The death of daily newspapers has been predicted for decades, but in the past year their decline accelerated. The consequence of diminished investigative reporting is especially dire on the Gulf Coast where communities remain in the throes of post-disaster recovery, with public policies undergoing major reform and billions in federal recovery dollars being spent with little oversight or accountability. The huge stakes here did not prevent Advance Publications, owner the Greater New Orleans region’s only daily newspaper, The Times Picayune, from recently announcing plans to further shrink its newsroom – and further erode coverage of the critical issues facing this uniquely challenged region.
The decline of mainstream print media comes, somewhat ironically, at a time when civic engagement is on the rise in New Orleans as is the public appetite for news, more and more of which is delivered by Internet. The multiple crises faced by the city and region since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 have ushered in an urgent awareness of a crucial need — and potential opportunity — for change. A number of citizen-led initiatives have led to significant reforms in the four years since the storm-triggered levee failures. Notable among these reforms are a restructuring of the city’s notoriously corrupt property assessment system, consolidation of ineffective local levee boards and reform of the long-troubled criminal and civil courts. Many other efforts, however, have stagnated. Lack of accurate, in-depth information — on everything from school administration to sanitation, storm defenses to environmental rehabilitation — has frustrated these citizen and community efforts to bring about change.
New Orleans faces critical turning points in the coming year, a year in which, not incidentally, the nation will mark the fifth anniversary of the costliest disaster in its history. A new mayor will be elected. Federal recovery subsidies will expire. A citywide land use master plan conceived before the levees failed will finally face a public approval process. Without informed decision making, the reform opportunities that come with these historic moments will be lost.