What did I learn this morning at Nola.com?

Screen grab of the home page of Nola.com on June 20, 2012

The last time I looked at the Nola.com app, I was on the Entertainment page, so when I launched the app today at 7:30 a.m., it opened with Entertainment and its lead story is "Jonathan Richman, Clint Maedgen and more New Orleans music for Tuesday, June 19." One danger of having the lead story be the most recent story is that you risk having something out of date like this top your morning entertainment news, as opposed to "Oscar Statuette to be William Joyce's Date to 'Morris Lessmore' Book Signing" (Friday at NOCCA from 6 to 8 p.m.) or "HBO's 'Treme' Will Return in Late September" (September 23 or 30, according to Dave Walker), which still have news value today.

So far, I've found the app more satisfactory than Nola.com from a news perspective. It offers "Headlines" and "Top Stories" as menu options, and though I'm not sure what the distinction is, "Top Stories" is less random. "Headlines" is driven by chronology, so the most recently published story leads. At 7:39, our headlines are:

1. Gov. Bobby Jindal gets into political fender bender

2. Lawmakers don't let anything get by them

3. Hugh Weber kept Hornets alive (editorial)

4. Low pressure trough in the Caribbean

5. Steve Kelley cartoon 

6. Mike Yenni holding economic committee meeting Friday

7. Obituary for Gay Elizabeth Grabert

8. Kenner police arrest reports

9. Wednesday weather

10. Metro New Orleans road closures

11. Metro New Orleans area community meetings

12. Slidell Caring Center breaks new ground

13. Mississippi lawyers seek to stop execution

14. Port of South Louisiana board appointments blocked

15. Mississippi voter ID regulations being developed

As I've said before, a chronology-driven presentation of stories seems like an abdication of editorial duties because one of the things people turn to the paper for is a sense of what they should know. Do I really need to know Steve Kelley's editorial cartoon? The Kenner arrests for the last two weeks? Still, if I were getting my morning information from the app, at 7:39 I would have got a passably interesting presentation of news stories. 

Having looked at the app and Nola.com a number of times now to see what kind of experience it offers the reader, I now know that certain things are posted at certain times. Kelley's cartoon seems to be a morning thing, as is road closures and meeting announcements. If you read the news online first thing in the morning, you're experience might be being shaped by certain regularly scheduled postings, no matter how marginal. Also, conspicuously missing in that list is anything national or international (considering Mississippi close enough to be essentially local if not regional).

At Nola.com at 7:58 a.m., I got two clear top of the page headlines, both of which were oddly AWOL from the app:

"Woman, 28, gets 30-year sentence for last murder before Hurricane Katrina"


"Triplett: Anthony Hargrove may have gotten raw deal from NFL again"

Then a story from eight hours ago - "Hornets feeding potential top pick Anthony Davis' appetite for New Orleans" - sits atop a column trumpeting "Real Time News by region Greater N.O." Before anybody complains about the grammar of that line, "Greater N.O" is part of a drop-down menu that also includes the North Shore, St. Bernard, Orleans Parish, etc. If anybody wants to quibble about an eight-hour old story leading "real time" news, knock yourself out. After that, the news stream is largely the same as the Headlines section at Nola.com: "Louisiana establishes in law a military advisory council" (new since I started writing), "Low pressure trough in Caribbean expected to move into Gulf" (also since I started writing), "Gay Elizabeth Grabert, 50, worked 31 years for Ochsner: Obituaries today", "NFL mascots, plus one: editorial cartoon," "Lawmakers don't let anything get by them: James Gill" (op-ed doesn't seem to make it to the app - or not that I recall), "Kenner Mayor Mike Yenni holding economic committee," and so on.

Once again, nothing national or international. If I hover over the News menu item at the top of the page, I see that there's a farmer's market in Covington on Saturday, "Poll finds overwhelming support for new health care bill if Supreme Court rules against it" (YAHTZEE!) and the military advisory council. To know more about what happened outside of a hundred mile radius, I have to go to the AP news feed through the link at the far right of the News drop-down menu.

Today, Nola.com looks less trivial today than it has in previous mornings, and to be fair, later in the morning when writers are turning in new stories, it is generally newsier. But I'm having breakfast and coffee at 7 or 7:30, and that's when I once read the morning paper. I'm not going to read Nola.com at 9:30 or 10 because I'm likely working or into my day by then. We read the paper first thing in the morning by habit, but that habit was shaped by when we have time to read it.

I expect that in the future, we'll be better able to truly read the website - that is, to have a sense of what's important. The graphic presentation of a newspaper's front page gave readers a sense of what they needed to know and what someone thought was significant. A story's placement on the page, the space allocated for it and amount of visible work put into a piece all signalled to readers in ways that the mechanical layout of the site and the app don't communicate. Or, more likely, this will change the way we consume information. I suspect we'll become less reliant on the T-P/Nola.com for our news. Personally, I hope people will look for alternatives in their (ahem) music and entertainment coverage.

... and one last thought. It's time for the New Orleans vs. Newhouse story to ramp up or move on. A lot of energy has been spent feeling wounded and commisserating  - the latter, necessary; the former, less so. It's time to either rally, protest and make a stronger effort to try to convince Newhouse to change its plans, or it's time to start coming to terms with what's about to happen. I would prefer a seven-day-a-week paper, but if we lost the paper but not jobs, I'd have been okay with the move. My concern is for journalism in New Orleans and the good people who do it. The Friends of the Times-Picayune group at Facebook does a great job of collecting stories that suggest that much of what people fear is true - that the moves were made simply to make the news enterprise more profitable, and the way to do that was through harsh layoffs - but events are at a point where feeling righteous may be personally reassuring but it's not bringing a paper as we know it back. If that's what people want, it's time to get organized.

Steve Gleason contributed his perspective - one that's well worth considering. Here's an excerpt:

Most recently I have been struggling to speak. I wont lie. I have had moments of dread anticipating that loss. I still have much to say. But somewhere deep inside me I believe in seeking avenues that will creatively allow my voice to be heard. Avenues that will transform loss to gain.

Whether you were one of the dozens who lost their jobs or count yourself among those who have been retained at the new company, I would encourage you to be persistent and pursue néw creative avenues to do the same. Seek new ways to share the stories that are so unique to New Orleans with the world. It will not be easy. But I think it can be awesome. Headline: awesome ain't easy.

I found that really useful to think about when I have a moment of rage at a situation that made a writer of Mark Schleifstein's standing feel a need to explain choosing to accept the offer to remain at the paper/site. The decision to go to three days a week pushes many of New Orleans' buttons - the city's sense of persecution and its anxiety about its civic standing in America, among others - and that, along with the human pain of large-scale job loss in our community, makes this situation hard to get a handle on. It's made worse by the fact that it's coming from one someone outside the city who seems to be imposing a one-size-fits-all solution on a city that is proud not to be like all the rest. Still, if change is going to happen, it's time to do something beyond petitions and cozy rallies with friends. Or, it's time to find a way to move forward.