Former Times-Picayune reporter delivers post-mortem on ex-daily newspaper

“Hell and High Water: The Battle to Save the Daily New Orleans Times-Picayune” by Rebecca Theim. Pelican Publishing, 2013. $26.95.

On June 12, 2012, approximately 200 employees, freelancers and others lost their jobs at The Times-Picayune, as New Orleans became the largest U.S. city without a daily newspaper.

Rebecca Theim, who worked for the paper from 1988 to 1994 and now lives in Las Vegas, narrates the story of the paper’s demise with clear compassion and in journalistic detail — while wielding a pen as mighty as any sword.

It’s not news that the newspaper industry had been hurting years before the privately owned, New York-based media giant Advance Publications decided to reduce The Times-Picayune to a three-times-per-week print publication, with an online component. In the shakeup, which was shrouded in secrecy, it was not just junior people who were given their walking papers, but most noticeably senior editors who had put in decades of service.

This was a local catastrophe, and a national story — just ask The New York Times and the Columbia Journalism Review, both of which printed in-depth investigative pieces.

When news of impending changes at The Times-Picayune first leaked, Theim herself — no objective observer — organized an online campaign to save the paper. Her petition garnered close to 10,000 signatures, and included such names as Democratic mainstay James Carville, “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau, “Moneyball” author Michael Lewis, radio’s Garrison Keillor, New Orleans-born gothic novelist Anne Rice and musician Branford Marsalis.

But it was staff photographer John McCusker who came up with the signature line: “This isn’t the death of a newspaper. It’s a drive-by shooting.”

Theim raises all sorts of what would seem to be logical questions. The Times-Picayune was profitable, while some other Advance newspapers were not, and yet they remained untouched. A 2009 study revealed that 85.8 percent of the New Orleans market either read The Times-Picayune or consulted its website, NOLA.com. Why interfere? But logic does not always move in a straight or predictable line, and corporate decisions do not necessarily reflect the reality that emotionally invested employees see. OK, that’s an understatement.

It’s the compelling personalities, then, that frame Theim’s story. In the foreground we can’t take our eyes off Jim Amoss, the controversial editor and Yale-educated Rhodes scholar, who refused to speak with the author and doesn’t come off at all well in this book.

In the background loom Sam Newhouse, the powerhouse behind Advance Publications, and his son Donald and grandson Steven; and Ashton Phelps Jr., with his “patrician drawl distinctive to Uptown New Orleans,” who was in his late 60s, and, as push came to shove, eager to retire.

At the time of Katrina, the Newhouse clan expressed pride in its New Orleans team, generously supporting the staff at a time of dire need. But that largesse was not a reliable predictor.

In the end, the entire human resources department was axed. Bureau chiefs and assistant editors, a celebrated restaurant critic, a nationally syndicated political cartoonist, eight photographers, a contingent of copy editors and many transportation workers were all let go.Humor survived on inspired T-shirts, like the one in an Old English font that read: “The Some-Times Picayune.”

Defending the course over which he presided, editor Amoss later said: “Our embracing of the digital future is in no way a diminishment of the kind of journalism we’ve always been committed to as a news organization.”

Such words ring hollow in Theim’s treatment: The reconstituted entity she describes lacks the dynamism, as well as the humanity, of its predecessor. “Quality has suffered,” she quotes one of those who responded to a defensive message composed by Amoss on NOLA.com.

More aggressively, she repeats criticism leveled at Amoss by one of his “most loyal lieutenants,” veteran editor Bruce Nolan: “Increasingly, his speech, his rhetoric, is more and more boilerplate, more and more corporate-speak, more and more disembodied, more and more robotic.”

This is a book with attitude.

Beyond her postmortem on the glorious old Times-Picayune, Theim provides a serious dissection of Advance’s restructuring operations and a side-by-side analysis of the traditional newspaper and emerging digital news industries. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, the noble newspaper in which this review appears plays a supporting role in this contentious and combustible drama.

Andrew Burstein is Charles P. Manship Professor of History at LSU, coauthor of Madison and Jefferson and, most recently, author of “Lincoln Dreamt He Died.” His website is: andburstein.com.