Organizer of "Save the Picayune" rally Anne Rolfes, left, chats with Rock 'N Bowl owner John Blancher, right.
When the announcement was made May 23 that the Times-Picayune would cease operations as a daily newspaper, there was disbelief and anger that raged both inside and outside of the newsroom. The change to a beefed-up digital circulation through its Nola.com website was kept so secret that even top level managers were kept in the dark. Subscribers were incensed they would be losing their Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday editions, while staffers were left reeling with the news that most of them would soon be out of their jobs. Even longtime Nola.com staffers have to re-apply for their jobs. To say that upper management dropped the ball is an understatement of understatements. Many editorial and advertising staff members got the news from social networking sites like Facebook after a New York Times reporter dropped the initial news bomb shortly after midnight. The fact that an outside news reporter got the scoop on a story that, decidedly, should have been been the Times-Picayune's alone to announce is a testament to the tremendous schism that exists between management and staff. The belief that management had been deliberately withholding the truth from its dedicated worker bees seemed to be proven. The conspiracy theorists saw collusion and intrigue in the large number of layoffs and the hiring freeze that had been in effect for years. Truly gifted writers were made to feel like they were not appreciated. Those that were offered an early retirement grabbed it and the dust had barely settled on their leaving, when questions arose. Who would replace that reporter or columnist? The answer was always a deafening silence. Those writers who came on board as replacements were only shadows of the literary giants who had sat in their chairs before them. The dumbing down of the paper was bad enough, but the Times-Picayune was very much like what a parents feels towards a recalcitrant child. You may not be completely satisfied with his behavior, but you don't disavow your relationship with him. The Times-Picayune had just gone through a 175-day series in which every year it existed was re-examined on a daily basis. Printings of the series into book form rapidly sold old. The loyalty of the public to its daily newspaper was solidified and, I dare say, was probably at its highest point in years. Copies of the "Amen" edition when the Saints victory over the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV sold out many times over and framed copies of the various front pages from that year are still proudly displayed in businesses across town. The paper had shrunk in recent years, both in broadsheet size and in terms of advertising and coverage. The effect of the Internet in sucking out the profitable classified advertising from the newspaper and moving them to free sites like Craig's List or to referral sites like Angie's List cannot be denied. Display advertising shrank from the downturned economy and the continuing effect of a post Katrina landscape in which a quarter of the city's citizens never returned had to weigh heavily on the paper's owners. Yet, the move that the Newhouse family opted for here was still unexpected. No one could have predicted that management would have been able to get away with such a disloyal move to its own workers and, yes, to the city they purported to love. The point is they have enjoyed a monopoly in New Orleans during the decades that other cities had two or more papers competing with one antoher. In recent years no one had ever challenged the Times-Picayune, especially after it had purchased the New Orleans States and the New Orleans Item and merged them into an afternoon edition called The States-Item. An afternoon paper became a luxury item after the 1970s and so the Times-Picayune became the city's only daily paper. The Newhouse family is really not attempting to stop from losing money. The cut down to a three-day publication week is a way of monetizing their profits and making sure no other interest can gain a valuable foothold while they streamline their operations. While management chomps on the possibility of an online model for news delivery, dedicated staff members who have worked 30 or more years await the news as to whether they will be able to support their families. There isn't much hope out there for a newspaperman to walk across the street and snag a new job. While waiting for the ax to fall, several staffers have solicited outside help in organizing protests. While similar cost-cutting measures were announced in Huntsville, Mobile and Birmingham, Alabama, there has been little public outcry there. By contrast in New Orleans there have been numerous rallies and the social networks have been set ablaze with online petitions and demands to keep the paper as a daily. A rally was held at the parking lot of local institution Rock N' Bowl on Monday. Several big name New Orleans performers such as Allen Toussaint, The Igauanas, Kermit Ruffins and Armand St. Martin played music to entertain the crowd, who were encouraged to bring their own food or sample the fare at the Rock N' Bowl. Owner John Blancher estimated the crowd to be 700 strong throughout the four-hour event with 400 gathered at its highest concentration. Organizer Anne Rolfes was there at the end surveying the temperament of the crowd and asking for support from the local community members. "This is the first salvo," she said after the rally was winding down. One of her hardest working members is former New Orleanian Eric Parrie, a Yale Law student who is in for the summer visiting relatives and an adept Facebook devotee. He is responsible for creating the "Save the Picayune" Facebook page that has about 3,000 members added to date. Both Rolfes and Parrie are doing this for the purest of intentions. They believe in the necessity of a daily paper for such a large, albeit smaller city in a post Katrina world. They have a long way to go and some fairly stubborn heads to turn before their job is over. As a faithful subscriber, I, too, feel the need for a daily paper and through it a connection to my local community. However, as a journalist, I recognize the downward slide in quality the paper had exuded. Many great writers remain on staff, but when the ax falls, will there be enough left around to make a difference even if management relents and alters its present course? I say to Rolfes and Parrie: "Be careful for what you wish."