The recent troubles at the New Orleans Times-Picayune hit me particularly hard. It’s where I grew up as a journalist. My first full-time job out of grad school in 1975 was as a sportswriter for the New Orleans States-Item, an afternoon daily that shared ownership and a newsroom with the morning Times-Picayune. The two papers later merged.
A few weeks ago, staffers learned—via the New York Times—that the T-P planned to cut back its print presence to just three days a week as of the fall, making New Orleans the first major U.S. city without a daily newspaper. Many industry experts see it as the first domino.
Back in ’75, when newsprint ruled the bayou, I became the first woman sportswriter in the state of Louisiana. What in God’s name was I thinking?
Prior to that point, the farthest south I had been in my life was Washington D.C. For the first few months, it felt like I was in the Twilight Zone, by way of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
I lived in the French Quarter in a tiny courtyard apartment that was referred to by locals as “slave quarters.” Surrounded by lush, semi-tropical vegetation, I picked bananas from my balcony. I went to sleep to the sound of horses’ hooves hitting the pavement.
There were two seasons in New Orleans: summer and less summer. The result was a general slowing down of all life functions, most notably speech. In fact, the natives spoke so slowly, I was convinced the city had secretly pumped tranquilizers into the water supply.
In the sports department, all my colleagues were good ole boys, most of them with two first names. They liked to hunt and fish and drink beer. They didn’t like blacks, queers, Jews, northerners or women, except to have sex with. I was four out of five; the Big Easy would not be easy for me.
My editor, Billy Earl (his first names), was from Mississippi and thought women should be barred from men’s locker rooms. Fortunately, he was also a great rewrite man. Like all the sports guys, he was baffled, if not intimidated, by my sexuality. I was the first open lesbian they had ever met.
The city reporters were a more worldly bunch. Walter Isaacson, a Rhodes Scholar, went on to lead Time magazine and CNN and wrote the best-selling biography of Steve Jobs. Another Rhodes winner, Jim Amoss, was named editor in ’90 and has led the T-P to four Pulitzers.
For the first six months or so, my sports colleagues ignored me. I focused on my beat: college football and basketball. Everywhere I went, every game I covered, I was the only woman in the press box. It was alienating and lonely, especially since my girlfriend at the time was still back in Chicago.
We wrote on electric typewriters and shared telephones. For a while, I shared mine with our high-school beat reporter, who wore cowboy boots and spoke with a heavy drawl. When I teased him that my biceps outgunned his, he challenged me to a fight. Never happened, lucky for him. The Yankee lesbian Jew would have destroyed his skinny Southern ass.
Slowly, over time, the guys and I began to accept each other. Thanks, in no small part, to a shared appreciation for dirty jokes and foul language, acceptance turned into affection, then finally, a fierce loyalty I had not experienced before or since.
I learned to speak Yat, as in: “Where y’at, cuz?” They learned to include me in their sex discussions, during which we’d exchange obscene insults that today would be grounds for dismissal. We bonded over beers. They even moved me into my new apartment. I loved those guys, no matter what century they were living in.
After three years, I left for Boston, and 10 months later, Philadelphia, where I would work at the Inquirer for the next 30 years. I think of New Orleans often, always with deep affection. What a town. What a feeling. What a time in my life.
Without its daily newspaper, New Orleans will suffer in ways that other places would not. For starters, a large percentage of the city is poor and unwired. Just as important, the T-P is not just a newspaper to New Orleanians—during and after Katrina, it became a lifeboat. You can’t buy that kind of respect.
Despite the odds, I’m pulling for the Picayune, cuz. We all should.