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New media versus legacy journalism

We bookmark websites, but we do not lay them away for grandchildren.

-- Michael Miner, chicagoreader.com

I first realized The Times-Picayune was in trouble one May day in 2010, when I snagged the Monday paper and spread it out across the table for an impromptu crawfish boil – and there was not enough of it to cover the top.

Had the TP really become that thin?

Last week, Advance Publications announced that, come fall, The Times-Picayune will focus on a more digital product and publish only three times a week. Like many of  you, I was shocked; but perhaps we should have seen the warnings.

I am a child of legacy journalism, the new media term for old-fashioned print products. I spent 32 years as a feature editor and writer, first at The States-Item (which most of you probably don’t remember) and then The Times-Picayune.

I came of age at a time when reporting involved a lot of digging and a lot of curiosity, and you never knew where the tale would go until you got back to your Selectric typewriter (which most of you probably don’t remember).

In three decades I saw a lot of changes: from hot type to cold, from typewriters to computers, from landlines to satellite phones, from dark rooms (source of sometimes salacious gossip) to digital imaging, from a large-scale map on the wall to mapquest.

And I embraced change. Who wants to swap Wikipedia for a set of encyclopedias? For the most part, technological tools made our jobs easier, faster and more accurate.

But there was a down side: With every innovation, it seemed, came a shrinking of human personnel, whether it involved composing room production workers or classified ad responders. And the people who stayed did more, and did it faster.

When I left the Picayune in 2009, I continued to embrace change. For the past year or so, I’ve been editor of this online nonprofit cultural publication, NolaVie, which is a content partner of Nola.com. I saw it as an opportunity to post diverse observations about New Orleans lifestyles to a mainstream crowd.

My foray into the electronic world opened up exciting new avenues of communication: Digital offers endless platforms for stories. It can accommodate both brevity and immediacy as well as in-depth analysis, imagery ranging from video to slideshows to galleries, instant feedback and user commentary.

The Internet embraces the hyperlocal (a current trend), can cross borders, and brings many populations into one room. We felt at NolaVie that, if we wrote authentically and locally about our city, the world would notice. And it has, with readers from 103 countries and every state.

What I also have come to believe, however, is that the Internet is not a substitute for legacy journalism. It makes a great adjunct, but not necessarily a good replacement. At least so far.

As with many things in life, the Internet’s weakness lies in its very strengths: Its visual, interactive layers mute the weight and placement of traditional news stories. I know that an above-the-fold story on the front page is important; I don’t get that with a free-flowing “river” of the latest posts, streaming equally and endlessly down the home page.

By its very structure, an old-fashioned newspaper tells its readers how to value its offerings. It’s hierarchal, with as much import suggested by what’s left out as what’s printed and where it is placed.

For many of us, the Internet fails to sort the news. When The Times-Picayune publishes a critical eight-part investigative series on the high incarceration rate in Louisiana (as it did), the story moves to the web (which it did), but quickly gets buried beneath the onslaught of blogs and posts. The series remains online indefinitely, but it’s submerged under clicks and subsequent content. Sure, you can find it readily by searching “Louisiana prisons” – but only if you know it exists and you’re looking for it. Otherwise, your chance of finding it during random surfing sessions remains uncertain.

I think that’s why so many readers like the online version of The New York Times – not because it’s a simulation of a “real” newspaper, but because it is organized in a way that gives weight to certain stories, and categorizes others, all at a glance on the home page.

What digital newspapers need to consider is how to sift the content to tell the reader what is important and what is not. And that’s not a generational thing, either. My daughters, all in their 20s, read many papers online. They track to the ones that allow them to quickly ascertain what’s worth their time and what’s not.

It’s not the first time that technology has threatened legacy journalism. When television gained ground in the 1960s, many publishers feared that Americans would turn exclusively to the new medium for news and entertainment.

It didn’t happen – and editors soon learned that readers were eager for print coverage of the new medium. And when cable television came along, with its hundreds of channels, readers wanted help navigating their burgeoning choices. They wanted to know … what was important.

In legacy journalism, editors talk about “burying the lead.” That occurs when a writer wanders around his subject in the opening paragraphs, and doesn’t get to the crux of the story until far into it.

Internet sites too often bury the lead.

There are many important conversations to be had in the move from print to online products, as noted this past week in thoughtful dialogue across the web.

I worry that the enhanced digital product won't be available to the third or so of New Orleans residents who don't have or can't afford Internet access.

I worry that the "more robust" three newspapers a week will simply be reprints of online blogs, and that the will to do in-depth investigative series will fade in the face of the demands for "24/7" reporting in "real time."

I worry that the aggregate knowledge of local newsmen and women with decades of experience  will be lost, if they yield their spots to less seasoned writers.

I worry that I won't be able to tuck away a child’s published picture after that winning season or school award, as I have for years.

But most of all, I keep coming back to the human element: In my experience, with every technological advancement has come a decrease in the people producing the product. I don’t think that will change when The Times-Picayune moves to a bigger digital presence and a less frequent number of actual newspapers.

Last year, when Booth newspapers closed down its Michigan newspaper companies to launch MLive.com, 550 of 1,200 people statewide were terminated. About 200 were rehired by the new digital corporation, but the result was a net loss of reporters.

Hearst converted the Seattle Post-Intelligencer into a digital product in 2009, and the news there, according to Ad Age, has climbed in quantity but not quality.

"In the wake of the PI retreating to some degree, other things have moved in and grown," Mike Lewis, a former reporter and columnist for the Post-Intelligencer, told Ad Age. "In aggregate, is the city not covered as well as it used to be? I think it's covered more voluminously but not as deeply."

Good journalism, like good cuisine or good music, takes time and talent and enough people to stir the pot or play the sonata. It takes a team approach, permission to interview many people over time, the ability to send reporters out into the world to see what they bring back to their laptops.

If this brave new world involves fewer people doing more, only faster .... we may never again know what’s important.

Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie.

Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]