Longtime New Orleans political columnist Stephanie Grace and Times-Picayune reporter Laura Maggi are the latest names to join the New Orleans edition of The Advocate.
Grace, who declined a job offer from The TImes-Picayune last year following the paper's restructuring, will return to print three times weekly with a column that will appear Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. (Most recently, she has written a series of cover stories as a contributor to Gambit.) Last week, James Gill, another veteran T-P columnist, jumped to The Advocate, where his column appears twice weekly.
"I'm back to doing what I always did — writing about local and state politics — and really excited to be part of the conversation in Baton Rouge," Grace told Gambit this morning. "I'm picking up where I left off, and surrounded by some of my favorite people who happen to be great journalists."
James Gill, whose acerbic wit and incisive columns about Louisiana politics and peccadillos have appeared in The Times-Picayune since 1986, is the latest T-P name to jump ship to The Advocate.
"It's very hard to make out a quote, because quotes are all bullshit," Gill told Gambit tonight. "But I am delighted to go to the highest bidder, I am happy to be renewing my association with [former Times-Picayune managing editor, now Advocate editor] Peter Kovacs — and I am delighted we have a newspaper war again after so many years."
Gill took a buyout from the Picayune in late 2009 and almost immediately signed a freelance agreement to continue his elegant-but-pugnacious column on the paper's op-ed page. Since then, he and his wife Gail have split their time between New Orleans and Gill's native England.
In 1997, Gill wrote Lords of Misrule, a book that traced the intersections between the history of New Orleans and the history of Mardi Gras Carnival krewes.
Last January, Gill wrote about the news that businessman John Georges was interested in buying The Advocate:
The Picayune, after publishing a daily since 1837, was bound to be missed, and the Advocate's owners did not neglect the opportunity to pick up the slack. They launched a New Orleans edition, which they say is selling respectably.
That just goes to show that a lot of people really do like a paper in their hands every morning, because The Advocate's New Orleans edition cannot hold a candle to the Picayune. This is not a knock on the ex-Picayune staffers who make up its New Orleans bureau; it doesn't matter how brilliant they are, because we still have them hopelessly outnumbered.
With Gill jumping ship, that number was just reduced by one, and more are expected to follow this week.
Since New Orleans businessman John Georges bought The Advocate just a week ago, things have been moving quickly. Georges installed former T-P managing editors Peter Kovacs and Dan Shea as editor and general manager, and there was word that The Advocate's Baronne Street offices were adding several additional parking spaces immediately. It was a poorly kept secret that the paper had been talking to T-P city editor Gordon Russell, and only a slightly better kept secret that The Advocate was also interested in Martha Carr, a veteran of the city desk known as a meticulous editor.
"If Gordon and Martha go," a city reporter told Gambit Saturday night, "we all go."
And that's what seems to be happening. This morning Kovacs announced that Russell would be joining the New Orleans Advocate (not the New Orleans bureau of The Advocate, but "the New Orleans Advocate", a change in terminology). Also leaving the T-P: city reporters Claire Galofaro and Andrew Vanacore. (Former T-P staffer Sara Pagones, who had been helming the New Orleans bureau since it launched last fall, will now be St. Tammany bureau chief.) Russell becomes The Advocate's managing editor for investigations, while Carr will be the New Orleans paper's managing editor.
Kovacs told Gambit this morning that he didn't have a precise date for when their bylines might start appearing in The Advocate. "I think our goal is in the very near future," he said. "Things are moving very quickly and I would hope we would start seeing them in the next week or so. It’s a ramp-up process." Beyond that, he had little to say when asked about a redesign of the paper (rumored to be scheduled for late summer) and a possible web redesign. "We have lots of plans to improve the paper," Kovacs said. "I’m not going into which they are and when they’re coming."
Gambit editor Kevin Allman appeared on last night's Informed Sources on WYES-TV to discuss this week's tumult and realignment in the local media world with The Times-Picayune and The Advocate. The panel included host Larry Lorenz, producer Errol Laborde, reporter Dawn Ostrom and WWL-TV investigative reporter David Hammer.
