What does that decision mean for journalism in New Orleans?
I was really saddened to hear that Nola.com let Alison Fensterstock go and shifted Keith Spera to Metro. At a selfish level, I’ll be lonely at some shows without Alison and Keith there too. More importantly, they are too talented to be shown the door or moved to another section summarily. Together, they made Nola.com’s music coverage meaningful. I can’t imagine that this means Nola.com is getting out of the music coverage business, although that’s what it looks like now. I assume that they’re reimagining what music coverage should look like, and that it will be news-you-can-use, but that's based on nothing but the assumption that the site and paper can't simply get out of the music business. Then again, for years a friend regularly wondered why The Times-Picayune didn’t have a jazz-first critic; he never envisioned a day when it didn’t have a critic at all.
While these changes were being announced and chewed on via social media, I was working on my story on Dustan Louque. During our conversation, he talked about his frustration in the late ‘90s and early 2000s that the critic community didn’t support new music, and pointed out how vibrant, engaged writing about music helps healthy scenes grow and develop along with the musicians and the fans. I’m sure most of the talented musicians who emerged in the last decade would have done so without the writing community that was in place, but it certainly didn’t hurt that there were critics and journalists who took them and their music seriously.
The disconcerting part of this story beyond the human toll is the clear set of priorities for coverage that the changes establish. In a story announcing the layoffs, Nola.com wrote, “The changes are designed to focus on topics that are important to readers and have driven the substantial readership growth of NOLA.com, making it one of the country's top local news websites.” I know that while music is important to New Orleans’ civic pride and identity, on a day to day basis it can’t be counted on to drive clicks. The now-vacant music desk says that all coverage at Nola.com is subject to the daily level of demonstrable interest, no matter how important the subject matter.
Music aside, does that mean news stories will be covered based on levels of interest? What does that mean for environmental journalism? Education coverage? Is Nola.com going to be wall-to-wall Saints, Confederate monuments, and crime that involves African Americans? If clicks and engagement affect coverage choices, does that mean that the racists, misogynists and trolls who have long polluted the comments sections been given a say over the content that Nola.com covers?
There’s no point bemoaning the big picture changes at Nola.com. The relationship we felt to the paper was between us and its staff, not the institution. Businesses are notoriously—and understandably—focused on their own bottom lines. Still, The Times-Picayune was once a part of the way we experienced New Orleans, and it’s painful to see it abdicate that role in favor of a more limited one. Maybe Nola.com’s ceding the deep dive music stories to other sources (*ahem*), and it’s clearly reconsidering the role of the daily paper/website in a time when readers don’t look to any one source for all of their news the way they once did;
As Nola.com changes its relationship to New Orleans and seemingly narrows its field of vision though, it can’t be surprised if New Orleans narrows its as well.
Full disclosure: In addition to MySpiltMilk.com, I contribute to The New Orleans Advocate.