OUTLOOK FOR NEW ORLEANS: CLOUDY

Georgie Anne Geyer

WASHINGTON -- Were you to ask the vast majority of Americans these questions, one has to wonder whether they would be so stupid and near-sighted as to answer "yes":

-- Would you like to see the single unifying force in your community be abolished, without your even raising your voice?

-- Would you like to throw away the 50 cents to $1 a day ($2, on some days) it takes to maintain the one product in your town that helps to keep you educated and worldly and also educates your children?

-- Would you rather not know about your City Hall and mayor, the crime gangs just about to move in on your neighborhood, why the state's run-for-profit prison system has the highest incarceration rate in the country, the beauty contests and Girl Scouts, the Masons and the Catholic Charities and the new Islamic mosque planned for your corner?

Somehow, from my desk here in my office, I can hear the great din of angry voices shouting, "No, no, no." One of you might ask, "How dumb do you think we are?" I put that question aside.

Out there, too, thanks be to the Lord, are some wonderfully wise and experienced Americans who have been blessed with intrinsic common sense, who would nod knowingly, and might even say, "Yes, we know what you're talking about -- the saga, the story and the shame of New Orleans."

In case you missed "the" story of that beautiful, romantic city of Spanish-French-American history, home of the alleys and park where jazz was born, the town that rose above Katrina and blew her back to sea with a few horns from the French Quarter, and arguably the best place to vacation in America, here it is.

Last week, the city's great historic newspaper, The Times-Picayune, founded in 1837, announced that it will publish only three days a week -- Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. This new form of "daily newspaper" will be run by a new company, NOLA Media Group, under Advance Publications, the same ownership as before except that most of its investment will go into its Web coverage. The staff will be cut by at least a third.

The New York Times and other papers still publishing reported that New Orleans folk were meeting all over town, literally crying into their French wine while they planned coups in back rooms. Columnist David Carr wrote elegantly and ironically of "newsprint sentimentalists" and "fetishists who want ... to be imprisoned on paper." He reminded readers that it was the paper, during and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, whose reporters stayed through the mortal storm, giving citizens "critical guidance" and bringing order "out of incredible chaos."

So, it is right to say that this is a paper that not only had a special role to play, but could not have played it with more style had Humphrey Bogart been editor and Ingrid Bergman its top reporter, while Sam played "As Time Goes By." But real-time editors pointed out that the print newspaper industry is half as big as it was in 2005.

All right, that is true, but with all the crying and wringing of hands going on last week, not to mention planning for this outcome over the last 10 years or so, could it not be expected that the people of New Orleans might have done more? That organizations could not have pushed people to BUY the paper, to get advertisers to support it, to educate people as to its importance?

But, no. The Internet age is upon us, and some smartacres are now insisting that these new "friends" of information can best help us to understand the world, and even to run it. They see magic dust in the computer, in email, in the Internet, where others, myself included, see only dangerous unknown substances that could overtake our disciplined searches for information.

Where newspapers unite us all, the social media only unite small, self-selected groups of us. Where print media inform us of the city, the state, the nation, the world and even the universe, the Internet tends to give us back only what we have already asked for, thus strengthening human isolation. Where the big, serious newspaper companies or families have employed large, well-trained staffs expert in everything from reporting to the law to marketing to advertising to singing at the local bar, these new forms of communication most often require little preparation and education. Which is one reason so many writers online are not paid for their work.

Of course, if Americans really do want to say "yes" to the questions above, then they will be getting what they richly deserve. They will be getting cities without any unifying factors (i.e., gangs ruling the streets). They will be getting neighborhoods in chaos, and health threats out of control, and the rule of the ignorant and the arrogant.