Inside the News Room

Thoughts on The Lens' role in covering the TP, and a quaint look back

The Lens this week produced a photo essay of readers enjoying their Monday and Tuesday papers, something they won’t be able to do when The Times-Picayune stops publishing those days and two others sometime this fall.

Like a lot of ideas in this town, the photo essay was born on a front porch over an evening bottle of wine. Most of the credit goes to my wife – who, like me, worked at The Picayune for more than 15 years. We thought it would be a nice window into a soon-to-disappear scene, and I quickly contacted a photographer.

The next morning, with the wine’s warm glow gone, I worried that the effort might come across as saccharine. But that’s mostly because when I’m not working on investigative stories, I’m a pretty sappy writer – not a skilled photojournalist.

Veteran photographer Bevil Knapp hit just the right note without being intrusive, said many of our readers, Facebook commenters, Twitter followers and the well-respected journalism think-tank The Poynter Institute. As many of you know from personal experience, most people read their paper at the same time and same place in their home each day, making those images difficult to capture. Still, Bevil managed to capture many public displays of reflection.

Covering the changes at the TP has been a challenge for The Lens. In general, we’re here to fill gaps in citywide news coverage, not to look where others are already reporting. The Gambit has been doing great work on the impending changes at the TP, as have many reporters who cover the media on the national scale. I didn’t think we’d be able to post leaked internal TP memos any faster than or the folks at our alt weekly.

But we didn’t think the TP would be photographing its readers anytime soon, so we took that opportunity. Likewise, we didn’t think Gambit or the TP would write extensively about the changes to the state’s law regarding judicial notices that are required to be printed in a local newspaper (though consummate pro reporter Ed Anderson at The Picayune did mention the issue under an unrelated headline). That’s because both publications have a stake in the issue. So we were happy to offer information and a few ballpark dollar amounts for what’s at stake for the paper.

The Lens continues to look for the kinds of stories where we can bring a new perspective to the issue without piling on to the extensive coverage that results from such an industry-leading change. For instance, we were happy to repost a story from March that looked at the relatively low broadband subscription rate across the metro area, with an interactive map letting readers drill down to the census tract.

We didn’t know then how relevant it would become as the biggest newsgathering operation in town begins to force its readers to go online for news.

Clearly, The Lens isn’t against people getting their news online, and we’re grateful for your increasing allegiance to our site. But we also have a list of news outlets with which we collaborate to get our information out though a number of media, including newspaper, radio and television.

In the beginning, there was Netscape. And it was good.

It’s been a strange road from 1995, before The Times-Picayune’s parent company, Advance Publications, set up as a separate company and started this whole process.

That year, I sat in a forgotten wood-paneled office behind the sports department, watching the TP’s graphics chief, Paul Fresty, test out the BourboCam. Then, the Web effort was still based in the newsroom – where reporters had to go to a separate room and log on to the Internet through one of five computers connected through dial-up modems.

The Bourbocam and the TP’s website were something of a novelty, not a way of life. That remote camera, set up at Bourbon and St. Peter, was an early success for the site, letting people mug for their Internet-connected friends back home. Rather than the every-two-minute still shot or eventual streaming from the Cat’s Meow window, TP photographers were being dispatched to take a shot of the street and drive it back to the office.

I’ll leave you with this Jan. 7, 1996 story that talks about the gee-whiz nature of a new effort, with some revealing predictions. Apologies to Chris Gray, who probably wishes she doesn’t remember writing this.

The Destination New Orleans section of, run by The Times-Picayune, hopes to become a key Internet source for travelers planning vacations to New Orleans while giving local users access to years of newspaper research on the best of the area’s food and culture. is available free to subscribers of commercial online services or local Internet access providers such as Communique Inc., which hosts the site on its computers. It is best viewed through the Netscape Web browsers, but can also be seen through other browsers users may have on their home computers.

While carries restaurant reviews and other information from The Times-Picayune, it is not an online version of the newspaper, but a new product specifically designed for the Internet audience.

Times-Picayune Editor Jim Amoss said that would complement the coverage the newspaper already gives readers.

“For us, it’s a new way of connecting with current and potential readers,” Amoss said. “For people around the globe visiting our site, we hope it will be an irresistible invitation to our city.”

