“Hell and High Water,” by Rebecca Theim

Rebecca Theim

Rebecca Theim

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

If you aren’t from New Orleans, why would you read a book about the city’s battle to keep a daily newspaper?

Because the problems faced by the Times-Picayune plague newspapers across the country. Hell and High Water: The Battle to Save the Daily New Orleans Times-Picayune, by Rebecca Theim, is more than the story of one paper and one community. Declining print circulation, the rise of digital media, and decreasing ad revenues confront most print media today.

Theim is a writer and former news reporter, whose resume includes a stint at the Times-Picayune many years ago. She currently works as a writer for R&R Partners, an advertising agency in Las Vegas.

Despite Theim’s potential bias as a former Times-Picayune reporter, Hell and High Water presents an impartial examination of the decisions made at the paper. Theim does what good journalists have always done: sought information from all sides of an issue. Though few current Times-Picayune employees granted her interviews, she provides comments from those who did.

Hell and High Water is thoroughly documented and loaded with supporting statistics. While Theim concentrates on the Times-Picayune and the dozen other newspapers owned by the New York-based company Advance Publications, she also reports on national trends in print and digital journalism. What sets the Times-Picayune apart is its distinction of being one of the first daily papers that a major city stopped publishing—and the complete insensitivity with which the company handled the transition.

In an incomprehensibly clumsy move in May of 2012, Advance allowed a New York Times media blogger to break the news that the Times-Picayune would publish only three print issues a week and that the company planned to lay off hundreds of employees. Ooooeee—what  a colossal morale buster served up with two helpings of anger and a side of grief!

The announced changes shocked employees even more profoundly because the Advance Publication handbook contained a pledge that had been honored for over 30 years. The pledge guaranteed all permanent employees they wouldn’t lose their jobs because of technological changes or economic conditions as long as the newspaper was published and they were willing to retrain for another job if necessary.

But as early as 2008, Advance began to tweak the wording of that pledge. Newer handbooks guaranteed job security only as long as the paper published “daily its current newsprint product.” By 2011, unpaid furloughs further foreshadowed the trouble ahead.

Theim’s account includes strong chapters on the impact of Katrina on the Times-Picayune and the staff’s heroic efforts to continue publishing and restore normalcy to the community in the aftermath of the storm.

Hell and High Water details the community’s efforts to save the daily publication of the Times-Picayune and Advance Publication’s resistance to selling the newspaper. Interested parties built websites and Facebook pages to engage and organize citizens in the battle. They also held fundraisers for laid-off employees. Theim became personally involved in these efforts to assist her former colleagues.

Theim doesn’t gloss over the challenges journalism faces today, yet she notes a major problem with the direction newsrooms are heading: fewer fulltime, experienced reporters means a shortage of investigative journalism and complete, balanced coverage.

She also points out that the digital model hasn’t proven itself viable financially. Only a few papers like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have made the pay-for-content model profitable. Many others are finding the transition to digital difficult. Online ads pay pennies compared to dollars generated by print advertising. Even with staff cuts, papers find it hard to offset reduced ad revenue. Some now use “metered paywalls” that allow so many free views a month, after which a subscriber has to pay for digital content. No one knows which models will prove successful long term.

The book tracks another recent trend in newspapers that may signal a reversal. Several prominent investors like Warren Buffet are buying up newspapers nationwide.

Hell and High Water paints in the human faces behind the statistics: the workers who found themselves laid off after 25 or 30 years. They were suddenly without a health plan, retirement benefits, and the job that had defined them for their entire adult lives.

Those with connections to New Orleans and journalists will relish every word of the book, while other readers may skim sections offering such a thorough account of the battle to save the Times-Picayune.

Nonetheless, the startling changes occurring in print and digital media should be of interest to all. By focusing largely—but not solely—on one city’s story, Theim gives readers insight into what we stand to lose as Americans if we don’t fight for our daily newspapers. Loss of community. Loss of local culture. Loss of in-depth coverage as opposed to unscreened and often inaccurate blogger rants.

And the loss of a major source of communication when towns face power outages from storms and disasters. Only three days after Katrina, the Times-Picayune delivered content to people’s mailboxes. Those issues amounted to more than a few pages of newsprint. They signaled the community would get through the worst that nature had to offer, that come hell and high water, New Orleans would survive.

Let’s hope the daily newspaper in America manages to survive as well.

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