The Louisiana local who bested one of America’s biggest media companies

There’s little empty wall space inside Molly’s at the Market, a bar in New Orleans’ French Quarter. One can find a framed portrait of Napoleon, another of Yeats, and, above the jukebox, a sketch of Pope Pius XI. In the far back corner, wedged behind the photo booth, hangs a framed T-shirt bearing a refrain familiar to those who were in New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina and its disastrous aftermath: “The Times-Picayune. We publish come hell and high water.”

The phrase recalls a time when New Orleanians were perhaps most proud of their 182-year-old paper. As floodwaters made print and delivery options untenable, Times-Picayune staff put out digital editions that apprised displaced residents of the death and destruction caused by the levee breaks. This staunch coverage won the paper two Pulitzer prizes—the first time digital journalism won the award.

Nearly a decade and a half later, some 40 local journalists, many reporters for The Times-Picayune, trickled into Molly’s for a monthly happy hour hosted by the city’s press club. While the group has socialized at Molly’s on and off for decades, this month’s gathering felt atypically somber. Two weeks earlier, on May 2, the Louisiana media landscape had been shaken. The owners of The Advocate, a Baton Rouge-based publication, had achieved a long-standing goal: they now owned their key New Orleans competitor, The Times-Picayune. As one attendee passed around a jar to raise scholarship money for journalism students, another joked that the funds might merely help to crush people’s dreams.

Around the bar, reporters skipped the niceties, instead launching into discussions of layoffs and job hunts. One reporter off-handedly mentioned applying to 15 jobs, then quickly changed the subject. “It’s time for booze,” she said.

The acquisition of the Times-Picayune by The Advocate is a story linked to Katrina, to corporate competition, and to the ever-changing journalism world. But, perhaps more than that, it is also the story of how one local Advocate owner would win a digital-age newspaper war by knowing what his community wanted: print.

 

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LIKE MANY NEW ORLEANS-BASED businesses, The Times-Picayune struggled to right itself in the aftermath of Katrina. In 2009, Advance Local, the Newhouse family company that owned the paper, gave buyouts to some 30 reporters. The paper suffered another blow in May 2012, when Advance announced plans to reduced its (still profitable) print edition to three days per week to better focus on its website, nola.com. Advance, which is based in New York City, owns papers across the country and had previously implemented the same move elsewhere.  More than 200 employees—including nearly half the paper’s newsroom—lost their jobs, and the reporters who remained were told to create more search-optimized web content and to gather information and post it online as it comes in, rather than filing traditional long-form stories.”

To many New Orleanians, the announcement felt like being hit with a baseball bat. The digital edition had served displaced residents in Katrina’s aftermath, but now, as they re-established their lives in the city, New Orleanians wanted their print. At the time, The Times-Picayune had the highest rate of daily print penetration in the 50 biggest US metro areas. Advance’s move would make New Orleans the biggest city in America without a daily, printed newspaper. Prompting further outrage, it would strip the more than one-third of city residents without internet of access to the daily paper.

Critics argued that the paper’s new content amounted to click-bait, not journalism. (CJR called Advance’s dictate a pitiful quest for clicks” and the kind of cookie-cutter decision-making that gives absentee ownership a bad name.”) Locals responded with outrage. Cynical New Orleanians nicknamed the paper The Sometimes-Picayune, while others rallied to save the paper. Other local outlets lamented the “disappearing daily ritual” of reading the printed paper, and soon Tom Benson, owner of the New Orleans Saints, offered to buy it to keep seven-day print intact.

But the Newhouse family, which had owned The Times-Picayune since 1962, would not budge.

Sensing an opening, the owners of nearby Baton Rouge’s locally-owned paper, The Advocate, announced that their publication would expand its efforts in New Orleans. The Advocatewhich had hosted displaced Times-Picayune reporters as they produced the digital work that would win their Pulitzers—soon launched a daily, printed New Orleans edition. By December 2012, The Advocate had scooped up 23,500 paying readers in New Orleans, positioning itself as the only viable competitor The Times-Picayune had seen. It was also approaching a significant change of its own.

John and Dathel Georges stand for a portrait at The Advocate studio in New Orleans. Photo courtesy of subjects.

JOHN GEORGES SELF-DESCRIBES as “a Katrina person from New Orleans,” someone whose decision-making is now shaped by that experience. Following the storm, he tells CJR, he faced the same choice as most New Orleanians: either pack up and leave the city, or double down. “I doubled down,” he says. “And that’s what I did in all my businesses.”

Before Katrina, Georges already owned dozens of companies through his family business. After the storm, he deepened his community involvement–and increased his local name recognition–by becoming majority owner of a renowned French Quarter restaurant, Galatoire’s, and by running for New Orleans mayor and Louisiana governor. Along the way, he developed a specialty in helping what he calls “super-mature” businesses to thrive. “I own a 100-year old family business which has grown to a $2.5 billion company,” he says. “So I’m very comfortable in owning 100-year-old businesses. I saw all the things you need to do to own and grow a 100-year-old company.” Galatoire’s fit that bill. So did The Times-Picayune.

Georges, like Benson, made an offer to buy the Picayune. Like Benson, he was told the paper was not for sale. But the 171-year-old Advocate, based 80 miles down the highway from New Orleans, met all of Georges’ criteria and more: it was a centennial Louisiana business that was still profitable, centered in a university town that is also the state’s capitol, and—most notably to Georges—it owned a state-of-the-art printing facility. “It fit all the checks,” Georges says. He doubled down. By May 2013, Georges and his wife, Dathel, were the newly minted owners of The Advocate.

