The Advocate vs. the Times-Picayune

A New Orleans businessman fires up the newspaper war with the Newhouses

The Louisiana newspaper war just got a lot more interesting.

It’s been a poorly kept secret in New Orleans media circles that the Baton Rouge Advocate’s owner-to-be, businessman John Georges, was in discussions with Dan Shea and Peter Kovacs to run the paper for him. Shea and Kovacs are the respected former Times-Picayune managing editors memorably frozen out when Advance Publications rolled out its plan to sack half the paper’s staff, move to a three-day publication schedule, and go all in on clicks with its free website Seeing a market opportunity, The Advocate launched a daily New Orleans edition in September to fill the void.

So it’s surely no coincidence that earlier in the day, NOLA Media Group/Times-Picayune/ announced that it would return to quasi-daily publication with a new tabloid paper on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays—the days it no longer prints the Picayune. It’s a measure of the rolling disaster that is Advance Publications’s strategy in New Orleans that its announcement of a return to print—one of the primary reader outrages, along with its seriously reduced newsroom— was greeted with such widespread derision.

Gambit’s Kevin Allman just filets NOLA Media Group in his blog post on the news:

The digitally-focused NOLA Media Group, which cut back print publication of The Times-Picayune to three days a week last year, continued to innovate today by announcing a new plan to print on the days it doesn’t produce a print product, bringing the company up to 7-day-a-week publication, according to an announcement by NOLA Media Group Vice President of Content Jim Amoss.

The report, which is not from The Onion, says the new product, to be called “TPStreet,” will launch this summer in newsboxes around the city and cost 75 cents, just like the daily paper, which it will not be, because it is more innovative than that…

The innovative publication is in response to “a repeated request” from home-delivery subscribers to get a delivered daily paper, but it will not be home delivered, Mathews said:

No mention by Mathews of his market competition, and how it was about to get more serious.

The Advocate’s then-owner David Manship told me in December that the paper already had picked up a circulation of 23,500 in New Orleans. But the new New Orleans bureau lacked the resources to truly compete with the Picayune.

Will The Advocate compete head on with the Picayune? Dan Shea tells me that’s the intention. “We’re going to staff it up to the point where we’re producing a truly local newspaper,” he says.

“They’ve done a great job. David Manship should be lauded and Sarah (Pagones) and all of our colleagues in the bureau. We’re going to provide the resources.”

It will take a lot of investment by Georges to make a true run at the Picayune, which despite its enervation, still has a newsroom of roughly 130. But it throws another roadblock up for what I’ve argued is the Newhouses’ liquidation strategy in New Orleans, and the family has already squandered much of the enormous goodwill the Picayune had in New Orleans with their actions over the last year. The Advocate has a big built-in advantage in state politics and in LSU sports. It will also not have a hard time poaching talent from the Picayune and its layoff pool.

The backdrop to all this is the dismal state of the newspaper industry. We’re all for healthy competition, particularly when it means more journalists on the streets and in the newsrooms. But a war of attrition that bleeds both owners would be the worst case scenario for New Orleans, a city that needs good journalism as much as any in the country. The Newhouses have the deeper pockets, but it’s unclear how much they’ll be willing to spend to protect their declining asset and to send a warning shot to competitors elsewhere.

Launching its new tabloid, and its launching of a Baton Rouge edition of the Picayune last year in response to The Advocate’s encroachment, signals that it will not go quietly. But it also raises questions anew about why Advance killed the daily Times-Picayune while continuing to print (though not deliver) daily elsewhere.

In Syracuse, and in most of its former Booth Newspapers markets in Michigan where Advance has gone to the three-day model, it still prints on the other four days, even if those papers are skimpy newsstand-only affairs.

And when I say skimpy, I’m being generous.

Take Monday’s Syracuse Post-Standard. It clocked in at 16 pages and had no original content on page one. At the top of the newshole on the left side of page one is an AP story the paper headlines “President jokes about aging and cute bangs.” On the right is an AP brief on a stabbing in Albuquerque, 2000 miles away, in which no one was killed.

Sandwiched in the middle, with dominant art and an awkward headline: a story on New York pensions that the AP put out early on Saturday. The entire paper had about 2,300 words of original content, including briefs. It had zero ads—literally none, besides classifieds and a couple of obits. It ran more editorial copy (ADDING: to clarify, on the editorial page) from The Oklahoman (320 words), of all papers, than it did from Syracuse (0 words).

Even by the immiserated standards of Monday newspapers, that’s pathetic.

Then again, barely anyone’s reading it. The Post-Standard’s publisher said a couple of months ago that its four non-delivery days a week would have a 12,000-copy press run—about one-sixth of its former daily circulation.

If TPStreet resembles the Post-Standard’s off-day output, it will be a serious disappointment.

NOLA’s hamhanded PR not going to win back the trust of Picayune readers who have been so badly burned in the last year. The company controls one of the great brand names in American journalism in the Times-Picayune, and it goes and names something TPStreet.

I’m not sure to attribute this quote from the NOLA Media Group press release to chutzpah or to a painful lack of self-awareness:

“We are excited about this opportunity to extend our daily reach in print,” said Vice President of Advertising Kelly Rose.

And the paper’s publisher couldn’t quite get his story straight with The Wall Street Journal:

Ricky Mathews, president of NOLA, said TPStreet wasn’t an attempt to backtrack on last year’s cutback. “Seven days a week wasn’t viable long-term,” he said, but added “we see this as recognizing that we didn’t have all the answers” last year.

One thing you don’t see anywhere in the Media Group/Times-Picayune/TPStreet press release: Any word on whether it will hire more journalists to put the thing out.

Georges’ hiring of Shea and Kovacs signals that The Advocate’s going to be putting up some want ads in New Orleans.

Further reading:

The battle of New Orleans. Is Advance Publications securing the future of local news—or needlessly sacrificing it?

The Louisiana newspaper war. The Advocate picks up 23,500 readers in less than three months in New Orleans

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,