Clifford Burchfield sleeps in an abandoned building in the Algiers section of New Orleans, with no plumbing, electricity or running water. He can't afford television, much less the Internet. But Burchfeld still devours the news every day from the Times-Picayune. Or at least he will until this fall, when New Orleans becomes the largest metro area in the nation without a daily newspaper.
"That's my only way of getting the news," Burchfeld said, shirtless in the 90-degree heat and incredulous at the Times-Picayune headline announcing across the front page: "PAPER LAYS OFF 200 EMPLOYEES."
New Orleanians have reacted with shock, sadness, outrage and a jazz funeral of laid-off reporters, editors and photographers to the June 12 announcement that the newspaper was cutting half its newsroom staff as it as goes to three days a week in print and an emphasis on online news.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu said it made New Orleans look like a "minor league city." The president of the City Council called it "totally unacceptable" and urged the New Jersey-based owners of the paper, Advance Publications, to reconsider.
The Times-Picayune has been part of the rhythm of life for 175 years in New Orleans, a beautiful but tragic city with a history of corruption and crime, poverty and natural disasters.
New Orleanians relied on the newspaper to shine a light in the city's dark corners, to bring the city together through its pain and to chronicle its celebrations and culture. There's a connection between readers and newspapers not seen in other metro areas. That's visible in the statistics showing the Times-Picayune with the highest rate of readership by population of any paper in a major U.S city, and in the visceral anger at what's happening.
Irina McCallister, who packages coffee at a plant in New Orleans, said it seemed as if The Times-Picayune was giving up on the city that loved and needed it. She was so moved by the coverage of New Orleans cops gunning down unarmed civilians on the Danziger Bridge after Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent police cover-up that she cut the pictures out of the newspaper to save them.
The Rev. Donald Jeanjacques, the pastor of a church in a New Orleans neighborhood that's seen an explosion of violence, led his congregation in prayer for the Times-Picayune and the people who were losing their jobs at the newspaper. He called the newspaper a "tonic" and said many in his flock would be shut out by the changes. According to a 2010 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 36 percent of the people in New Orleans don't have Internet access at home.
Newspapers across the nation, though, have been shrinking as they face the revenue plummet that's come as fewer people subscribe to printed papers and more read them online. Advance Publications doesn't make its financial information public, but the New Orleans newspaper itself has acknowledged "reports that the Times-Picayune remains profitable."
The Times-Picayune's new publisher, Ricky Mathews, wrote in a front-page essay published last Sunday that the number of people who pay for their newspapers continues to fall and the change is an effort to forestall a future "economic doomsday."
"It is clear that to do nothing was a path to disappearing, fading away, becoming irrelevant," he wrote.
Advance Publications is unique among media companies in switching to a printed newspaper just three days a week, a move it's also trying at its newspapers in Alabama. Rick Edmonds, a media analyst for the Poynter Institute, a journalism research center, said he doubted that many other newspapers would follow Advance's lead, at least in the short term. Edmonds called it a marginal move financially, given that newspapers still typically get 70 percent of revenue from print advertising.