier news format Monday.
“What we are seeing play out in New Orleans, with the Times-Picayune, is a scene we have seen repeated over and over in a lot of communities as newspapers have fallen on hard times,” said Kinsey Wilson, NPR’s executive vice president and chief content officer. “[Newspapers’] weakening and sometimes collapse is leaving communities with a real information deficit. In broad terms, we have seen this as being an opportunity for public radio to be one of the emerging players, as the news business is rebuilt.”
Steven Newhouse, chairman of Advance.net, the digital arm of Advance Publications, said his company was making its changes to stress digital news coverage while print declined. He said he welcomed new competitors. “Competition is great,” he said.
Reporters at the new organization will cover local government, economic development, education, crime and other civic issues. “We are filling a reporting gap that the free market will not necessarily fill,” said Michael Hecht, chief executive of Greater New Orleans Inc., a regional business development group, who will head fundraising.
Mr. Hecht has been at the forefront of an ad hoc group of community and business leaders who have been publicly calling for Advance to keep the paper’s daily schedule or sell to a local buyer. This week, Tom Benson, owner of the New Orleans Saints football team wrote a letter to Mr. Newhouse asking to buy the newspaper. Advance executives repeatedly have said they would not sell.
Fundraising efforts will begin in earnest next week, Mr. Hecht said.
The news operation, which plans to be up and running by the end of the year, is the latest of several responses by local media to the Times-Picayune cuts. This week, the Advocate in Baton Rouge announced plans to launch a New Orleans edition.
Steve Beatty, managing editor for the local nonprofit watchdog website The Lens, which is partnering with WWNO to share content, said the Times-Picayune’s cuts have furious New Orleans residents considering “any alternatives” for local news.
“There is a lot of venom directed at the Times-Picayune right now,” he said.
The paper’s daily print circulation has fallen sharply in recent years, from more than a 260,000 in 2005 to 133,500 this March, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.
Advance—which also owns the Condé Nast stable of glossy magazines, such as Vogue and Vanity Fair—also has reduced print schedules at papers in Michigan and Alabama.