 

There was never room on the porch for two dogs. I guess the key was, which dog did the homeowner want?

 

GEORGES ENVISIONED HIS CONQUEST of Advance from the beginning. He tells CJR he left editorial alone and focused his attentions on business operations. (Dathel, in her capacity as a community advisory board member, provides feedback to editors.) “Being competitive, I’m used to competing,” he says. “We went after their advertising, their business, their reporters.”

Soon, former Times-Picayune staffers made up the bulk of The Advocate’s New Orleans newsroom. “The New Orleans version of The Advocate became The Times-Picayune in exile,” Peter Kovacs, The Advocate’s editor and a veteran Times-Pic newsman who was laid off in the 2012 cuts, says.

Georges leaned on his local ties to increase his paper’s ad revenue. The paper’s print business increased, he says, and its New Orleans bureau staff grew 500 percent.

“I think they underestimated my close relationships to the community, my civic leadership, my philanthropy,” Georges says. “I leveraged everything.”  

Georges’ success in New Orleans demonstrates the value of local ownership, Kovacs says. “When we make a mistake, someone tells [Georges] about it. If we’re not covering something enough, someone tells him about it. If they have an advertiser that we don’t, someone tells him about it.” Local ownership, Kovacs says, “was our secret weapon.”

 

They weren’t committed to seven days, and I knew that’s what our community wanted.

 

REPORTERS AT THE TIMES-PICAYUNE continued to produce great journalism, even as Advance’s strategy faced continued negative feedback and the paper itself faced additional cuts. As The Advocate grew to become Louisiana’s largest newspaper, with the largest newsroom in the state, Georges continued on his path to becoming Louisiana’s media mogul. He bought four Baton Rouge–area weeklies in 2014, and in 2017, a weekly paper located a half-mile from a Times-Picayune office in Covington, 40 miles north of New Orleans. By 2018, he owned Gambit, New Orleans’ well-read, successful alternative weekly.

This spring, The Advocate’s reporting on an obscure Louisiana law that allowed criminal defendants to be convicted by non-unanimous juries won the paper its first Pulitzer, also the first awarded to a Louisiana publication since The Times-Picayune’s Katrina coverage wins. Several members of the Advocate team behind the award-winning series were ex-Times-Picayune staffers.

As Georges’ media empire spread across the state, New Orleans remained an outlier, with two major papers competing to cover the news-rich town. Eventually, something had to give.

The Times-Picayune’s print circulation had declined by nearly 70 percent since Katrina, according to data from the Alliance for Audited Media, while The Advocate’s circulation continued to increase. “There was never room on the porch for two dogs,” Kovacs says. “I guess the key was, which dog did the homeowner want?”

Mark Lorando, editor of The Times-Picayune since 2015, sums it up like this: “Their focus was on preserving a seven-day print tradition. Our focus was on carrying a great newspaper tradition forward into the digital age. Both newsrooms did what we set out to do, and produced a lot of award-winning journalism in the process. But a market our size was never going to be able to sustain both.”

Georges travelled from Louisiana to New York in December, and entered Advance’s headquarters with “zero expectations,” he says.

“Those conversations were about a month of, ‘Do they buy us, or do we buy them?’ In the end, the complete Louisiana merger was the absolute long-term best decision for the surviving enterprise, whether I’m the owner or they’re the owner.” (Advance did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.)

Ultimately, Georges says, the decision came down to one thing: his commitment to print.

“They weren’t committed to seven days,” he says, “and I knew that’s what our community wanted.”

Eventually, both sides agreed that Georges would buy the The Times-Picayune.

 

TO MANY AT THE TIMES-PICAYUNE, the sale felt less like a merger and more like a swallowing. The entire staff of 161 Times-Pic employees was laid off in the deal. Lorando, who started at the paper as an 18-year-old newsroom clerk and then worked his way up the ranks to editor, received the same 60-day severance notice as his newsroom colleagues. Their official last day at The Times-Picayune is July 1.

“My message to the staff the last couple of years has been that if you choose to stay in local journalism, you’re making peace with the fact that every day that you come to work might be your last,” he says. “And you’re deciding that the work is important enough, and rewarding enough, to make the uncertainty worth it.” Kovacs says The Advocate hopes to bring on some Times-Picayune journalists, but adds it is too early to tell how many new hires they will take.

“I think [Georges’] vision in 2013, that we could pull this off, was bold,” Kovacs says. “The idea that a local owner could knock off one of the biggest media companies in America was pretty audacious.”

The new newspaper, which is set to debut later this month, will be printed daily and will publish digitally on nola.com. Georges hopes eliminating the duplicative reporting produced by competing papers will give an expanded staff more room to specialize, dive deeper, and cover more geography. The new product will carry both papers’ names, with a new tagline: “Seven Days. Home Delivered. Louisiana Owned.”

 

BACK AT MOLLY’S, most laid-off Times-Pic employees viewed the sale with far less optimism than Georges and Kovacs, and not just because of their lost jobs. The loss of journalists means the loss of coverage, they argued.

Despite that, others recognized that Georges’ shepherding of Louisiana media outlets might ultimately sustain local journalism across the state. Amie Just, a laid-off Picayune reporter, remains hopeful about the future of local journalism even in light of her newsroom’s closure. “I’m optimistic because I believe in journalism,” she said, pointing to the First Amendment tattoo hidden under her sleeve. “Both papers were doing important things, and that has to continue.”

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Ashley Cusick is a freelance reporter based in New Orleans. Her work has been featured in The Washington Post and the Phoenix New Times. Follow her on Twitter @AshleyBCusick.