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From AJR,   April/May 2013  issue

Back to Work   

Peter Kovacs, who lost his managing editor position when New Orleans’ Times-Picayune abandoned daily publishing, takes the helm as editor of the Advocate in Baton Rouge. He talks about plans to augment the paper’s New Orleans presence and beef up its enterprise reporting.Thu., May 2, 2013.


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

It's been nearly a year since Peter Kovacs unceremoniously lost his job as a managing editor at New Orleans' Times-Picayune, but the veteran journalist has hardly wasted the time.

Kovacs says he spent it "fishing and golfing and looking for a job. And I have a great suntan to prove it."

But the fishing and the golfing will have to take a backseat as Kovacs goes back to work as editor of the Advocate in Baton Rouge, 80 miles northwest of the Crescent City.

"I love the newspaper business, and I wanted to get back in it," says Kovacs, 57. "This is a great opportunity.

The Advocate declared war on Kovacs' former employer by setting up a New Orleans bureau and launching a New Orleans edition last October 1. The move came after the Times-Picayune, owned by Advance Publications, adopted a digital-first strategy last May and dialed print publication back to three days a week. The paper laid off a third of its staff, and Kovacs and fellow Managing Editor Dan Shea were among the casualties.

Kovacs and Shea, the Advocate's new chief operating officer and general manager, were picked to run the paper by wealthy New Orleans businessman John Georges, who on Tuesday purchased it from the Manship family.

Georges, Shea and Kovacs met the Advocate staff on Wednesday. When he got to work Thursday, Kovacs realized he didn't know what floor he was supposed to go to.

In a telephone interview Thursday, Kovacs talked about the Advocate's plans to strengthen its New Orleans presence, beef up its enterprise reporting and cover two totally different cities.

"Growing New Orleans is part of the plan," Kovacs says. "We are going to increase the reporting staff in New Orleans."

The paper now has 10 fulltime people in New Orleans, three of them sales staffers. Kovacs says the increase in manpower will be "substantial, but it's too soon to say who and how many." The 98,000-circulation paper has about 120 editorial staffers.

When he met with his new staff Wednesday, Georges talked of the possibility of selling twice as many papers as the roughly 20,000 it sells there now. To do that requires a more distinct product.

"We need the New Orleans edition to be more New Orleanian," Kovacs says, then raises the stakes. "It shouldn't be an edition. It should be a separate newspaper. People in New Orleans don't want to think of them self as subsidiary."

Ricky Mathews, president of NOLA Media Group, which includes the Times-Picayune and the company's Web site (NOLA.com), has said of the Advocate's assault on New Orleans: "We welcome the competition."

Jerry Ceppos, dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, warns that the Advocate must avoid the trap of getting so wrapped up in its New Orleans invasion that it neglects its home market. He says it's very difficult for newspapers to cross county (or parish) lines, and remembers the difficulties the San Jose Mercury News encountered when it launched a San Francisco incursion.

Shea has vowed that the paper will not allow its New Orleans efforts to dilute its coverage of Baton Rouge. And Kovacs cites a couple of factors that should make things easier in southern Louisiana. He applies the analogy of an automaker using the same chassis to build both a pickup truck and an SUV. In this case, the chassis includes two major overlapping coverage areas: state government — the Advocate is located in Louisiana's capital — and sports. People in the two cities root for the same teams.

He acknowledges it's a "tough lift" to break into someone else's market. But, he adds, digital revolution or no digital revolution, "We believe that Louisiana is a traditional state, and people want a daily newspaper. We're the only people in the market providing a daily, home-delivered, local paper."

New Orleans is less connected to the Internet than many other cities, and local residents were outraged by the Times-Picayune's decision to end daily publication. This week the paper announced that it will begin putting out a tabloid called TPStreet for newsstand sales on three of the days it doesn't publish, but it won't be home delivered.

The Times-Picayune in recent years has been distinguished by strong enterprise reporting, time-consuming pieces that dig beneath the surface. Kovacs makes clear that he wants to bring that approach to the Advocate.

"We plan to beef up enterprise reporting," he says. "To succeed in this day and age, a daily newspaper needs content that people can't get anywhere else."

Losing his job at the Times-Picayune was a blow for Kovacs, who had spent 29 years at the paper. But this week brought a happy ending to the saga.

"I'm excited about this," he says. "For me personally, it's about as good an outcome as I could have hoped for."