The Death and Life of the Times-Picayune Newspaper
In this ode to New Orleans’ Times-Picayune newspaper, Chris Rose unearths the implications of moving from print to online publication.
One by one, protesters lamented the loss of their morning ritual, that sacrosanct time of awakening and reflection, where reading the paper is every bit as vital as bathing and breakfast. It bordered on self-parody how many mentioned chicory coffee—its taste, smell, and consistency—as a constant companion to the paper.
Photo By Infrogmation / www.flickr.com
When I was 24 years old and working as a copyboy at the Washington Post, I applied for a “real” journalism job anywhere that would have me. The response I got was from the Times-Picayune newspaper, which offered to fly me down for an interview. All I knew about the newspaper was that it had a ridiculous name. And it was in New Orleans.
The night before the interview, I drank my way across the French Quarter, from the charmingly dilapidated Napoleon House—with its crumbling walls, listless waiters, and low strains of Debussy emanating from a record player behind the bar—to the famed Big Daddy’s on Bourbon Street, where the bare legs of a mannequin swung in and out of a transom window to reel in suckers. I sat at the bar with a B-drinker until 6 a.m.
At dawn I slogged my way back to the hotel through a humidity so thick and viscous it clung to my skin like cobwebs. A ghostly Confederate mist rolled up off the Mississippi; moisture crackled off the unsightly matrix of power lines overhead; the oddly deserted streets smelled of mule shit, sweet olive, and oyster juice that puddled in the cracks of the old brick banquettes—a toxic stew known as Bourbon Street Gravy.
What land is this? I wondered.
I want this job, I thought.
I need this city, I knew.
The interviews were perfunctory. I told all the right lies. Then I was given a take-home assignment. They gave me a copy of that day’s newspaper and asked me to read the paper cover-to-cover and grade it.
Back home in Washington the next night, I searched out an empty desk at the Post during my dinner break, pulled out a Sharpie, and began studying the paper. Here’s what I remember:
First, the name: Back then, the paper was still called the Times-Picayune/the States-Item, a mouthful of a masthead in homage to the four New Orleans newspapers that had merged and folded themselves into one another over the years to form a single monopolistic entity.
Below that, the bylines. The random edition that I had been assigned had four staff-written stories. The bylines read: Emile Lafourcade, Ron Thibodeaux, Lovell Beaulieu, and Dean Baquet. It sounded like the lineup for the baseball team at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, known around these parts as U. La.-La. There was no doubting the authenticity.
I was charmed by other novelties I had never seen in a newspaper before—at least, not in the rarefied pages of the Washington Post. For instance, the obituaries used nicknames. In the days preceding my visit to New Orleans, men named “Concrete,” “Side Porch,” and “Man-Man” had gone to their eternal rest.
The paper also ran a high-society column, one of the last of its kind, accompanied by photos of stiffly posed rich white folks clutching cocktails and staring at the camera. Chronicling the passing of seasons, milestones, galas, and charities celebrated by the genteel—and gentile—gentry of Uptown New Orleans, the feature was called, fittingly, “Social Scene” by Nell Nolan. The column was written that day—as it has been for 33 years—in an alliterative style, something along the lines of, “Promenades of perfectly poised petites filles and dazzling debs delighted their peers and patrons at a pair of purposeful parties …”
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