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From AJR,   August/September 2012  issue

Plunging into a New Market   

How the Advocate is going after readers and advertisers in New Orleans. Weds.,Oct 24, 2012.

By Maddy Roth
AJR editorial assistant Maddy Roth (mroth@ajr.umd.edu) is a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

"WE'RE HERE!" read the Advocate's October 1 headline on the first issue of its new New Orleans edition. The Baton Rouge-based paper entered the Crescent City market the same day the Times-Picayune, a 175-year old, Pulitzer prize-winning staple, reduced its daily print production to three times a week.

For many readers in a city that was at risk of becoming the largest in the nation without a daily newspaper, the Advocate's arrival was met with great relief and an encouraging subscription response.

"When we first started, our projected goal was 10,000 home subscribers in six months," says Advocate Publisher David Manship. "And after six days we had 10,000 home subscribers."

That number has now increased to just under 13,000, says Dean Blanchard, the Advocate's circulation director and that's not including the over 7,500 average daily single copy sales.

The family-owned paper has tapped past Times-Picayune employees for its New Orleans staff. The bureau is led by Sara Pagones, who worked as an editorial writer for the Times-Picayune for 18 years and served as a community reporter before that. The staff also includes onetime Times-Picayune reporters Danny Monteverde, Kari Dequine Harden and Allen J. Powell II and sportswriter Ted Lewis; photojournalist John McCusker; and advertising sales representative Sara Barnard. Manship eventually wants to hire one or two more reporters, but for now will depend on stringers to help fill out the New Orleans report.

Pagones, who started working for the Advocate on September 7, three days after her last day at the Times-Picayune, says the diminutive staff is doing its best to reflect the full flavor of the iconic city it is covering. "We're trying to figure out what the most important stories are each day, what the people care about..that's how we go about it every day."

She understands the challenges of competing with limited resources but hopes that as the number of subscribers and advertisers grows, the bureau can expand. "Everybody wants everything right now, and the hardest thing to do is to ask people to be patient, but I think people can see we can do a lot in a little bit," Pagones says.

"When people call and say what they don't like, I try to get something more specific from them," Pagones adds. "Part of this job is really going to be listening to people: what they're not getting, what they would like more of... Readers have felt disrespected [by Times-Picayune's decision to cut back its publication schedule], and that's a shame, and they need to be listened to."

This "disrespect" Pagones speaks of is a sentiment expressed by many in the city. When the Times-Picayune's owner, Newhouse's Advance Publications, and its new subsidiary, NOLA Media Group, announced that they were shifting to a digital focus for the future and laying off 200 employees, New Orleans print readers pleaded with them to reverse the decision.

Steven Newhouse, chairman of Advance.net, the company's digital division, said this summer that readers had every reason to be upset and angry, but that "left unsaid is that we would not be able to produce a seven-day-a-week newspaper" given the newspaper business climate. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the Times-Picayune's daily print circulation decreased to 134,000 last March from nearly 142, 000 the year before.

Errol Laborde, editor of New Orleans Magazine, says that the New Jersey-based Newhouse family has insulted a city that has more pride than most. And because New Orleanians are "really angry" with the Times-Picayune over how it handled the paper's transition, some are switching over to the Advocate in what many are calling an old-fashioned newspaper war.

The Advocate began free distribution of its New Orleans edition in the weeks prior to its home delivery debut October 1. Peter Mayer Advertising, which represents the Advocate, assembled street teams who handed out the free papers throughout the city, planting editions in convenience stores, drugstores and newsstands, says Katherine Leblanc, an account representative at the advertising firm.

On September 24, the agency threw a launch party at the legendary Rock 'n' Bowl, a music venue cum bowling alley, where papers were stacked on tables with stickers reading "Enjoy Today's Paper on Us!" as Manship introduced the new New Orleans staff to a crowd of local residents and community leaders.

For some, the duel between the Advocate and the Times-Picayune comes down to the papers' owners. Manship, whose family has owned and published the Advocate since 1909, is someone locals can relate to. Baton Rouge is about 80 miles northwest of New Orleans. "Here's a guy who's from here and personable; he can come into town and rally support," Laborde says. "Whereas the Newhouses are over in New Jersey, isolated from it all."

"We had people honking and waving at us when we took one of our trucks down there," Manship says. "We really got great support from the business community. They were really encouraging us, sending out letters to encourage people to buy it."

Manship says that many in New Orleans didn't know the Times-Picayune was owned by New Jersey-based Advance, believing that the paper was locally owned. If the Times-Picayune had continued publishing seven days a week, it wouldn't have mattered where the Newhouses lived. "But when the Times-Picayune made the decision [to move to three days a week]..it really stunned" readers, Manship says. "That's when I think the fact that I'm local did make an impact."

