Thursday, May 24, 2012

Men in suits do what Katrina couldn't

You'll likely never notice the moment you were saved from the abyss -- or were cast into it.

For a couple of cities and their daily newspapers, that moment came in 1962. And a half century later, the
Omaha World-Herald is still standing, still locally owned and the flagship of a chain of dailies and weeklies across Nebraska and -- now -- across the country.

The other newspaper,
The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, has not been so fortunate. In 1962, what had been locally owned since its founding in 1837 (cover price, one picayune) became part of Newhouse Newspapers, a division of S.I. Newhouse's Advance Publications. And now the New York-based corporation has decided New Orleans doesn't need a daily newspaper anymore. Or the Alabama cities of Birmingham, Huntsville and Mobile, either.

Instead, the
Picayune, for one, will publish only three times a week -- Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Speculation is that at least 50 people in the newsroom will lose their jobs. That's what it means when spin like this comes down from on high:
Amoss acknowledged that for those who rely upon the newspaper as an integral part of their lives, the transition to three days a week would be difficult. But as emphasis in coverage moved online, he vowed that the essential journalism of The Times-Picayune would endure.

"We will continue our 175-year commitment to covering the communities we serve," Amoss said. "We will deliver our journalism in print, through and on our mobile platforms 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and we invite our readers to become a part of the conversation."

Mathews said details of the new digitally focused company are still being worked out, but the transition will be difficult. While many employees will have the opportunity to grow with the new organization, Mathews said, the need to
reallocate resources to accelerate the digital growth of NOLA Media Group will result in a reduction in the size of the workforce.
"ESSENTIAL journalism" does not endure when you fire dozens of the people who produce it. And you cannot "reallocate resources" that you have just discarded like yesterday's newspaper.

"Yesterday's newspaper." That pretty much describes
The Times-Picayune now.

Instead, what New Orleans will get come autumn is less news on a crappy website. What the city will receive three times a week in print is less news reported by fewer local journalists.

Corporate may or may not try to put a little lipstick on that particular pig, but if Advance follows the path it trailblazed in Ann Arbor, Mich., it will end up just cutting the pretense and butchering the pig. Like Ann Arbor, that would leave New Orleans as a no-newspaper town.

With a crappy website.

I WAS born in south Louisiana, grew up there, too -- in Baton Rouge. I grew up reading the State-Times and later worked there for a while.

But when I was in junior high and high school, most days I would hop on my bicycle (or into my old man's '67 Mercury) in the evening, go down to Villa Oaks grocery store and pick up an afternoon
State-Times . . . and a New Orleans States-Item . . . and the old gray lady of the bayou morning, The Times-Picayune. From them, I learned about the world.

And from them, I learned what little I know about writing. It was an ink-stained apprenticeship of a fashion.

I had been married for the better part of a decade and had lived in Omaha for three years already when the
State-Times died 21 years ago, and it broke my heart. I had always considered it the better (and livelier) of Baton Rouge's newspapers -- for whatever that is worth -- and I know the city is diminished by the loss of its voice, and by the loss of the internecine journalistic free-for-all with its sister publication, the Morning Advocate . . . now just The Advocate.

As I contemplate a struggling, rebuilding New Orleans without the Picayune -- having only a crappy website and whatever the hell the "print edition" is going to be -- I find myself thinking there but for the grace of Peter Kiewit goes Omaha. That's Peter Kiewit's picture above.

In October 1962, as America endured the nuclear brinkmanship of the Cuban Missile Crisis, newspaper titan S.I. Newhouse offered $40.1 million for the World Publishing Co., then-owner of the Omaha World-Herald. The board of directors liked the money, and the deal was almost done.

Kiewit, president of Peter Kiewit Sons', Inc., the family construction business, didn't like anything about what he had read in the
Wall Street Journal. The World-Herald deal, as opposed to the Cuba thing.
During an Oct. 12, 1962, layover at the Denver airport, Kiewit learned from a story in the Wall Street Journal that his hometown newspaper was about to be sold to New York publisher Samuel I. Newhouse.

World-Herald directors were willing to sell the paper to prevent the stock, largely held by heirs of founder Gilbert Hitchcock, from being diffused.

Four days later, Kiewit called a friend, banker W. Dale Clark, who also was chairman of the newspaper board, and asked to see the newspaper's balance sheet. Clark told Kiewit that the board had a buyer and was satisfied with the offer.

The newspaper's directors weren't interested in other offers, Clark told Kiewit, who later said he realized Clark felt a moral obligation to Newhouse.

But Kiewit persevered. Unknown to him at the time, Kiewit had a strong ally in his wish to keep The World-Herald in local hands. Martha Hitchcock, widow of founder Gilbert Hitchcock, felt strongly that ownership should remain in Omaha.

Kiewit spent nine days gathering the financial information he wanted. He was impressed with what he found.

Kiewit called Clark again on Oct. 26, saying he had the necessary information.

"Fine," Kiewit later quoted Clark as saying. "You had better come down and see me.''

Two days later, Kiewit and company colleague Homer Scott met World-Herald directors in an all-day Sunday meeting.

Monday night, Kiewit worked out an offer of $40.4 million. Newhouse's bid was $40.1 million.

Tuesday morning, Kiewit was the owner.
HAD KIEWIT hated the idea of his hometown paper being run from a New York office any less, the name of the World-Herald's anniversary website -- 125 Years and Counting -- might sound rather mordantly ironic about now.

Kiewit, who died in 1979, understood what few in business or the public understand today: Newspapers are not just another business. Newspapers are in the business of earning more dollars and cents than they spend, yes . . . but they also are in the business of community. And the business of democracy. And the business of education. And the business of accountability.

When a newspaper -- whether it appears in printed form every day or not -- is diminished, as Advance Publications proposes to diminish the Times-Picayune and its other Southern papers, it's never just the newspaper's light that grows dimmer. There will be vitally important stories in New Orleans that won't get told now.

There will be vital information that New Orleanians won't get, and good decisions won't be made because of that. Corruption will become even easier in the Crescent City, because there will be dozens fewer journalists keeping vigil over the public's funny business.

And a city that loves its traditions will be at a loss over the radical wreckovation of a big one in town.

I guess New Orleans just hasn't suffered enough, what with all the crime, killing, poverty, ignorance, corruption . . . and Katrina.

FINALLY, let's not even get into the foolhardiness of Advance putting all the Picayune's eggs -- this in the age of foundering Facebook IPOs and a soft online-advertising market -- in a highly uncertain digital basket.

Obviously, there are good ways to make money in the digital universe. There are ways for newspapers to profit online. I just don't trust the Picayune's corporate masters to look for them . . . or to look much beyond the shaky Internet-advertising model.

What could go wrong?

In New Orleans? Pretty much everything. And today, as a newspaper's employees and its city stare into the abyss, it's becoming clear who gets to pay S.I. Newhouse's bill from May 1962 that just came due.

Here in Omaha, I think it would be appropriate if the employees of the Omaha World-Herald -- and the citizens of the city it calls home -- spring for a giant spray of flowers for Peter Kiewit's grave, God bless him.

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