Unlike many Web sites, intends to turn a profit, a tough goal in the still-struggling medium.

“Very few sites are making money,” said Richard Diamond, a Times-Picayune executive responsible for “We’re aware of that. We do think we have a product – New Orleans – that will create an audience.”

So far the site has two advertisers, Arnaud’s and Remoulade restaurants, which post menus and allow users to make reservations through their computers. But Diamond foresees a full-scale online mall of commercial services, where users will be able to buy concert tickets, shop for souvenirs and plan an entire New Orleans trip from their living rooms.

If the site takes off, may add services such as a New Orleans business report, a hunting and fishing report, and local news online. is the result of months of work by a team of Times-Picayune editors, graphic designers and copy editors. Renee Peck, former editor of Lagniappe, wrote and edited the material. The site was designed by Paul Fresty, the newspaper’s graphics editor. Systems editor Michael Kleinschrodt was in charge of production. The team was supervised by Dan Shea, the newspaper’s associate editor.

Image from 1996 courtesy of the Wayback Machine

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  • Looking back… we now seem as if kids playing with nuclear bombs.

    I remember feeling that we were viewed at the time as crazy for even thinking it. An underground group of splitters huddled in a closet innocently taking puffs of this “internet thing”. Some non-paper information delivery system. In an old school newsroom it WAS radical and very few supported it. Personally, I felt like it would make a difference someday… and clearly it did. As those bombs now detonate in the newsroom… splattering my friends.

    Of course that was never my intent. Or the intent of those of us working on that early project. But today I can’t help feeling at least a little like someone who worked on the Manhattan Project. We were indeed like kids playing with nuclear fission. Unaware of how it might devastate those we love in the future.

    However, from today’s perspective, I still can’t help feeling that the newsroom management didn’t take it seriously enough from the beginning. The whole project was viewed with a skepticism that ignored the looming future. News operations have always tended to act like this. Slow to adopt new technology, and replete with the “we’ve always done it that way” attitude they report on with indignation when it is practiced by government.

    Had the news operation taken serious EARLY ownership of the project with an “all in” approach, instead of squirreling us away in that little paneled closet, I truly believe that the birth of under a separate company might have been more easily challenged. But as it was, there was no one really fighting for ownership of it.

    Of course it is the Newhouse’s company to do with as they see fit. But by disconnecting the news operation from the website it reduced the vast editorial team assembled in that Pulitzer Prize winning newsroom into a wire service for a for-profit operation run by technologists in some other location. Not journalists in a newsroom with their finger on the pulse of a city.

    The writing can be found on the wall in that little closet I am sure. The humble spot where we hatched this idea to build a website for the Picayune. Where we thought we would do something that increased our relevance to our community and the world. Not destroy it.

    That experience launched my then new career designing web sites in 1996. A fortunate decision for me at the fork in that road. But my soul has always been a journalist’s. And my fingers still seem somehow stained from pouring over the freshly printed newspaper we struggled all day and night to deliver.

    Thank you Steve for recalling those times for me. I remember feeling proud of what we did back then. These past few weeks however have indeed been bittersweet.

    My heart is with the the journalists that ARE The Times-Picayune.

  • With respect, you seem in your coverage to overlook the labor issue. Groups of professional journalists could organize themselves either as a professional guild upholding certain standards or as a union. In either case, such a group, standing on its professional principles and acting as a group could have had a huge effect in this situation. I never worked at the TP though occasionally contributed to it as a freelance. So I don’t know what the folks inside went through precisely. But isn’t it at least worth exploring why the only options people are talking about are in effect changes of management or ownership.
    As if some other corporation would draw different conclusions or out of sentimentality would no longer look at the bottom line. For journalists who want to be professional the bottom line here is that the new Times Picayune will be a “newspaper in name only” since the new requirements state that “reporters”- if you want to use that term– will now be required to file internet tidbits == and that the print paper will simply collate those tidbits. That is the plan.
    Much worse in my view than losing the paper, as painful as that is, is the fact we are losing what the paper was in essence, which is the professionalism of its staff. Using a divide and conquer strategy, those who remain will be asked to produce a faux=paper. That is what I fear.