All Under One Roof: An Interview with Rebecca Theim, author of “Hell and High Water”

I remember very vividly the 2012 staff purge/move to digital our city newspaper The Times-Picayune initiated. Just a mere few hours after their announcement (and many a tweet from laid-off writers), I wrote a blog entry about the uneasy nature of this new direction and how New Orleans has many writers that will be ignored in favor of out-of-town syndication. Indeed, The Times-Picayune did all of the above, including contracting out its printing operation to services in Alabama.

All “cost-saving measures,” we were told.

Now, local businessman and former political candidate John Georges owns The Picayune along with The Advocate. We don’t know what the merged paper will look like, but considering the massive writer layoffs that have already happened, we can assume that history may repeat itself somewhat.

To learn more about the 2012 scenario, I purchased and read Rebecca Theim’s excellent Hell and High Water account of what went down and where we were heading. I asked her a series of questions on the Georges purchase, on the state of local media, and if there is room for optimism in this ever-changing landscape:

Bill Arceneaux: The name of Chapter XI in your book Hell and High Water is “Saint Georges Gonna Save Us Now?”, which details John Georges’ previous efforts to purchase The Times-Picayune. Now, just a mere few weeks back, he accomplished this very feat while also owning former rival paper The Advocate. Was this a victory for local ownership or more an exploitative shift of money, power, and influence? All of the above? Who is John Georges to you?

Rebecca Theim: When I was working on the book, John Georges was gracious and sat for an extended interview, and answered follow-up questions. I’ve met with him once since then, exchanged a few emails and texts with him, and enjoyed several Carnival parades a couple of years ago from the balcony of The Advocate’s New Orleans headquarters. But I don’t know him well. He’s clearly a successful businessman who seems to have been searching for a way to play a significant role in civic life in New Orleans. As he discussed in an interview in the book, he ran for mayor and governor before the idea of owning the city’s newspaper struck him as a way to play that role. So, New Orleans should be grateful to him for buying and expanding The Advocate, and keeping The Times-Picayune honest in a way, which has now led to its owners’ capitulation and selling out to him. What happens now, with him largely having a news monopoly in the region, and in much of the state, is anyone’s guess. He’s got a newsroom of great journalists who just won The Advocate’s first Pulitzer, and I have no reason to think they won’t continue to produce quality work and will expect him to support them in the way he has so far. Having said that, he’s a businessman, and while buying The Advocate, and now the Picayune, may be a bit of a vanity play, I don’t get the impression that he’s willing to lose a lot of money in the news business. But I also know zero about the newspapers’ finances these days, except that the Picayune clearly was in deep trouble to have agreed to sell out to him.

BA: Have you discussed the recent sale of the outlet with current and/or former staff? If so, what’s the general feeling of the responses?

RT: I actually haven’t had any detailed discussion with anyone personally. We continue to have a private Facebook group that numbers about 1,500, composed largely of newsroom staffers of both and The Advocate, Picayune alumni, and friends and family. I keep up with it, and there’s been some discussion of the sale there. My sense is that the newer, younger employees are probably more in shock because they didn’t live through 2012 and much of what’s happened since. But the more veteran staff have survived so many rounds of layoffs and cutbacks that their dominant emotion is deep sadness. I think others who left the Picayune earlier also are sad, but grateful to Georges for preserving a 182-year-old institution, at least as a masthead.

BA: In thinking about the current predicament of news media in New Orleans, my thoughts drift to Samuel Fuller’s love-letter of a film Park Row, about a scrappy crew of journalists in late 1800s New York City. The steam-press, the linotype machine, the type-setters, etc. all equaled a guts-and-glory era to me. Considering how the printing of the paper was moved to Alabama a few years after its 2012 move to digital, it feels like awful surface-level penny-pinching decisions were made not for industry evolution purposes, but for the bottom-line of the management and owners. Are we at a tipping point or past no return when it comes to the heart and soul of journalism?

RT: There’s a lot that has been said about the decline of The Times-Picayune and how it was–and should’ve–been different from what played out at newspapers across the country. Yes, the industry has been in freefall for at least a decade, but I’m in the camp that many of the wounds were self-inflicted. When the Internet emerged, and it was clear it would become a primary means of consuming news, what did newspapers do? They assumed their business model would remain the same: sell their product for a nominal price, now just online, and depend on advertising to pay the bills. That very bad assumption–which they clung to for years–led them to essentially give away their most valuable asset: their content. There’s a great 2013 documentary, “Black, White and Dead All Over: A Film About the End of American Newspapers.”  It has several cutting observations that essentially make the case that the decline of U.S. newspapers had very little to do with their content, and almost everything to do with the owners’ online business model. But who’s suffered as a result of the adoption of that business model? Not the owners usually, but their employees and communities sure have.

