What's New Orleans to do without a daily paper? It's a question a lot of people—both in the Crescent City and around the country—are asking these days.
But the real issue is not about not having a printed newspaper. It's whether the online version of The Times Picayune—with its scaled-down staff and de facto emphasis on generating massive quantities of Web page views—will be able to deliver quality, comprehensive and hard-hitting journalism.
Experts say other markets that have tried it are failing. The Seattle Post Intelligencer, which went completely digital in 2009, has filled its website with national news, sports and entertainment features.
"It's just not the same as the printed newspaper was," says Princeton, N.J.-consultant Tom Baker, who spearheaded the creation of The Wall Street Journal Online. "That's what's discouraging."
One possible solution being bandied about in Uptown New Orleans parlors and downtown office towers is the creation of a nonprofit foundation that would publish a newspaper, be it for print, the Internet or both. Like those in other cities, such a foundation would be supported by grants and donations and dedicate itself to politics, government and issues that matter, rather than entertainment.
"The only thing that is going to ensure there is local journalism in a city like New Orleans is there is going to have to be either local ownership of a newspaper or a local nonprofit that does serious journalism," Baker says. "It ends up looking kind of like public radio, except a newspaper."
The Texas Tribune is one such example. The online daily was established in Austin in 2009 and is dedicated to covering politics, state government and public policy. The nonprofit entity that runs it was founded by two venture capitalists, and exists—like most nonprofits—through corporate support, private donations and grants. The Tribune's website is hard-core news—no stories here on the Real Housewives of Dallas—and gets high marks from media scholars. Its financial success is less certain.
"I don't see how the nonprofit model is sustainable," says Jerry Ceppos, dean of the LSU Manship School of Mass Communication. "Besides, if I'm running a newspaper, I don't know if I would want a foundation telling me what to do."
Another nonprofit news site that has been well received is the four-year-old ProPublico, which covers national news and was the first online news organization to win a Pulitzer Prize. Since its inception, its news staff of 20 has increased by 75% and its website has gone from 77,000 visitors a month to more than half a million. Because of its stature and national connections, it has done well raising money, but it is still always passing the hat, as is the nature of nonprofits in general. Is that the only future for serious news organizations?
Baker believes it is. Ceppos isn't so sure. Either way, another expert at LSU's Manship School, professional in residence Bob Ritter, says someone has to find some sort of model that works.
"We have to find a way to continue to produce the kind of journalism we need to perpetuate our democracy," he says. "Locally, statewide and nationally."
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