New Orleans and the future of news

Media policy matters, and journalists ought to weigh in

Last week’s announcement that the New Orleans Times-Picayune would be slashing its staff and cutting its print run to just three days a week has sparked a new round of debates about the future of news. But one piece has been missing in this discussion: the role of media policy.

Will Bunch, senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News and author of the popular Attywood Attytoodblog, is the latest to weigh in with his prescription for journalism in the Big Easy. He writes: “There are solutions—not easy solutions, but big solutions, and if folks have the gumption to pull off these ideas, the Big Easy could actually have better journalism and a better informed citizenry.”

Bunch sees the most potential in expanding broadband access and fostering more nonprofit journalism. In terms of the future of the Times-Picayune itself, he sees the move out of print as more of a problem than a solution, partly because the online side of the paper,, is “pretty crappy;” he writes.

Setting aside his critique of for a moment, though, it’s clear that the future of the Times-Picayune is indeed bound up with the future of Internet access in the state. And while I wouldn’t write off the Times-Picayune as a vital local news institution now and in the future, I think Bunch is right to look to nonprofit newsrooms as the best opportunity for growth.

However, it’s important to recognize that both ideas are the subject of critical public policy debates happening right now—at the local, state and federal levels. In fact, Louisiana is a microcosm of current debates that are set to shape everything we watch, read, see, and hear:

Internet policy

Take, for example, bridging the digital divide. Bunch writes:

In the case of the digital divide in New Orleans, the biggest issue isn’t lack of interest in high-speed Internet but lack of money. The pending changes at the Times-Picayune scream out for a new, large-scale and well-coordinated philanthropic effort to increase Internet access in New Orleans to levels that compare to more affluent cities.

He’s right that a big part of the problem is money. But in this case, the financial woes can be traced in part to Gov. Bobby Jindal, who “refused an $80 million federal grant aimed at spreading broadband to poor, rural areas of the state.” That federal grant was part of the $7 billion set aside for expanding broadband in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Another part of the problem is the lack of real competition in the broadband Internet market, which has kept prices unreasonably high and service unreasonably poor in many regions around the US. In response, many communities have sought to establish their own municipal broadband networks. In fact, one of the nation’s models for this effort is just up the road from New Orleans, in Lafayette, La. The telecom companies fought the creation of Lafayette’s municipal network tooth and nail. Now many of those same incumbent Internet service providers around the country are working to pass state legislation outlawing such networks.

While large-scale philanthropic investment in New Orleans’ broadband would be helpful and welcome, we should not mistake it for the kind of real structural change that’s needed to ensure universal access to affordable high-speed Internet.

Nonprofit news and the IRS

The details on Jindal’s refusal to accept broadband stimulus funds come from the Lens, a New Orleans-based nonprofit journalism organization that embodies what Bunch calls the “ProPublica model.” Expanding the Lens’s excellent work and supporting similar nonprofit newsrooms may potentially help offset the cuts at the Times-Picayune, but these kinds of nonprofit outlets face a thorny political fight that threaten their survival.

For almost two years, the IRS has been debating whether organizations like the Lens should be eligible for nonprofit status. Now a number of journalism groups—including the Lens in New Orleans—are stuck in a bureaucratic limbo as they await a ruling on their status, making fundraising and planning for the future tricky.

Public media policy

While philanthropy might be enough to support the Lens over the long haul, there are likely not enough foundation dollars (or ad dollars) out there to cover the full array of issues and communities in New Orleans. There is another key player in New Orleans’ journalism scene that deserves mention: public broadcasting. Eleven public radio stations and six public television stations serve communities across Louisiana. While he doesn’t address public media in his piece, Bunch later explained to me that he envisions public media as “connected with the ProPublica-style nonprofit I envisioned.”

Obviously public media is engaged with its own policy struggles at the federal level, but it should also be noted that Louisiana has cut more than two million dollars in funding for public broadcasting in the last five years. When considered alongside the Times-Picayune cuts and the digital divide, we begin to see that the news and information challenges facing New Orleans are diverse and urgent.

There is no silver bullet. Neither philanthropy, nor government aid, nor commercial media will provide the full extent of news and information our communities need. Nonprofit news organizations can help fill the gaps, but those of us who are concerned about the future of journalism in New Orleans and communities like it need to address media policy debates, such as how to bridge the digital divide and clear the way for new journalism models.

In moments of transition it’s critical to have journalists weigh in. Otherwise we’ll end up with more media policy made in our name but not in our interest, and we might not like the outcomes. The media system we currently have didn’t emerge in a vacuum; it is the result of local, state and federal policies. If we want to create a different future for the news in New Orleans, we have to work to re-imagine those policies too.

Correction: We misspelled the name of Will Bunch’s blog, and have fixed it in the story. It is not Attywood, but Attytood. CJR regrets the error.

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Josh Stearns is the director of Journalism and Sustainability at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. He minored in theater and dabbled in improv a long time ago. Tags: , , , ,