The Newhouses strike back

The Times-Picayune goes to war with the encroaching Baton Rouge Advocate

After Advance Publications announced it would gut the still-profitable New Orleans Times-Picayune’s newsroom and slash publication to three days a week, the Baton Rouge Advocate’s Manship family saw an opportunity.

The Advocate, which killed its New Orleans bureau a few years ago in cutbacks, said it would open a new bureau and print a New Orleans edition of the paper seven days a week. With so much local anger at Advance Publications for eviscerating a local institution, the Advocate’s move into New Orleans could be a threat to the Times-Picayune.

Well, the Newhouses aren’t taking it lying down. Advance announced yesterday that it’s opening up a Baton Rouge bureau and will launch a local edition there to compete with the Advocate. In other words: newspaper war.

While this is war, it’s worth pointing out that it’s between an empire in decline and a regional power that’s also seen better days. It’s unclear how much firepower the two sides can bring to bear on each other, though clearly Advance and its owners have far more money.

For the Advocate’s part, publisher David Manship said this in an open letter to New Orleans three weeks ago:

Changes in the way The Times-Picayune gathers and reports news have revealed that there is a demand for a daily newspaper in New Orleans that will not be met by any New Orleans publications, beginning October 1, 2012. This would end a 175-year tradition of delivering a daily newspaper to New Orleanians and make New Orleans the largest city in the U.S. without a daily printed paper. At The Advocate, we think New Orleans and its citizens deserve a quality newspaper printed each and every day, and we intend to provide one.

It’s unclear yet how many reporters the Advocate will put in New Orleans, which is ultimately what matters, though another Manship has said, “This has to have significant news in it…We will be trying to cover the news in New Orleans.” There’s a lot more upside for the Manships in New Orleans than there is for the Newhouses in Baton Rouge, which is a smaller market that doesn’t have a readership and advertiser base enraged at absentee owners—and still has a seven-day-a-week paper.

The Times-Pic or or whatever it’s called now, isn’t exactly flooding Baton Rouge with people. It says it will put sixteen people there, but that includes sales staff.

Which brings us to how the Times-Pic has covered the story: Poorly. It runs a corporate press release as a news story, as it’s wont to do, and it fails to mention the Advocate at all, much less point out that the reason a retrenching newspaper is going into a smaller market eighty miles away is because it’s using its billionaire owners’ resources to defend its turf from encroachment. I dunno: Could be a story,

Here’s hoping this is nothing but good for the people of Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

But since the overall pie has gotten dramatically smaller in the last decade, you have to wonder whether this war will mean improved coverage in southern Louisiana—or whether this war of attrition will result in two further-weakened newspapers.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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: , , , ,