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Joanna Weiss

New Orleans fights for its news

ISTOCKPHOTO/ GLOBE STAFF ILLUSTRATION

When it comes to nightmare layoff situations — the sort that might show up in a political ad, or a movie melodrama — the story of The Times-Picayune ranks high. It was late one night in May, from a New York Times blog, that staff members of New Orleans’ daily newspaper learned that their parent company was planning to slash staff and cut production.

It would be three more excruciating weeks before people were told whether they’d keep their jobs. The paper cut about half of its staff, then quickly started hiring for some of the same positions. On Oct. 1, print production drops from seven days a week to three.

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This is news that strikes fear in journalists nationwide. We all know what’s happening to the newspaper business model: the death of classifieds, the migration of display ads and readers to the Web, the once-astounding profit margins shriveled and shrunk. We’ve seen the consequences firsthand; I worked for the Times-Picayune in the ’90s, and many of the people who lost jobs there are my friends, who have been treated with stunning disrespect thoroughout a hamhanded severance process. (The latest indignity: cheery signs, posted around the building, telling them where they can get boxes to pack up their desks.)

But in New Orleans, it’s not just journalists who ached. Officials at New Jersey-based Advance Publications, which owns the paper, dimissed early complaints about the changes as “noise,” but the noise never stopped.

It came from business leaders, who sent letters signed by advertisers and local celebrities — James Carville, Wynton Marsalis — to ask the Newhouse family, which owns Advance, to sell the paper to someone who would publish it daily.

It came from people on the street, who saw the paper, especially after Hurricane Katrina, as a lifeline, community glue, for a city that constantly feels under siege. A shrunken paper felt “like a stick in the eye,” said John Blancher, owner of the famed nightclub Rock ’n’ Bowl, who hosted an early “Save the Picayune” rally.

“Every major city has a newspaper now except New Orleans,” he told me by phone last week. The lack of a daily “diminishes us as a community.”

And it came from people you might not think would care. Danny Monteverde, a 27-year-old reporter, was covering a terrible inner-city crime — a 5-year-old girl, killed in crossfire — when a relative of the victim looked him in the eye and said, “I’m so sorry about what’s happening to you and your newspaper.”

Monteverde told me he’s heard similar outpourings from friends and strangers. “This is a city that’s built on tradition,” he said. “I think for a lot of people, the newspaper is part of who they are.”

The noise reached David Manship, the publisher of the family-owned Baton Rouge Advocate, some 70 miles west on Interstate 10. He started to get inquiries from New Orleans residents, asking whether the Advocate could deliver to them.

“At first we said no,” Manship told me. “Then we said, ‘let’s think about it.’ ” Then, in a matter of weeks, the Advocate opened a New Orleans bureau, hiring seven laid-off Times-Picayune staffers, including Danny Monteverde. Last week, the day the first New Orleans edition rolled off the presses, Manship said, he sold 3,000 print subscriptions. If he sells 10,000, he said, “advertisers start to say, ‘Well, OK, we might could do something.’”

Manship wouldn’t try this if he didn’t think money could be made. He told me he’ll give the New Orleans edition at least a year, though “I can’t throw money into the water and watch it float down the river.”

Meanwhile, officials from Advance, a privately held company whose finances aren’t known, have held fast to the party line: They have to do something bold, or their newspapers will die. They’ve dropped print days in smaller cities, with less of a fuss. New Orleans will adapt.

After complaints that nearly a third of New Orleans lacks Internet access — that this is hardly the right place to launch some digital plan — they recently announced a $500,000 program to increase digital access in the city. They revamped their once-unnavigable website.

And after the Advocate announced its New Orleans bureau, Advance announced plans to open a Baton Rouge news bureau, with its own print edition.

Suddenly, South Louisiana finds itself in the middle of a news war, which is not necessarily a bad thing for a community. In the vacuum left by a shrunken Times-Picayune, not-for-profit news websites are ramping up their operations. Some veteran reporters, invited to stay at the paper, left instead for local TV stations or freelancing possibilities. This could be a golden age for New Orleans reporting. For rival news organizations, it’s certainly an opportunity.

It’s not that people want the shrunken Times-Picayune to fail; even the people who lost their jobs don’t want to hurt their colleagues who remained. But plenty of New Orleanians want these new ventures to succeed, to prove that consequences happen when a business insults its community.

“I’m not going to be doing anything to harm the Picayune, but I’m going to be helping the Advocate,” Blancher told me. “It’s in everyone’s best interest right now to have competition.”

Last week, he put free samples of the Advocate on his bar, along with subscription forms. It’s rubber-hits-the-road time for the people of New Orleans. If they think they deserve a daily, they’re going to have to buy it.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.
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