Finding the right direction

The Times-Picayune opinions editor explains the difficulties of representing and influencing a city as diverse as New Orleans

Mayor Mitch Landrieu called for the removal of the Robert E. Lee Confederate monuments in June 2015. The announcement was not taken lightly.

It was just days after the massacre at a Charleston church. Though protesters had gathered in front of the monuments already, Landrieu said his opinion on the statues had been formed much earlier, when he and renowned jazz musician Wynton Marsalis spoke at the Saenger Theatre in 2014.

But the shooting at the black church and the protests that followed pushed Landrieu to make his wishes public. Protests began that day, with many people outraged over the suggestion of removing the statues, some of which date back to as early as 1884.

Photo by: Emily Jameson

Just days after the announcement, the editorial board of The Times-Picayune crafted a response to the public. On that same day, protesters burned flags in front of the Robert E. Lee memorial.

“It is time to take down the Lee memorial and take a hard look at other Confederate monuments across the city,” the closing lines of the editorial read. “Not to try to erase the past or deny history, but to ensure that the cityscape reflects the inclusive, tolerant, open heart of New Orleans.”

Terri Troncale, opinions editor of The Times-Picayune, wrote the staff editorial, as she always does when the paper wants to address a community issue. Troncale said this means she is the voice of the paper and, often, the voice of the city.

“There are things in the community that are important that we feel like we want to highlight,” Troncale said. “What we feel is the right direction. You may not agree with us. On the Lee monument, for example.”

The column received nearly 1,000 comments on NOLA.com, many of which criticized the stance. Troncale said the pushback was expected, however.

See the comments from the Lee Memorial statue editorial here.

“That wasn’t popular with everybody,” Troncale said. “People have different views on that and they have different opinions but we felt very strongly that as an institution in this community — an institution that’s been here 180 years … that we had an important role to play in trying to express to the community why it matters. Why it’s not okay to have monuments just because they were put up a long time ago.”

Despite these dissenting opinions, Troncale says she believes the editorial board is a working part of the community.

“We try to keep our ears to the ground and know what people are concerned about. There are some things that we think people aren’t really concerned about but we think they should be concerned about and that’s where we’re more trying to educate people on issues that will affect them.”

Video: Clara Turnage

Though Troncale pens the editorials, the focus and goal of each piece are chosen by the editorial board. The board is comprised of the president, publisher, editor in chief, Troncale and columnists.

The majority of the board is either from New Orleans or has lived there for 20 years or more. Troncale said this gives them a personal perspective on local issues.

“Somebody asked me if I could imagine living somewhere else and I just can’t imagine living somewhere other than New Orleans,” Troncale said.

Troncale said the board listens to many opinions before the weekly meetings to understand the positions of different groups in New Orleans.

“[I] try to make sure I understand things as broadly as possible and not just from a narrow perspective,” Troncale said. “In this city, you end up in the company of a lot of different people, at least I do. I don’t feel like I’m isolated in my little corner of the world, and I can’t be. We also want people to have their own voice.”

Like many publications, The Times-Picayune runs letters to the editor, in which residents write opinion columns to be published. Troncale said they receive many letters.

Letters, however, can be restrictive, Troncale said. With limited word counts and space on the print pages, many letters cannot be run. Many members of the community have now turned to the comment section to voice their opinions.

NOLA.com

Though some organizations have removed comment sections from their sites, Troncale defends them.

“I think that conversation is really important, and people feel a lot more empowered,” Troncale said. “If we only had (letters to the editor), which we did for a long time, that’s a pretty small club. Anybody is welcome to write but realistically, the chances of being published were not great.”

The comments on NOLA.com, too, are edited. Troncale said hate speech and direct attacks on persons are monitored.

Troncale says because of comments people write on articles, there is an opinionated reaction to everything the publication posts.

“Whereas with comments, it’s unlimited. People within the comments can have a conversation,” Troncale said. “It’s an interesting thing to realize that opinions don’t have to fall under one umbrella anymore, which is good. People love to express their opinions. Love it.”

Over a year after Landrieu’s announcement of a plan to remove the monuments, the statues still stand, and people still protest on both sides. Landrieu asked the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for at least 24 hours of warning before it released its decision regarding the removal of three Confederate memorial statues that New Orleans city council passed in Dec. 2015.

Troncale said this is an issue that people care about deeply and NOLA.com will continue trying to represent all sides.

“I can’t say we’re perfect at all, but we do try.”

Video: Clara Turnage
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