Sunday, February 08, 2009

More Proof That Many of the Newspaper Industry's Wounds are Self-Inflicted

A month or so back we indulged in a lengthy reminiscence of our salad days at a daily newspaper in a small and comically corrupt town in southwest Louisiana (you remember it, right?), noting in passing that the paper was “swallowed into the Gannett maw” long after our departure.* Since that writing we have learned that the Gannett Corp. has now fully digested the property and shat forth the sparse leavings.

According to this blog item from The Independent, a locally owned alternative weekly in the Hub City (an actual alternative, not a delivery system for sex and restaurant ads), Gannett recently sold the building that had housed the newspaper for decades (the paper is the Opelousas Daily World; for some reason that is now obscure to us we thinly disguised it as the Atakapoulsa Tribune in our earlier posting). The Independent reported that the Daily World’s ad reps are now working out of the Gannett-owned Daily Advertiser down the road in the larger and somewhat more cosmopolitan Hub City, and its remaining employees---one reporter and a photographer---presumably will be stationed at another, less spacious location in Opelousas (that’s ah-pa-LOU-sas for you non-native English speakers).**

One reporter and a photographer! When we worked there three decades ago the paper had four news reporters, two photographers, one features writer, an editor and managing editor and a features-society editor/copy editor (the “society” goings-on there being of the scale to permit part-time copy-editing). It wasn’t the greatest operation going, but it was good place for young journalists to hone their craft and it had a bit of a rep. Founded just before World War II by two locals, it was the first paper in the United States printed on an offset press. During our brief time there it regularly beat out larger papers for awards, and it seemed to do a reasonably adept job of telling citizens what was going on in town (within the usual limits, of course).***

Gannett, which owns five papers in Louisiana, is also squeezing the life out of the aptly named Daily Advertiser, which has been one of the worst newspapers in the English-speaking world for as long as we can remember. Last month Independent reporter Leslie Turk authored a lengthy report detailing how Gannett has “ransacked” the still insanely profitable property to burnish its supposedly lagging bottom line and prop up less profitable papers elsewhere in the chain. Her story opens with a hilarious anecdote: Because the clerk who handled the public notices for the paper had been laid off and no one else in the cut-in-half classifieds department bothered to publish the agenda for the upcoming meeting of the city-parish council, the meeting had to be postponed. That’s damn funny!

Funny-sad, we mean.

Unlike all but a handful of monopoly dailies, however, the Daily Advertiser has actual competition for news and advertisers' dollars: the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate, a solid, independently owned paper 50 miles to the west that has three reporters, a photographer and assorted stringers in the Hub City and regularly beats the hometown paper with the local news.

But you get the feeling that no one at the Gannett paper cares much about that side of its paper. While visiting our mother over the holidays we noticed that on two successive days the Advertiser ran banner stories that each had appeared as the main story in the previous day’s Advocate (as if no one would notice). The chain product is now so thin and devoid of news that our mother says she’d drop her subscription but for her pressing need to check the local obituaries.

*When we worked there it was owned by Worrell, a downscale small-paper chain out of Virginia; it then fell for a while into the more refined corporate hands of the New York Times, an arrangement that did not result in a hoped-for improvement in editorial quality.

**Home to slave trader and knife aficionado Jim Bowie before his move west, as well as the timeless Opelousas Sostan and the annual "Yambilee."

***We must share one more story from our tenure: Early one morning Tony Chachere, namesake of the now world-famous line of packaged Cajun spices (and whatnot) and then probably the town's most prominent citizen, was taken into custody for driving his automobile extremely fast the wrong way up a one-way thoroughfare. News of his arrest was displayed prominently on the paper's front page. As we made our rounds of the district attorney's office the next day the head man himself called us over and asked, "What y'all got against Uncle Tony?"

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