When the Times-Picayune announced in May that it was going to embrace a digital-first approach and scale back its print publication schedule to three days a week, making New Orleans the largest city in the nation without a daily newspaper, executives at the Advocate in nearby Baton Rouge saw an irresistible opportunity.
"We received so many inquiries and calls from New Orleans residents about the possibility of expanding our paper, and that's really what started it," Advocate Publisher David Manship says.
The calls came after New Orleanians, reluctant to accept the decision made by the Times-Picayune, erupted in outrage. The paper has been a vital lifeline as the battered city struggles to rebound from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Residents staged vocal protests and urged the Newhouse family's Advance Publications, which owns the paper, to reverse its decision or sell the Times-Picayune to someone who would.
Enter the Advocate. Beginning October 1 – the day Times-Picayune's three-times-a-week plan goes into effect – the Baton Rouge paper will begin distributing a daily New Orleans edition.
"At first we were only going to do single sales, but we got so many calls from New Orleanians that we decided to expand into home delivery," Manship says.
Why is the Advocate expanding at a time when print advertising revenue continues to plummet?
The Advocate has "been hit by the recession too – it's not like they haven't felt the same impact – but they are committed to a daily paper," says Katherine LeBlanc, a senior account executive from Peter Mayer Advertising who is representing the paper. "Now that New Orleans doesn't have that need fulfilled, they're ready to take the reins."
Reins that will be held by an eight-person staff in a small New Orleans office. The staff for the paper's new edition will consist of a bureau chief, three full-time news reporters, a sportswriter, a photographer and two sales representatives. The sportswriter will cover New Orleans' major sports franchises, and collegiate sports will be spotlighted in in-depth feature stories.
The paper is still assembling its New Orleans team, but it already has added three Times-Picayune alums to the roster. Sara Pagones, a veteran Times-Picayune reporter, will head the bureau. Kari Dequine Harden, one of the newly hired reporters, attracted national attention in August when she penned a resignation letter to Steven Newhouse, chairman of the digital division of Advance Publications, saying, "you have betrayed my most esteemed colleagues, my city, my belief in journalism, and my belief in people." Danny Monteverde, the third hire, is an award-winning journalist who was among the 200 staffers laid off when the Times-Picayune announced its reorganization plan.
New Orleans residents and media watchers alike are excited to see how the Advocate expansion plays out. Jerry Ceppos, dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, is delighted that the Advocate will bring new competition to New Orleans. Still, he believes the paper's New Orleans invasion will faces challenges.
Ceppos recalls the difficulties encountered by the San Jose Mercury News, where he once served as executive editor, when it tried expanding into San Francisco. "The California lines were really an imposing barrier," Ceppos says. Like San Jose and San Francisco, Baton Rouge and New Orleans are just "two very different markets."
Ceppos offers two ways for the Advocate to successfully cover news in New Orleans. The small staff can either "do the [major news] story and do it well, or do the story that nobody has."
He adds, "It calls for some real strategic decision making, because they're certainly not going to be able to cover everything."
As for the Times-Picayune, its reaction to its new rival is essentially, bring it on. "We publish an outstanding, award-winning newspaper and our website NOLA.com is the #1 news site in the state," Ricky Mathews, president of NOLA Media Group, which includes the paper and the Web site, wrote in an e-mail to AJR. "We welcome the competition."
The Advocate's New Orleans edition will feature Crescent City news on the front page and the first page of the B section. But it will not be completely different from the Baton Rouge version – Baton Rouge and New Orleans, after all, are just 80 miles apart. "We cover South Louisiana, we have great sports coverage, state government coverage, and obviously we cover the nation," Manship says. "We will continue to do that, and we will put more emphasis on New Orleans."
At the same time, Manship recognizes that the Advocate won't be able to cover everything the Times-Picayune does; even with the recent layoffs, the hometown paper's staff dwarfs the upstart's New Orleans presence. For example, New Orleans has a vibrant arts community, and the Advocate won't be able to cover arts to the extent that the Times-Picayune does.
The Advocate currently runs a Sunday arts magazine and plans to include additional coverage of the New Orleans arts scene. "Whether or not we will be able to increase that coverage, if the New Orleans edition really takes off and subscribers and advertisers get on board, that [amount of arts coverage] can change," Manship says.
The paper has already received nearly 1,000 subscription orders. According to LeBlanc, the initial goal is 10, 000.
"There is a risk. We all know that subscriptions don't pay for it all; the advertisers are the ones who really make it happen. It's a chance we have to take," Manship says. But he says the paper has gotten a good response from big advertisers such as Macy's, Sears and JCPenney, who have stores in both the Baton Rouge and New Orleans markets.
On September 21, the Advocate will launch a New Orleans-flavored Web page. Free papers will be available on New Orleans news racks from September 24 through September 30 at 400 locations. Throughout the week of October 1, six teams composed of four people each will hand out free copies of the New Orleans edition. "We're going to throw them in driveways, stand on street corners, put them in coffee shops," Manship says.
Home delivery to 35 zip codes in the New Orleans region also begins October 1.
"We are committed to bringing a paper every day, and we think it will be a quality paper that they will enjoy," Manship says. "What we believe in is a printed product. We understand a need for digital, and we presently have an iPad app, a Web site, for our new edition. But we still believe that the basis of the newspaper industry is the printed product."
The Advocate, which was first published in 1842, has been owned by Baton Rouge's Manship family since 1925. Its circulation is 79,238 on weekdays and 103,227 Sunday. The Manships also own WBRZ-TV, Baton Rouge's ABC television affiliate.
If the Advocate aims to satisfy New Orleans' hunger for a print product, other local news organizations are looking to strengthen the city's digital news menu.
Four online New Orleans newsrooms have joined forces to form the New Orleans Digital News Alliance. They will promote each other's work and cooperate in other ways. And the University of New Orleans and its NPR affiliate, WWNO-FM, have announced plans to launch NewOrleansReporter.org as a nonprofit, multimedia news site by the end of the year.
But New Orleans lags behind the national average when it comes to high-speed Internet access at home. Manship wants print fans to check out his new venture.
"I would ask readers to give us a chance, look us over," Manship says. "I think they'll like what they see."