Ricky Mathews, president of NOLA Media Group, has said that he and the company "welcome the competition."

The Advocate's New Orleans incursion hasn't been without bumps. It moved quickly to launch the new edition, and the result was some delivery and call center problems, Manship says.

The Advocate team, which began using a new circulation software system, wasn't prepared to set up a delivery structure in the New Orleans metro area. The main problem lay in the fact that many carriers didn't know where to deliver the papers; a problem which was exacerbated by the large turnover in the carrier force.

The team also fielded a large number of calls anywhere from 400 to 600 a day from New Orleans area residents during the first week of home delivery.

"We had to outsource our phone system," Manship says. "We hired a call center to handle all the calls we were getting, both for new subscriptions and ones that already subscribed and were waiting for their papers."

But circulation chief Blanchard says the Advocate has recovered from its rocky start. "For the first time yesterday, we had every carrier..deliver the route they were supposed to deliver," he said on October 18. "We're certainly improving on delivery and time of delivery."

The Advocate has taken advantage of Facebook and Twitter in its efforts to forge relationships with its new audience. "Social media has proven to be a great tool in responding to customer complaints and service issues," Leblanc says. "It's a good way for the Advocate to maintain communication with subscribers."

Once the kinks get worked out, can the Advocate succeed in a new market at a time when newspapers across the country are shedding ad revenue as advertisers, like readers, turn to the digital world which is precisely where the Times-Picayune is focusing?

Those loyal to a printed product certainly hope so, and there are many of them in New Orleans, which is far less wired than many metro areas. "All their lives, people are used to getting up in the morning and reading the daily paper, and they are finding that they miss it and need a daily," Laborde says. "I think they know that [the Advocate] is not going to be the same as the Times-Picayune. What they are is the New Orleans edition of The Advocate."

The new Advocate edition features New Orleans news on the front page as well as on the front of the South Louisiana/Business section. In addition, the Advocate's Web site includes a special page for New Orleans news. The Advocate also boasts smartphone and e-tablet apps, as well as an e-edition, which all feature the additional New Orleans coverage.

Although 95 percent of the content in the New Orleans edition is also in the Baton Rouge edition, stories that are central to New Orleans are reworked and displayed more prominently in the paper. A flip through two editions shows local stories on the city council race, water safety issues, sinkholes and the Big Easy's beloved Saints. Pagones notes that some stories are relevant to both markets, such as an October 14 piece about Baton Rouge businessmen who want to buy Denver-based Frontier Airlines and move its operations to New Orleans.

Pagones says that if people are looking for a daily paper, their expectations of the Advocate's arrival will certainly be met. But "whether they're going to have everything they want, every day, as far as every single paper," perhaps not the Advocate's not going to be exclusively New Orleans-centric all the time. "The newspaper has to follow the city, state, neighborhood, country, the world," Pagones says. "People who want to be well informed..they will be enlightened by it."

"People in New Orleans care about national news," Manship says. "I think the issues that would be big statewide or national would be the same in both issues."

The Advocate, which has long focused on state government, will expose New Orleanians to state and political news they may not have otherwise seen or heard, Laborde says. "It could sociologically be good for the state; people are reading and learning more about each other."

Kevin Allman, editor of the New Orleans alternative weekly the Gambit, thinks the Advocate will "make it" in the New Orleans market because it has hired well-known reporters and utilized its resources well. Still, he says, "they've got a way to go. They don't have a local op-ed page, they don't have a local arts section, and those are two things that are really important to Times-Picayune readers."

Manship realizes how vital arts and entertainment are in New Orleans, and he'd like to expand the Advocate's coverage. "We're in touch with people who worked at the Times-Picayune, people that covered the arts and the social scene," Manship says. Signing up high-profile people who were once at the Times-Picayune, such as columnist Stephanie Grace, would be a great move for the Advocate, Laborde says.

No matter what New Orleanians hope for in its new paper, it's clear that the success of the Advocate's New Orleans invasion lies in its ability to attract advertisers.

The sales team has picked up ads from some local New Orleans businesses, including real estate agencies, a couple of hospitals, health and human services organizations and automobile dealerships. Sara Barnard, the Advocate's advertising manager, says the team is "aggressively meeting with local businesses." She says most New Orleans advertisers will want their ads to appear in all editions of the Advocate, while some smaller ones will opt for the New Orleans edition only. There are currently special introductory October rates for advertisements in the New Orleans edition.

Manship thinks the paper will at least break even on its New Orleans foray. "The trick is if we keep them reading it, if they decide they enjoy the New Orleans edition and the numbers don't fall, I think we'll be OK," Manship says. "I think we'll reach a number, and have actually reached a number already, that advertisers will find beneficial."

Says Laborde, "It's always wait and see. The big businesses in Baton Rouge as well as in New Orleans..they need those people..and I think people will respond."