BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The new owner of Baton Rouge's daily newspaper vowed Wednesday to keep publishing daily and to beef up coverage in New Orleans — escalating competition with The Times-Picayune, which angered some readers and community leaders last fall when it pared print editions to three days a week.
New Orleans businessman John Georges held a news conference in Baton Rouge on Wednesday, a day after his purchase of The Advocate from the Manship family was completed. It was also a day after The Times-Picayune announced a return to seven-day-a-week publishing with a tabloid edition to be available at stores and newsstands on days when the full paper isn't printed.
Gov. Bobby Jindal, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Baton Rouge mayor Kip Holden and members of the Manship family also attended, along with two former Times-Picayune editors who will hold key posts at The Advocate.
The Times-Picayune was never mentioned by name. However, the decision of its parent company, privately held Advance Publications Inc., to reduce publication to three-days a week was alluded to by speakers who praised continued local ownership for the Advocate and George's commitment to daily publishing.
"John believes in Louisiana and knows the Advocate can fuel its growth, not a three-day-a-week paper, but a seven-day-a-week paper," said Richard Manship, president of the family publishing company.
"I agree, it's hard to know how we're going to get our news going forward, but the print media is still alive and well and the morning Advocate has indicated a willingness to continue for a very long time," Landrieu said.
The shake-up on the New Orleans media scene began last June when Advance and a new subsidiary, Nola Media Group, announced the paper would lay off 200 employees and shift its focus to the free nola.com site. Advance has pursued similar three-times-a-week strategies — printing Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays — with several other newspapers in the chain.
The decision met with harsh protests in New Orleans. The Manships responded by opening a small New Orleans bureau with about a half-dozen people while pushing home subscriptions for a new New Orleans edition. The Advocate says the New Orleans area accounts for about a fifth of its weekday circulation of 98,000.
"As far as we're concerned the best thing that we can continue to do is serve the readers and serve our advertisers," Times-Picayune publisher Ricky Mathews said Wednesday when asked about competition from The Advocate. "And, so far, that has been a very successful journey for us."
Mathews said the plan to launch a new tabloid edition and, an accompanying e-edition, arose from feedback from readers who wanted a "front-to-back experience" with the newspaper.
"We have an extraordinarily well thought out plan. And we're executing on that plan," Mathews said. "But it doesn't mean that we aren't going to still be nimble and listen to the market and make changes along the way."
At a time when newspapers are in decline, Georges' vocal commitment to print and the Times-Picayune's tabloid announcement are reminiscent of the days when papers were profitable and competition was fierce, said Michael Giusti, a journalism professor at Loyola University. "Watching two newspapers go toe-to-toe is exciting in this decade," he said.
Still, The Advocate's ability to more fully compete in the New Orleans market remains an open question. Much will depend on how much Georges and his team invest in expanded coverage, Giusti said. He noted that The Times-Picayune and nola.com maintain a much larger staff, even after last year's layoffs. Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss said there are more than 150 employees still involved in newsgathering, photography, video, graphics and other aspects of news content.
"The truth is we have far more stories and content than can fit into any conceivable newspaper print budget, of any newspaper, of any size," Amoss said.
The newly announced New Orleans tabloid, TPStreet, will sell for 75 cents on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. It won't' be available for home delivery, like the full Wednesday, Friday and Sunday editions. (There is also a full early Sunday edition that is sold on Saturday afternoons.) The new electronic versions of the tabloids and full papers will be available to subscribers.
"Competition is good and it's kind of exciting to watch this," Giusti said. "My guess is that the Times-Picayune is really entrenched and he (Georges) has got an uphill battle to wage."
Georges said he is deferring editorial decisions, including expanding news coverage, to General Manager Dan Shea and Editor Peter Kovacs, both former long-time editors at The Times-Picayune who were laid off amid last year's changes.
All three said Wednesday that Baton Rouge will continue to be a focus and a priority for the paper, even as they look to expand coverage in the New Orleans area.