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Is the death of newspapers the end of good citizenship?

The death of newspapers – by cutbacks, outright disappearance, or morphing into lean websites – means a reduction of watchdog reporting and less local information. Some say it has caused a drop in civic participation. Is it a blow to good citizenship?

By Jessica BruderCorrespondent / November 11, 2012

How will the death of newspapers affect good citizenship? This is part of the cover story project in the Nov. 12 issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly. Here, Baton Rouge (La.) Advocate reporter Danny Monteverde takes notes during a New Orleans City Council meeting.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor

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One Saturday in June, the Pinstripe Brass Band played a traditional jazz funeral in the lakeside Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans. When "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" gave way to a livelier tune, dozens of mourners danced.

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But there was no coffin. Black frosting on a sheet cake spelled "-30-," the mark reporters put at a story's end. This was a requiem for a newspaper.

The 175-year-old daily Times-Picayune, with a paid weekday circulation of more than 134,000, had announced plans to slash print publication to three days a week, leaving daily coverage to its online edition. "Paper Lays Off 200 Employees" blared a Times-Picayune headline. Those cuts included the funeral's host, photographer John McCusker, who had documented hurricane Katrina from a kayak after losing his home to the floodwaters.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning work of Mr. McCusker and his colleagues had madeThe Times-Picayune indispensable to a community rebuilding after tremendous loss.

So when readers learned their daily paper was going away, many saw a dangerous civic situation.

The irregular, diminished patchwork of media that remains – which encompasses fewer seasoned reporters – won't come close to offering the same intensive coverage that a full-force daily did, says activist Anne Milling. On the watchdog side, that means reduced government accountability. And on the information-delivery side, in a city where a third of adults lack home Internet access, the new Web focus will leave the most vulnerable Picayune readers behind.

"A daily Times-Picayune has been the backbone of the community in our post-Katrina environment and provides the foundation for all civic dialogue and discourse," Ms. Milling wrote in a notice announcing the launch of The Times-Picayune Citizens' Group, an alliance she founded to amplify readers' concerns.

And readers were upset.

Hundreds of them attended rallies, waving placards that said "Don't Stop the Presses." More than 9,000 signed an online petition. "Save the Picayune" lawn signs and Wild West-style "Wanted" posters with the new publisher's face cropped up across town. The New Orleans City Council passed a resolution calling unanimously for the paper to remain a daily. Readers began to boycott what they now called "The SomeTimes-Picayune."

Their daily paper had remained well read and profitable despite the newspaper industry's overall decline. Three-quarters of residents saw the paper each week, making its stories a centerpiece of conversation from barbershops to city hall.

New Orleans was about to become the largest city in America without its own daily paper. But beneath the drama was a quieter question: Does it matter?

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