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A look inside the abbatoir: Rebecca Theim’s new book

On the surface, a newspaper war seems fun. In New Orleans, a place that loves to fetishize the old-timey, it sometimes seems exciting to see such a 19th- or 20th-century battle play out between big money men and the stacks of print their operations flop out all over the city on a daily (or three-day-a-week) basis as they vie for eyes of a community searching for the news. I became a subscriber to the Advocate’s New Orleans version after I learned that longtime Times-Picayune investigative journalist and editor Gordon Russell, reporter Katy Reckdahl, and other solid names in local newswriting had gravitated to the Advocate, which also began publishing hard-hitting content from The Lens and from folks like David Hammer at WWL-TV. If nothing else, I was grateful that at least some people who had been laid off in last year’s T-P buyout had found gainful employment in the city doing what they do best.

But really, a shallow market invigorated by the addition of a major competitor (as well as myriad minor, albeit scrappy, news outlets) is still a poor substitute for a single entity with a robust pool of resources it can dedicate to the type of in-depth investigation and reportage required to break and present serious stories that shape political and social discourse. Although seeing lots of action from lots of players is heartening–and pretty easy to navigate thanks to various tools on the Internet (for those who have access to it)–a fairly significant degree of myopia is required to not acknowledge the great harm done by the Newhouse family’s takeover of the Times-Picayune.

In her new book, Hell and High Water: The Battle to Save the Daily New Orleans Times-Picayune, former T-P reporter Rebecca Theim recounts the protracted effort by a wide cross-section of local citizens and media advocates to stop the butchering of New Orleans’ 175-year-old daily paper, and in the process lays out its impact on the hundreds of people who lost their jobs and the vast community that lost a primary source of information.

Theim, who currently lives in Las Vegas, conducted nearly 100 interviews and pored over thousands of pages of industry documents in the process of writing her book. New Orleans magazine editor Errol Laborde remarked in a column about Theim’s book that “one day when media historians study what the Newhouses did to journalism, Theim will be an important source, perhaps the most important.”

Theim followed up on the Newhouse “restructuring,” which also affected newspapers they own across Alabama, in a piece for the Poynter Institute earlier this month. You can hear Theim talk about Hell and High Water with Susan Larson on “The Reading Life” (Theim’s section starts at 13:27) and read an excerpt from it at MySpiltMilk:

Religion reporter Bruce Nolan was regarded by some in the newsroom as bullet-proof after his heralded statement at the May staff meeting. That proved not to be the case. His termination meeting with Russell was at least more humane than many held by other managers. “By the time I came in, he was pummeled,” Nolan told the Columbia Journalism Review in March 2013, referring to Russell. “He was beaten up. He was very sorry; he was remorseful. He said, ‘This is a terrible thing; I’m sorry this is happening to you. You know how much I love you.’ We both understood we were being carried along by forces bigger than both of us. And I came out, and I walked through a corridor and into the newsroom, where everyone is standing around. It’s a death march. Every face turns to me, and I draw my finger across my throat. It was stunning.”

Read the rest of the excerpt here.

This article is reposted from Press Street: Room 220, a content partner of NolaVie.