The Baton Rouge Advocate is making a run at a weakened Times-Picayune in New Orleans.

The paper, which started a daily New Orleans edition in October as the Newhouse family slashed the Times-Pic’s newsroom and went to a three-day-a-week paper, has already picked up a circulation of 23,500, publisher David Manship told me yesterday. About 16,000 of those are daily subscribers. Both are strong numbers for such a young paper, and it’s hard to imagine that many or most of them aren’t coming at the expense of the Times-Picayune.

But the Times-Picayune says its circulation has actually increased since it went down to three papers a week. That’s likely because seven days of newsstand sales have been compressed into three—not because subscriptions are up. The company also has continued to deliver newspapers to readers who canceled their subscriptions months ago.

While The Advocate’s average circulation is still less than a fifth of the T-P’s, remember that the latter is only putting out three papers a week (and sometimes a Monday sports tab). So the Times-Picayune is putting out roughly 400,000 copies total per week (not including Saints tabs), while the New Orleans The Advocate is putting out 165,000. Which means The Advocate is selling roughly 40 percent of the total copies that the Times-Picayune is.

That’s not bad at all, particularly since The Advocate’s New Orleans edition is less than three months old, it was conceived just two months before that, and it has a very small staff of Times-Picayune ex-pats trying to compete with a much larger newsroom.

“We haven’t even had time to figure out what it’s costing us to be in New Orleans yet,” Manship says. “We didn’t have a budget. We just grabbed some money from other areas and said, ‘Let’s do this.’”

The Advocate’s early success in New Orleans also comes despite serious logistical problems with delivery and customer service in its first few weeks. “We didn’t expect the response to be as great as it was,” Manship says. “It almost killed us. We weren’t ready for it.”

The big question for whether The Advocate has a long-term future in New Orleans—much less whether it poses a threat to the Times-Picayune— is whether advertisers will follow readers.

When I was in New Orleans a couple of weeks ago, The Advocate had very little local advertising. Manship pins that on starting up toward the end of the year when advertising budgets were already fixed. Still, he says, the paper got its first New Orleans car-dealership ads this month, along with a few obits and classifieds.

I also wonder whether The Advocate will be able to maintain its momentum for much longer. The Times-Picayune is still a much better newspaper on the days it prints than The Advocate is. To truly compete long-term, the Baton Rouge paper will have to beef up its New Orleans newsroom considerably. That will take a lot of new readers and new advertisers.

Manship is fighting a newspaper war with a deep-pocketed media conglomerate. The Times-Picayune announced a Baton Rouge edition eight weeks after The Advocate’s New Orleans announcement (something publisher Ricky Mathews actually said was planned all along. I have requests for an interview out to Mathews, who has not answered them).

I asked Manship if he’s worried about the Baton Rouge Times-Picayune. “From the standpoint of taking one of my seven-day subscribers and making them a three-day subscriber, I don’t think that’s going to happen,” he says.

And print, with all its woes, is still where almost all of the money is.

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

 

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 rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.