As for whether we’re at a tipping point, given how many newspapers have gone under, I think we’ve already tipped. The business went from one that only 20-25 years ago was still generating double-digit profit margins to one that has decimated its staffs and killed or dramatically reduced the traditional means of offering its product, just to stay in business. And a lot of times, even those draconian measures didn’t save newspapers. Major newspapers with national followings like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are doing well with subscription models. Local and even regional newspapers are having a tougher time with that switch, although more and more of them are now trying. Will readers pay for something they’ve spent close to two decades getting for free? There’s been mixed responses to that question across the country.

BA: You share a love of New Orleans throughout your book. In your time here, what was your impression of the news readership and how they received/reacted to/engaged with reporting? How important is having a daily newspaper to this city and its community? What does printed news mean in this age of mobile 24/7 headlines?

RT: I’ve been gone from living and working in New Orleans for almost 25 years now, but The Times-Picayune was such a force during the time I was there, and I think for years before and years after I left. I’ve read a lot about how insular the city is, and how difficult it is for newcomers to break into what was regarded as a parochial society, but I never felt that. Maybe it was because I was so young and didn’t know what I didn’t know, but I think it was more that the Picayune was my calling card. People took me seriously and respected me because of that association. There were plenty of politicians who despised me because of my reporting, but they largely didn’t ignore me because of the power and prominence of the Picayune. I think in the aftermath of Katrina, the respect–and sometimes fear–the community had for the Picayune transformed into deep affection and gratitude. Like so many residents, reporters and editors had lost everything, but they kept reporting, kept putting their work before everything else, to inform and educate their readers about the aftermath of the worst natural and man-made disaster in the country’s history. The relationship between the city and the newspaper became almost mythic.

As for the importance of a printed newspaper, my book went into great detail about how much of New Orleans didn’t have Internet access when this all began in 2012, and so embracing an online publication was going to be next-to-impossible for those portions of the community. Add to that the ham-handed way the Picayune handled the transition, and how much of the city it alienated in doing so, and it was going to be even tougher to pull off. A lot has changed in widespread Internet availability since then, and I really haven’t followed those trends in New Orleans since finishing the book. I think a bigger issue for the region was the loss of a dominant voice on important issues, a civic common, so to speak. The Picayune went from being an extraordinarily important voice in the community to one that still mattered, but not nearly as much. With the way the news media has fragmented, largely because of the Internet, that experience is not unique to New Orleans. However, because of the oversized role the Picayune had played in that regard – especially since Katrina – I think the community may have felt it more acutely than other places did.

BA: These days, it feels like we’re watching a game of Monopoly play out between the ideals of various wealthy people. Is there room for optimism amid the layoffs and merged names?

RT: I think that’s the $64,000 question across the country, regardless of industry or profession. The economy is allegedly booming, but so many Americans aren’t enjoying that boom. It’s especially true for people in the news media. As I mentioned in the book, one of the reasons I experienced what happened at the Picayune so viscerally and got so deeply involved was because of the corporate layoffs I had experienced, interestingly since leaving the news business. I knew what it felt like to lose a job in your 40s or 50s, and wonder what you’re supposed to do now. I can’t say much more than that without getting into a political discussion, but I think it’s harder and harder to stay optimistic with the growing wealth inequality and decreasing opportunities for upward mobility in this country.

BA: What are the odds we’ll see another media war in this region? If we ever see another one happen, will the readers see victory or does history repeat?

RT: I’m old enough now to never say never, but I think the odds are slim, at least until the “new” Internet comes along. You’ve got a complete consolidation of the dominant print/online outlets in the region: The Advocate, Gambit, and now the Picayune are owned by one family. It also seems as though WWL’s voice isn’t as powerful as it once was. That’s significant, but New Orleans has always been so different than the rest of the country, and often bucked trends, so who knows? In the meantime, I hope John Georges is committed to continuing to back good journalism.

Bill Arceneaux has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations, and Occupy. He is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association and is Rotten Tomatoes approved.

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