ALONG with loss, wreckage and heartbreak, hurricanes Katrina and Rita have left this nation with a residue of sobering lessons that demand to be sorted through. While those touching on the news media hardly are the most pressing, neither are they insignificant.
A good place to start is with New Orleans’ hometown newspaper, the Times-Picayune. Since that awful day on which Katrina swept ashore, the paper’s staff has provided us with an exemplary primer on how print journalists can fulfill the obligation of service they owe a community in its time of need. The fact that the Times-Picayune’s reporters, photographers and editors have accomplished this when so many of their own homes have been destroyed and their families and loved ones have been put in jeopardy and displaced has given their performance a heroic cast.
This, after all, is a newspaper that literally lost the roof over its head -- and went right on publishing the report its readers never had needed more. It’s hard to recall a better example of what a newspaper staff -- and only a newspaper staff -- can do for its community.
How the Times-Picayune accomplished this also should sober up the cyber-triumphalists whose every third item seems to be a wishful epitaph for newspaper journalism. The other two are detailed textual critiques of the papers they seem to spend hours poring over obsessively. (What they’re going to rant about when all the newspapers are gone is another question.)
In New Orleans -- as in Houston, where the Chronicle began doing something very similar as Rita worked her way north -- the Times-Picayune took its regular report onto the Web. Even after it became possible to resume printing and, in a limited way, distributing a traditional paper, the staff has continued to produce a vigorously updated online edition that skillfully exploits the unlimited space available on the Web and the enhanced ability to interact with readers and their needs.
Thus, the paper’s online version offers not only an electronic “front page” with updated news stories but also features for readers seeking missing persons, relief services, jobs and even lost pets. It’s at once broadly contextual in the way a comprehensive news report should be and hyper-local in the way the immediate needs of the paper’s readers demand. (In surveys, regular newspaper readers consistently indicate that it is local news they value most about their publication of choice.)
If you have access to a computer, take a look for yourself at www.nola.com. It’s well worth your time because it’s informative -- and it’s a big part of the future. You can do the same with Houston by going to www.houstonchronicle.com. There, you’ll find not only a traditional news report but also continuously updated, signed blog-style diary entries from the paper’s staff, as well as contributions from readers, who in the newly fashionable Web patois are called “citizen journalists.”
Portentous new appellation aside, these actually are unedited versions of the old man-or-woman-on-the-street story or extended letters to the editor. Noting that doesn’t diminish their value or importance to the papers’ report, but it’s important to be realistic about the old-wine-in-new-skins aspect of what’s being published.
That’s because what’s occurring at the Times-Picayune and Houston Chronicle this weekend is an important window on the serious news media’s future, which will involve not the obsolescence of traditional journalistic values but their extension onto the Web and their responsible adaptation to some of its unique attributes, like unlimited space. What the New Orleans and Houston experiences are demonstrating is the convergence of new and old media and not the extinction of one by another -- wishful thinking among the fundamentalists in both camps notwithstanding.
It’s a lesson likely to be noted in ways that will resonate beyond this desperate moment. It’s hard, for example, to imagine a newspaper that this year has more richly fulfilled the values the Pulitzer Prize seeks to honor with its medal for public service than the Times-Picayune. But some of the best and most urgent work the paper did in the hours of New Orleans’ greatest need appeared only online and never saw print. Is that an impediment to acknowledging the journalists who did the work? Not according to Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, who said this week that, if the paper’s work is submitted for consideration, the Web-only journalism certainly could comprise part of the entry.
Alongside these real-world lessons on how mainstream news organizations can put new media technologies at their readers’ service without sacrificing traditional journalistic values or integrity, there’s also something important to be gleaned from the change in television ratings since Aug. 28, the day before the first of these two disastrous hurricanes made landfall.
Katrina and Rita have taken the cable news operations and the network newscasts by their collective ears and shaken them back into a sense of what they’re really supposed to be about. After months of celebrity trials, missing white women, a suffocating storm surge of on-camera attitude, television news resumed being just that -- news -- and its audience responded.
For example, between Aug. 28 and Sept. 13, Fox News averaged 3.29 million nightly prime-time viewers and 2.06 million over the course of the day. CNN averaged 2.37 million viewers in prime-time and a daylong audience of 1.48 million. MSNBC, which apparently couldn’t attract a crowd if it broadcast the Apocalypse, reached less than a million viewers in prime-time and just over half a million during the day.
In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, Fox News’ audience grew by 65% over the previous week, while CNN’s climbed by 246%. In absolute numbers, though, neither of the two top cable audiences approached those of the broadcast networks’ nightly newscasts. The “NBC Nightly News” averaged 9.3 million viewers, while ABC’s “World News Tonight” had 8.8 million and the “CBS Evening News” 6.4 million.
Those are fairly impressive numbers for operations usually characterized as media dinosaurs. Maybe people like them better when they act like themselves -- creatures of the journalistic Jurassic, though they may be -- and less like clowns.
Speaking of numbers, here’s a trend that has gone all but unnoticed in the recent agonizing over the news media’s future. During the last decade, only one serious news operation has increased its audience dramatically and consistently. It’s National Public Radio, which has doubled its number of weekly listeners to 26 million. Since 1999, its audience has grown by nearly 9 million, which is an increase of 60%.
Radio news ... now that was old media before there was an Internet.