I Heard the News Today, Oh Boy: Times-Picayune Down to Semi-Weekly

We're about to be awash in articles about the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper shrinking down to thrice weekly publication, and its web site NOLA.com morphing into yet another entity. The collective industy coverage by reporters dwarfs the outcry when free downloads upended the music industry, or when streaming video tanked television ratings because when a crisis hits the writers, it's what we write about.

See former NOLAite John McQuaid as a case in point. I blogged as Exiled on Main Street for nola.com for years, and loved the chance to dive back into writing in any form. Before that, I spent 10 years editing features at a bi-weekly Chicago newspaper. Here's my take on where print and web journalism seem to be headed, for what it's worth.


1) Style. The inverted pyramid AP-style story is obsolete. It existed to accommodate print limitations when there was a good chance your last three paragraphs would be cut at the print shop, but there are no space limitations in web journalism. The good news? More writers will be afforded the big finish that was previously only guaranteed to top columnists like Ben Hecht. The legendary journalist took the traditional route from crime reporter to columnist to novelist to Hollywood screenwriter. I once interviewed his daughter about what home life was like with one of the greatest crime reporters of all time and she recalled him coming home at night and sitting at the kitchen table, head in hands, repeating over and over, "What they did to that girl." The stories stay with you.

Hecht didn't just write The Front Page, he wrote the original Scarface at the height of '20s excess. And he did not just cover the police beat, he helped unravel true crime stories. Much hand-wringing is going on over the potential loss of investigative reporters, but they're not going anywhere with journalism school enrollment at an all-time high. Journalism jobs are at an all-time low and that's a recipe for innovation even if it involves each reporter becoming the publisher of his or her own web site. Traffic will rise or fall on the relevance of the story to each reading community. Even if no ads materialize, see Ben Hecht. Back when top journalists were valued, they went on to publish books. The books were optioned by Hollywood and we ended up watching The Sun Also Rises. Ernest Hemingway would have been a standout on Twitter -- his work came pre-shortened.

2) Sources. It's no longer enough for reporters to write what they know, it has become necessary to write what they live. The view from nowhere, as Jay Rosen has been crying to the rooftops, is nonexistent. USA Today has announced that they're listening. If your view isn't universal, host it on your own personal newspaper site. A minimal amount of coding will get you there. Ben Franklin owned his platform. Mark Twain owned his platform. If we're all turning back into interns, at least we're now our own interns.

When Bruce Springsteen's home page {squee} and 10,000 other web sites picked up my last post, I had already published it on my own platform. But neither the aggregator nor the originator are profiting off the sinkhole that the advertising industry has become in this economy. Advertising is the elephant in the room, and it's not even buying ads for peanuts. Adblock can keep ads off an Internet page entirely. Readership data mining for profit is not only fading with Do Not Track, it's creepy. Product placement wedged into a Twitter stream is dubious -- shilling for an advertiser in 140 characters or less will only get you blocked. So how to monetize?

3) Advertorial. Following a small town newspaper's example, all roads lead to the dreaded advertorial section. Weddings, recipes -- we acted like it was the end of the world to write for an insert. That's why the sales department hated the newsroom, but we took our terrible attitudes to the small, local shop and wrote seasonal articles. The shop would often call to say thanks for the writeup (reporter inwardly seething: "it's not a writeup, it's an ad"), then clip it and frame it to hang behind their checkout stand. We would mourn our wasted journalism degree and go back to writing the next feature that was going to change the world. In online publishing, advertorial is going to have to translate into articles identified as ads, written by journalists, about products that they don't hate. Soap operas used to be sponsored by soap. Today's writers may have to solicit manufacturers about product placement. S.J. Perelman wrote a satirical column on this very premise, a family crisis saved by miracle toothpaste for your dingy smile. Maybe his drug store gave him a few tubes in thanks - who's to say?

Literary patrons predated this, and you'll notice no writers trashed the Medicis until well into the 1500s. Some in the mommy blogger community are facing a backlash after writing about sponsored products, but feature sections have always been buried with products mailed in by optimistic publicists. We didn't write about them, but we didn't send them back. I once wrote a glowing article about a local beer company's product, but in my defense I was drunk. The reading public is smart enough to know that if a product is featured in a story, someone either bought an ad or sent in a sample. I wouldn't call it brand journalism, that phrase makes me slappy, but with an online advertorial section, the sponsor can be clearly indicated in an article about, say, lovely, lovely beer.

4) Lifecasting. In one more example of the small town paper's potential relevance, there's lifecasting. Otherwise known as, everything is interesting if it's happening to you. Andy Warhol's 'in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes' has been whittled down to 1.5 seconds. The most popular features in our suburban newspaper were the birth announcements, followed by weddings. Then obituaries. The most money came from death notices that ran below the obituaries because the grieving were allowed say Best Father Ever if they were paying for the space.

If micro news can help save print journalism, that still leaves the question of what's to become of national newspaper reporters. We used to wistfully watch the dailies pick up our small town news stories and catapult local characters like Vlasta the Polka Queen straight to David Letterman. But reporting in the major leagues meant following jobs around the country, and many top writers now being laid off have sacrificed their families' stability to an industry in crisis. I am hopeful that if any old dog can learn a new trick, it's the American journalist. From Hecht to Hemingway, Dorothy Dix to Molly Ivins, it is a spectacular act to follow. We may lose publishers, we may lose editors but the writers will continue to write.

Fifteen years ago I left my newspaper editing job to move to New Orleans and write for myself for awhile. Seven years ago I quit my clerical job days before Hurricane Katrina hit the levees, complete with a going away party. This makes me one of the only evacuees with closure. It doesn't make me an expert on anything but which way the wind is blowing.