Changes to public notice law could spell end of Lafayette’s oldest news source

Exterior of old Daily Advertiser building on Bertrand Drive
The former Daily Advertiser offices in Lafayette Photo by Billy Hathorn

Changes to Louisiana’s decades-old public notice laws pushed by Lafayette Parish state Rep. Josh Carlson could redefine local news in parishes around the state and particularly in Lafayette. 

State law requires local governments to publish notices of their meetings, public bids and other activities in their parish’s “official journal” at costs that can exceed hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. For smaller newspapers in rural towns and parishes, that revenue can be a crucial aspect of their survival as revenue from advertisers and readers has dwindled in recent decades

Carlson’s bill initially sought to let state and local government bodies instead publish public notices on government websites, moving that revenue away from newspapers around the state. But that idea went through a major transformation in Baton Rouge at the insistence of the Louisiana Press Association, which advocates for the interests of news organizations around the state. 

The law’s final form, which takes effect Aug. 1, aims to open up competition for public notice contracts by shortening the state’s parish registration requirements and lowering physical publication quotas, giving smaller outlets a chance to vie for critical revenue by becoming their town, city or parish’s official journal. 

“It opens this up to more papers in more places, not just one in most places, but two, three, four, five in some of the bigger cities,” says Carlson, a former Lafayette Parish councilman. “And then also cost, which I think is more of a slower win, but if there’s more competition, then some of these smaller papers can come and say, ‘We’re not going to do this for what the standard rate is. That’s the maximum rate, [but] we’ll do it for 5 cents per character less.’” 

But the change also addresses a Lafayette-centric issue Carlson ran into on the Parish Council with the rise of The Acadiana Advocate’s presence in Lafayette and the decline of The Daily Advertiser, Lafayette’s long-standing paper of record. 

[Editor’s Note: Reporter Andrew Capps previously worked for The Daily Advertiser, and his partner works for The Acadiana Advocate. The Current also partners with The Acadiana Advocate to fund a fellowship position for Health Reporter Alena Maschke.]

Carlson and other members of Lafayette’s City and Parish councils previously pushed to make The Acadiana Advocate Lafayette’s official journal, citing its more comprehensive coverage of state and local issues. But state law required papers to be registered with the U.S. Postal Service in a specific parish for five years before they could qualify to be that parish’s official journal, which repeatedly prevented the Advocate from unseating the Advertiser and winning Lafayette Consolidated Government’s $100,000 annual public notice contract. 

Carlson’s law dropped that requirement to two years, which will allow the Advocate to compete with the Advertiser next year to be the parish’s official journal. That designation means collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional revenue from local government bodies all over the parish, like the sheriff’s office and the school system, as well as from legal notices for private matters, including lawsuits and successions. All of this could make losing its role as official journal a potential death knell for the parish’s oldest newspaper. 

“It is sad, and I don’t want to see that happen … but [the Advertiser] could come in and compete,” says Carlson. “They could go in and say, ‘Hey, we’re gonna save LCG a little bit of money compared to what the Advocate would do.’”

Councilman Josh Carlson sits at a public meeting
Former Lafayette Parish Councilman Josh Carlson, now a state representative, pushed for changes to Louisiana’s decades-old public notice laws.

The fight over being Lafayette’s public notice contractor could be a life or death battle for the Advertiser, but it wouldn’t be the Advocate’s first attempt to relegate the Lafayette mainstay to the pages of history. 

In 2019, the Advocate jumped on the retirement of Advertiser Editor James Flachsenhaar to hire away many of the paper’s most tenured staffers, greatly expanding its Lafayette newsroom in the process and leaving the Advertiser scrambling to fill their roles with new hires [like this reporter]. And in the years since, the Advocate has continued to nab employees leaving the Advertiser for greener pastures, like Executive Editor Barbara Leader, Breaking News Reporter Ashley White and LSU Sports Reporter Koki Riley.

In fact, all but one of the local news reporters still listed on the Advertiser’s website Tuesday left the publication months or even years ago [including this reporter]. The Current confirmed that the paper’s only remaining reporter in Lafayette, Jakori Madison, was hired by The Acadiana Advocate this week, leaving the mainstay of Lafayette news effectively unmanned. The Advertiser’s parent company Gannett did not respond to a request for comment from The Current.

But news staffers aren’t the only gains by the Advocate in recent years, as print subscribers have left the Advertiser in droves, dropping its circulation from more than 10,000 Sunday papers in 2019 to just under 4,000 in 2022 and putting it nearly even with the Advocate’s circulation in Lafayette. Still, the Advocate’s statewide President and Publisher Judi Terzotis, who previously led the Advertiser, says she hopes the longtime daily responds to the increased competition by investing more resources in Lafayette instead of bowing out of the local news market. 

“I never want our success to be to the detriment of any competitor,” Terzotis says. “The more reporters you have in a community, the stronger the community is … Their business model is so different from ours, and you can see it in terms of [where] they put their resources, so I hope them much success, and I actually would love it if they would invest in more reporters in that community.”