Death of the New Orleans paper war
The day of the New Orleans Saints’ home opener in 2013, fans arrived at the Superdome to find a special edition of The Advocate draped over every seat.
The newspaper’s main story was about Saints safety and cult hero Steve Gleason, who has motor neuron disease.
If local folks didn’t know much before about the paper — based in Baton Rouge, some 80 miles north-west of New Orleans — they certainly did now.
“We were very aggressive,” Advocate top editor Peter Kovacs recalled.
That approach, both in business and in journalism, has paid off for the once-sleepy Advocate, which woke up and started punching well above its weight with its New Orleans edition.
Now, it is all coming to fruition.
Last month, The Advocate won its first Pulitzer Prize for an investigative series on the Louisiana jury system, which allowed criminal convictions without a unanimous verdict, disadvantaging African-American defendants. (Since the series ran, the law has been repealed.)
And even more stunning, The Advocate’s local owners last week bought the New Orleans Times-Picayune, a storied, 182-year-old paper that once employed William Faulkner and whose powerhouse staff heroically published through Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and its devastating aftermath, despite being evacuated from their headquarters.
The Advocate’s purchase included the dominant news website in Louisiana: NOLA.com. What it didn’t include was The Times-Picayune’s 161-member staff, including about 65 journalists.
Like most other regional newspapers, The Times-Picayune has suffered the precipitous loss of print advertising, its main source of revenue. And it has seen steep circulation declines from a height of 270,000 papers sold daily in the pre-Katrina days.
But its owners, the Newhouse family’s newspaper group, Advance Local, made the situation even worse in 2012. Apparently believing that an abrupt digital-first strategy was wise, they decided to deliver the print paper to subscribers’ homes only three days a week.
To put it mildly, it didn’t work. Then came round after round of layoffs, as a talented newsroom staff of about 250 was eventually slashed to about one third of that.
The paper “whittled itself away limb by limb”, said Bruce Nolan, who worked at The Times-Picayune for 41 years before being laid off in 2012 and who helped in the Katrina coverage that would earn the paper two Pulitzer Prizes in 2006.
The layoffs, Nolan told me, amounted to “a bloody self-lobotomy”, because of the loss of institutional memory and of the staff’s deep contacts in its quirky, world-renowned, bacchanalian city.
But it was the decision to deliver the paper only three days a week that may have dealt the death blow.
“I’ve always felt that the strategy of hodgepodge publishing has the stench of decline,” said David Boardman, dean of the Temple University media school and the former executive editor of The Seattle Times. (He told me that he was speaking generally and was not familiar with specifics of the New Orleans situation.)
The tight bond that the paper, led by now-retired editor Jim Amoss, forged with the community during the Katrina disaster was broken.
Residents protested and many cancelled their subscriptions. Eventually, the paper backed down and offered a street edition for the non-delivery days.
The plan was to emphasise the digital and to phase out print, but New Orleans was the wrong place to do it — it is a poor city with traditional habits and a low percentage of people online.
“It never worked. It was New Coke. It was an airplane with its wings put on backwards,” Nolan said. The plane was nose-diving — “and you could see them throwing luggage overboard”.
Meanwhile, The Advocate had snapped up plenty of The Times-Picayune’s talent for its New Orleans edition. That included Kovacs, a 29-year veteran of The Times-Picayune who was laid off in 2012 — and another laid-off top editor, Dan Shea, who is now The Advocate’s publisher.
“The DNA of The Times-Picayune went over to The Advocate and they began to do journalism,” Nolan said.
The Advocate will, at first, continue to use The Times-Picayune’s name as part of its front-page flag. It’s not clear how long that will last, but for now, Kovacs is emphasising the connection.
“Our aim is to restore The Times-Picayune to daily delivery and to restore it to its greatness,” Kovacs told me.
His words are heartening, although undoubtedly small comfort to the 161 staff members who are losing their jobs and mourning the loss of their once-great paper.
The Advocate, owned by John and Dathel Georges, local business people and philanthropists, intends to hire some of them. But Kovacs couldn’t say how many.
One young Times-Picayune editor and columnist, Haley Correll, was among the staffers who won a national award recently for a project about the long-term effects of trauma, violence and poverty on New Orleans children.
Her tweet was poignant: “Last night, I stood in Pulitzer Hall at Columbia and accepted The Dart Award. Today, I ugly cried on an airplane as I heard @NOLAnews was bought and we’re all losing our jobs in 60 days. The whole newsroom.”
You cannot deny the pain and loss. “This is just hard to see; it hurts a lot,” Nolan said about The Times-Picayune’s demise.
At the same time, he has to give credit to The Advocate for “the triumph of the values, at least temporarily, of those who believe in old-fashioned, high-quality journalism”, not what he called the “ADHD journalism” of the clickbait era.
In the troubled annals of local journalism, encouraging outcomes are few and far between.
This one, at least, can be described as bittersweet.
• Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was The New York Times’s public editor, and the chief editor of The Buffalo News, her home-town paper