Riffing On the Tradition: Thank you, Mr. Buffett
Editor's note: Evan Christopher, a well-known New Orleans musician and NolaVie columnist who is currently on tour in Northern Ireland, wrote an open letter to Warren Buffett last week about the reduced print schedule of The Times-Picayune. He received this response, and continues the conversation in a second open letter below.
Naturally I've been following the Times-Pic situation with interest. I don't know any of the facts on their profitability but was really surprised when they made the announcement. It seems to me that three days a week is simply unsustainable over the longer term. Either a publication is a newspaper or a periodical and I think three days a week crosses the line.
New Orleans seems to me to be a very strongly defined community and I believe the Times-Pic has high penetration. Therefore, I'm puzzled as to why the economics don't work on a seven-day basis. But I would have to have the detailed figures to make an analysis.
The one thing I'm quite sure of: It would not work to start a competing paper. I have no insight as to whether the Newhouse family would sell the Times-Pic to a local group. They do not have a history of selling anything. That's something a member of the community should explore. Let me know if you learn more.
Warren Buffett (non-musician)
Thank you very much for your generous reply to my open letter to you last week. I was so glad to hear that you have been following our Times-Picayune situation with interest.
Down here, most share your opinion that at three days a week our print news will essentially be a periodical and not really a newspaper at all. Your assessment that New Orleans seems to be a very strongly defined community is also quite accurate, and we’re not understanding either why the economics don’t work on a daily basis. I will try to get more specific figures about profitability. Given the size of our community and unique demographics, weekday circulation of 140,000 seems like pretty good market penetration to us.
Of course, it should be noted that the T-P has been the only game in town for many years. Is there ambivalence about how well the paper has stewarded its public service role for the community? Well, of course, but the reason I wrote to you is because I have to believe that just as nothing can ever replace "live" music, making a newspaper profitable in the digital age shouldn't necessarily mean forsaking the civic role inherent in publishing daily print news.
In my opinion, Newhouse's aggressive move to grow the online news outlet will not only reduce human exchanges and meaningful dialogues, but, worse, his websites' "real-time commenting" functions will encourage superficial exchanges with little accountability. All of this, along with less professionally created and edited content, is not conducive to a “richer” news media experience. Do I need to mention the third of our population that lacks computer or Internet access and won't be "engaged" at all?
As a musician, I try to encourage my colleagues to be vigilant about finding leverage in our cultural economy. I think musicians are much like these journalists and newspaper staff (who are learning their fate on Monday).
Did the T-P take care of its staff by framing their contributions as indispensable? Apparently not. Nobody's really helping musicians in this way either. Is the T-P committed to maintaining the quality and meaning of the "paper-reading" experience? I guess we’ll see. Our tourism marketing actually fosters a perception of its musicians' value that makes things worse for us. Did the T-P help grow readership by continuing to encourage literacy, for example? With our music culture, the education infrastructure, with rare exceptions, isn’t doing much to grow our audience.
Is anyone threatening to close all our bars and hotel lobbies, where most of our music happens? Well, no, of course not. But that comparison is why I was curious to hear your advice. (Admitedly, I likely wouldn’t shed too many tears if someone did. We’re much more important than a drawing card to sell alcohol and fill hotel rooms.)
There is, in fact, a community movement exploring whether Newhouse might sell the entity, but you're likely correct that that's not going to happen.
Regardless, there's a Monday rally being organized, in the parking lot of Rock-n-Bowl, a bowling alley that is also a well-known music venue, to encourage the return to a daily or sale of the paper. I won’t be there; I’m on tour in Northern Ireland. But I’ll find out more and hopefully have something of value to report.
Thank you again for taking time out of your busy schedule to share your thoughts on the matter, and I hope you will have occasion to visit us in New Orleans in the near future.
Evan Christopher is a noted member of the New Orleans music community and a founding member of NOLA Art House Music. He writes “Riffing on the Tradition” for NolaVie. All of his columns also are archived at Clarinet Road.com.