Allan Katz and Danae Columbus: The changing world of news

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Allan Katz and Danae Columbus

Today is Allan’s birthday and he has spent much of it reminiscing about the revolutionary changes in the world of gathering and disseminating news since he began his career as a cub reporter at the old States-Item in 1963.

In those days, the Times-Picayune building was an old wooden firetrap on North Street, facing toward Lafayette Square and away from Poydras Street, which hadn’t yet become an important avenue. Adjacent to the newspaper offices on St. Charles Avenue was Gallier Hall, which housed a city government that was soon to move to new quarters on Loyola Avenue. The most popular restaurant in the neighborhood was Marble Hall, located on Lafayette Street adjacent to Gallier Hall.

The Times-Picayune and States-Item newsrooms were on the same floor. The Times-Picayune operation, including desks for editors and reporters and a copy desk, was much larger and on one side of the room while the States-Item was on the other.

The copy editors were grizzled old men, many of whom wore green eyeshades, just like in the movies of the 1930s and 40s. Most of the copy editors had silver spittoons at their feet. Allan, unfortunately, never thought to ask who cleaned the spittoons or how often.

News stories were typed on old typewriters. The first one assigned to Allan was a 1938 Royal. The stories were typed on yellow newsprint. They were reviewed and edited by the editors and then passed onto the copy desk for a final review and headline writing. The stories were prepared for the paper by linotype operators, also grizzled old men who were not amused if a reporter was asked to bring them a late-breaking, corrected and edited story after deadline, thereby holding up the entire production process.

At the end of the 1960s, the operation was moved to Howard Avenue, an immaculately clean modern building with a nice cafeteria on the second floor and plenty of parking spaces. Allan never found out what happened to the spittoons but they didn’t make the transition. And, wonder of wonders, young people – even including a few women – were hired to work on the copy desk. Where once Iris Kelso was the only woman on the States-Item side of the room, there were now a plethora of young female prodigies who quickly proved their worth. Also gone was the 1938 Royal typewriter, replaced in the 1970s by IBM Selectrics. It was with great amusement that Allan read Ricky Matthews, the new publisher of The Times-Picayune, is moving the news operation back downtown, a perfect reversal of the move of 40 years ago to get away from downtown.

All of this adaptation is in preparation for a world where most people will get their news from a computer screen rather than a newspaper. It will be a world of multiple sources of news. There will be weekly and monthly newspapers that fill a specific niche, like Gambit, CityBusiness and the Kenner Star. There will be myriad Internet sources like the Uptown Messenger, The Lens, NOLA Defender, My Spilt Milk, and NewOrleansReporter.org which is still in development. Add in the Krewe of Truth, New Orleans Agenda, My New Orleans and Bayou Buzz and readers have a lot of options. And, speaking of The Uptown Messenger this publication covers in detail the events, trends and developments in Uptown New Orleans far more closely than any newspaper ever has or could.

Allan and Danae think what all of this is really about is adaptation. We’ve been reading The New York Times story about the innovative warden at Angola, Burl Cain. When Gov. Bobby Jindal slashed Cain’s budget so that he could no longer hire enough guards for the perimeter fences to prevent escapes, Cain began breeding dogs with wolves, producing hybrid wolves that he trains from puppyhood to become Angola guard dogs. It’s all worked out fine except from the perspective of prospective escapees who rightly don’t want to tangle with wolves’ fangs. That’s adaptation and that’s what everyone in the modern news business is trying to figure out. But Allan is still wondering who cleaned out those spittoons and what eventually happened to them.

Allan Katz spent 25 years as a political reporter and columnist at The Times-Picayune, and is now editor of the Kenner Star and host of several televsion programs, including the Louisiana Newsmaker on Cox Cable. Danae Columbus is executive producer of Louisiana Newsmaker, and has had a 30-year career in public relations, including stints at City Hall and the Dock Board. They currently work for the Orleans Parish School Board and the Eric Strachan campaign, and among the recent candidates who have been represented by their public relations firm are City Councilwoman Stacy Head, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and state Rep. Robert Billiot.

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