Merger ends a newspaper war, but the bloodletting may not be over

Graffiti splashed and awaiting replacement by a golf driving range, the Times-Picayune building offers bleak testament to hard times for print. Michael Isaac Stein

In the newspaper game, as in any blood sport, vengeance is sweet. In New Orleans, where for seven years we have been witness to one of the nation’s few remaining newspaper wars, that vengeance is now complete.

But it would be naïve to expect the blood to stop splattering.

John and Dathel Georges, owners of the Advocate, have cut a deal to buy what’s left of the Times-Picayune and its still dominant, if creaky, website,

The move by the Georges, one of the wealthier couples in Louisiana, completes a media saga with a coup. It began in 2012 with the announcement by Advance Local Media, the New York-based owner of The Times-Picayune, that it was cutting publication on paper to three days a week and laying off oodles of staffers, including most reporters and editors with enough experience and seniority to be making decent salaries.

Advance, the newspaper wing of the Newhouse family’s publishing empire, had awakened from the long sleep in which print failed to fully appreciate that digital journalism — the Internet — was not a passing whimsy. It was eating their lunch. The newspaper era of 50 percent returns that made men like William Randolph Hearst and Sam Newhouse, founding father of Advance, obscenely rich, was over. (John Georges’ big money is from supplying convenience stores, not from his media investments.)

Likewise kaput: the glory years of a paper that had been lifted from mediocrity under the leadership of Ashton Phelps, pere et fils, and their editor adjutants, Charlie Ferguson and Jim Amoss. As the T-P clumsily offloaded its most talented staffers, confident that they had nowhere else to turn in a dying New Orleans newspaper market, Georges stepped forward to do something that only a very rich man could get away with.

Horrified locals, including society doyennes and Saints owner Tom Benson, tried to buy the T-P and restore daily print publication. Advance refused the local bid, triggering speculation in the Columbia Journalism Review and all across town that the Newhouse family, seeing no future in the printing presses and newspaper plants it owned, had decided to ride the paper into the ground, milking it for what profits it still threw off while not-so-slowly gutting the newsroom and degrading the quality of the journalism it produced.

But something funny happened on the way to the newspaper graveyard. As the T-P clumsily offloaded its most talented staffers, confident that they had nowhere else to turn in a dying New Orleans newspaper market, Georges stepped forward to do something that only a very rich man could get away with. He bought the Baton Rouge Advocate and began beefing up its daily New Orleans print edition, complemented, of course, by a lively website. The T-P promptly reneged on its reduced printing schedule and began putting out a trashy little street sheet on the days it didn’t distribute a regular print edition.

New Orleans had more than a dying paper misguided by clueless New Yorkers. It had an honest-to-god newspaper war, with competition between the two papers invigorating both of them.

For newspaper insiders (or retirees, such as yours truly — I had left the T-P five years earlier or I surely would have been among those axed in 2012) the real fun lay ahead. The highlight was watching dumped T-P managers Peter Kovacs and Dan Shea walk down the street and go to work for Georges as, respectively, his editor and publisher. They took the cream of the T-P staff along with them. In that number: the peerless Gordon Russell, who led the Advocate to its first Pulitzer, awarded last month.

But building a rival paper that was better than the T-P wasn’t the end of the drama. Now Kovacs and Shea will run the whole shebang for Georges. Meanwhile, the buzz on the street is that the remaining T-P staff has been given layoff notices and 60 days of severance pay. Enjoying the pick of the litter, The Advocate is expected to offer jobs to a handful of reporters who toiled for its former rival. The reconfigured paper will begin publishing in June.

There are lessons here. One is that Benson and the Uptown crowd that tried to buy the T-P were right: when push comes to shove, local ownership is likely to be far more dedicated — and adroit — than absentee managers.

While the numbers are private, the T-P is thought to have been hemorrhaging money in recent years while the Advocate was at least marginally profitable. Inertia alone seems to have kept legacy advertisers and subscribers from bolting en masse to the upstart daily as the T-P declined in quality. Now they have no choice.

But staffers, however exultant over the Advocate’s triumph, would be smart to realize that the end of the newspaper war does not mean the bleeding is over.

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Now in possession of a real monopoly in New Orleans, Georges — who is arming an Acadiana daily Advocate for continuing battle with the Lafayette Advertiser — will be looking to cut losses and begin recouping his investments, among them the recent purchase of Gambit, now folded into the New Orleans Advocate.

As Shea and Kovacs catch their breath and then bring staffing levels into line with a new and less combative economic reality, the ranks of local journalists — decimated in 2012 — are likely to be thinned even further.

One interesting focus for armchair observers will be to see how or whether the Advocate sustains the Phelps era’s commitment to the hyperlocal community coverage that was made possible by zoned editions, for which the T-P was an industry leader.

It’s been a nifty little war. But with newspapers — and truth itself — under assault in a convulsive media environment, peace won’t necessarily be pretty.