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Viewpoint: ‘We are one city’

It was styled as a “Last Dance for the Picayune,” but the gathering at New Orleans photographer John McCusker’s home on Saturday night was no wake, and, except for one mid-party segue into “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” the Pinstripe Brass Band played neither dirge nor funeral march.

Mostly, both music and attitudes were determinedly upbeat – a factor made more poignant by the fact that the new, raised modular home stands a scant few blocks from the London Avenue canal breach that washed away its predecessor in Hurricane Katrina. This neighborhood has known a lot of sorrow and understands the rigors of having to reinvent oneself.

So the resiliency of these Times-Picayune colleagues — past, present, future, not-future — shouldn’t have been a surprise.

Many had received severance notices just days before, when the daily newspaper implemented the first steps of a plan to move news-gathering resources to the web and reduce print publication of the newspaper to three times a week. But many others on hand had been offered jobs with the new company.

And a stranger to the crowd would have been hard put to differentiate one from the other. The profound sense of camaraderie among those on hand attested to roots deep enough and ties strong enough to keep everyone on the same team.

People fired and people hired consoled one another, offering mutual comfort and commiseration no matter their individual futures.

That, cher, is the New Orleans I love. That is the city I want to live in.

There was another attitude evident among journalists on Saturday night: We do ourselves more harm than good by failing to support the institutions and people that make our city unique. McCusker — who will be leaving the Picayune — expressed his heartfelt appreciation for the help and encouragement of his colleagues over the years, and the need to pass that support forward.

“We are one staff. We are one newspaper. This is one city,” he said.

“There are still 89 good reporters there,” I heard from one of the “out” crew. “We can’t let those who stay fail.”

“I will go in and do the best job I can to make this new model work,” said one of the “in” crew. “For the sake of all of us.”

And therein lies a decision for New Orleanians. Sure, we’d love someone to swoop in and “fix” things – bring back the daily paper, reinstate the jobs of our friends. But I seriously doubt that’s going to happen.

So, as consumers, we have the ability to embrace or eschew the product that’s put before us. For the sake of those 89 reporters, I am going give the new Times-PIcayune a chance to prove that its digital model can work.

We’re better, as a community, when we stand together. And that includes support of those who will be working in the next few months to move The Times-Picayune from doorstep to digital product.

But it’s a two-way street.

We’ll hang in there as long as we get quality content at – investigative stories, editorials, reports on crime and corruption that get as much scrutiny, as high a profile and as many appearances on the home page as the entertainment flashes and quickie brights.

We’ll hang in there if we can open to find thoughtful, well-researched articles about all aspects of New Orleans life. We’ll continue to sign on as long as  the stories – including the light stuff — are written by professionals.

We’ll hang in there if you make certain that stories are well-edited — heck, that stories are edited — and that writing them in “real time” doesn’t sacrifice analysis and reporting (or grammar and spelling).

We’ll hang in there if you curate content in a way that puts meaningful stories out front, and for more than the few minutes it takes to become submerged in the home-page stream of content called the “river.”

We’ll hang in there if you can ensure that reporters aren’t paid by the click and that stories aren’t assigned by SEO standings, tilting toward “Snooki” over “City Council.”

We’ll hang around if you offer organized content and user-friendly pages, and make efforts to overcome slow-loading pages and impenetrable navigation.

We’ll be friendlier subscribers if you show a little humility, and admit that you’ve made some mistakes these past few weeks.

And we’ll keep coming back if you will please stop talking about the way Hurricane Katrina bound us together, when you are tearing us apart.

In an article this week in the Youngstown, Ohio, Vindicator, editor Todd Franko reflects on the demise of newspapers, and chastises readers who lament the loss when so many are not subscribers. You don’t have the right to complain, he says, if you didn’t buy it or advertise in it.

He has a valid point. What he misses, however, is the fact that New Orleans has traditionally invested in the daily paper. The TP’s penetration in the community – that is, the percentage of the population that reads at least some portion of it – has always been among the highest in the country.

So I can’t agree with Franko that the move to digital is our own fault for not supporting the print product. We did.

But he’s right about one thing: If we don’t move our support to the digital product, it will go the same way as its print predecessor.

After all the heartache last week – the firings, the corporate-speak, the silence and then arrogance of owners and the clumsy way notifications were handled – I was struck by these words Sunday from new NOLA Media Group president Ricky Mathews:

“New Orleanians are … incredibly generous and giving people, and I have spent enough time in this great city to understand that what they really want to know is: ‘Do you get us? Do you love our city as we do, and for the reasons that we do?’ You can’t say it. You have to prove it, over time.”

I hope sincerely that he does.

Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie.


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