The Advocate raids the Picayune

Major defections from the New Orleans paper intensify a newspaper war

I wrote this last week about the South Louisiana newspaper war: “It will also not have a hard time poaching talent from the Picayune and its layoff pool.”

“It,” being The Advocate, the Baton Rouge-based daily that is walking through the door opened by the Times-Picayune’s retreat in its own hometown.

The exodus has already begun—in a big way.

The Advocate announced today that it has picked up highly regarded Times-Picayune news editor Martha Carr and investigation editor Gordon Russell, who will become New Orleans managing editor and investigations managing editor, respectively. The Advocate also picked up two Picayune reporters.

And Dan Shea, the former Picayune co-managing editor, and the newly hired general manager of The Advocate, tells me more is coming. “If you ask me are we getting an outpouring from the Picayune, I feel like I’m in a lifeboat (pulling up to) the Titanic,” he says. “Our problem now is we have more people trying to climb into the lifeboat than we possibly can accommodate. The calls and the résumés are just unbelievable.”

I don’t doubt it. That matches what I heard about reference requests and résumés when I reported my Battle of New Orleans piece from the March/April issue of CJR.

I talked briefly with Russell via phone as he headed up to Baton Rouge this afternoon. He will oversee investigations for the entire paper but will be based in New Orleans. “I don’t agree with the direction that the Picayune’s going in,” he says. “There’s an increasing emphasis on quantity over quality and speed and breaking news—but small news. I love breaking news as much as the next guy but it feels a little like being on a hamster wheel.”

“I love the Picayune. I’ve worked there almost 15 years. I feel like it’s in my blood and my DNA. There are a lot of terrific people who work there—terrific people and terrific journalists. That makes this a little bittersweet.”

The defections are another major blow to a Times-Picayune already reeling from a series of self-inflicted wounds over the past year.

Last May, Shea and co-managing editor Peter Kovacs were for weeks—very visibly—excluded from a series of top-secret meetings on Advance’s plan for the future of the paper. They were summarily let go in June, along with nearly half the Picayune’s journalists, some of whom were asked to reapply for new digitally-focused jobs at the new NOLA Media Group (the paper eventually ended up with a newsroom about 25 percent smaller after rehires and hires from outside the paper).

Advance and new publisher Ricky Mathews killed daily publication of the Picayune, an excellent paper with the highest penetration in the country in a tradition-loving city, and decided to stuff seven days of news into Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday editions (plus a Monday sports tabloid after Saints games launched after fans revolted). The company focused its “digital-first” newsroom on a clicks strategy for the paper’s website, widely regarded as substandard, and shifted diminished newsroom resources away from hard news and toward sports and entertainment. The paper’s longtime absentee owners, the Newhouse family, turned a deaf ear to demands from New Orleanians to at least consider local offers to buy the paper, telling The New York Times that “”We have no intention of selling no matter how much noise there is out there.”

I’ve argued that the Advance plan was effectively a liquidation of the paper that could make more money riding down declining revenues than through a sale.

The plan had a serious flaw, though. It didn’t take into account the possibility that someone else would come into New Orleans and compete—in print. But that’s exactly what happened. Baton Rouge’s David Manship, publisher of the state capital’s Advocate, sensed opportunity and launched a skeleton-staffed edition of the paper in New Orleans in September, days before the Picayune went to three days a week. The Advocate became the city’s only daily newspaper and picked up nearly 24,000 sales a day in three months despite the paper’s scrappy but barebones New Orleans coverage.

But to truly take on the Picayune, The Advocate needed far more resources than it could get from the Manships. Enter John Georges, the New Orleans businessman and former political candidate who was one of those who expressed interest in buying the Picayune last year.

The wealthy Georges has now instead bought The Advocate. He promptly hired Shea and Kovacs to run the paper and is pouring resources into New Orleans while promising to not subtract from Baton Rouge.

The Times-Picayune, preparing for battle, tried to step on The Advocate’s news by announcing it would return to quasi-daily publication with a newsstand-only tabloid called, unfortunately, TPStreet.

That’s not going to cut it now. It’s very clear from the caliber of his early hires that that Georges is investing serious resources into the New Orleans market.

Mark it down: The Newhouses will have to return the Picayune to daily delivery of a real newspaper if they want to head off Georges and The Advocate.

In an interview with me, Shea turned aside the idea that the turn of events felt like vindication after his treatment by the Picayune last year. “I truly believe what the Picayune did hurt the city of New Orleans and the surrounding area,” he says.” We are trying to fill that void because that’s what the people want there.”

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,