The show isn't embeddable, but you can watch here.
The Advocate, which moved into the New Orleans market from Baton Rouge earlier this year in response to The Times-Picayune going to a three-day-per-week production schedule, has been sold to New Orleans businessman and sometime-political candidate John Georges. The announcement of the "Georges Media Group" and its buy will be announced officially on Wednesday at a 10 a.m. press conference at The Advocate's Bluebonnet Road offices, which will be attended by Gov. Bobby Jindal and various politicos and dignitaries.
In an interview tonight, Georges said he would be getting his first look at the physical paper when he walks through the newsroom and plant tomorrow. "I've wanted to buy The Advocate for two years now," he said, adding that the deal was finalized just today.
Georges had signed a letter of intent in March to buy the paper from the Manship family, which had owned it for 100 years. Publisher David Manship, who had been publicly ambivalent about the family's sale, sent an email to employees tonight saying, "I can tell you personally I am happy that such a passionate and reputable Louisiana family is taking the helm."
"It got complicated when they [The Advocate] decided to come into the New Orleans market last year," Georges said. "Negotiations stalled for six months."
Georges, who has never owned a media company, has had a wide variety of businesses (including a paper boy route for The Times-Picayune at age 15). Most of his ventures have been successful. The New Orleans native and Tulane University graduate built his company, Imperial Trading, into a distributor for convenience stores across the South. Its parent company, Georges Enterprises, has had a wide variety of holdings, including video poker machines. In 2007, the longtime Republican ran for governor as an independent and was defeated by Jindal. In 2009, he purchased Galatoire's, the city's old-line restaurant (which has a spinoff, Galatoire's Bistro, in Baton Rouge), and ran for mayor of New Orleans as a Democrat in a hotly contested race which he ultimately lost to Mitch Landrieu.
Asked if people thought he was crazy to be getting into the newspaper business at a time when the future of newspapers seemed dim, Georges said, "Warren Buffett and the Koch brothers are getting into it. I don’t know who says it's crazy."
The digitally-focused NOLA Media Group, which cut back print publication of The Times-Picayune to three days a week last year, continued to innovate today by announcing a new plan to print on the days it doesn't produce a print product, bringing the company up to 7-day-a-week publication, according to an announcement by NOLA Media Group Vice President of Content Jim Amoss.
The report, which is not from The Onion, says the new product, to be called "TPStreet," will launch this summer in newsboxes around the city and cost 75 cents, just like the daily paper, which it will not be, because it is more innovative than that:
“Our success in delivering more news, sports and entertainment to our readers enables us to create this innovative publication, the latest milestone in our evolution as a multimedia news organization,” said President and Publisher Ricky Mathews.
The innovative publication is in response to "a repeated request" from home-delivery subscribers to get a delivered daily paper, but it will not be home delivered, Mathews said:
“In TPStreet, we sought to develop a publication that would address our single-copy readers and also respond to a repeated request from our home-delivery subscribers for a front-to-back newspaper reading experience in the e-edition on days we don’t offer home delivery,” said Mathews.
The front-to-back newspaper reading experience, says Amoss, will give "our readers access to the state’s largest and most talented news organization both online and in print every day."
“We are excited about this opportunity to extend our daily reach in print,” concurred vice president of advertising Kelly Rose.
Requests from response from the corpse of George Orwell, Jeff Jarvis, the creators of New Coke and Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks were unreturned.
Under the jump: some local Twitter reaction.
Carlos Sanchez, the managing editor of NOLA Media Group's new Baton Rouge bureau, has resigned after less than six months on the job, multiple sources within the company have told Gambit.
A memo co-signed by editor Jim Amoss and the director of state news and sports, James O'Byrne, went out to NOLA Media Group staffers in the last two hours, saying Sanchez was resigning for family reasons and returning to Texas, where he wrote about politics for the Austin American-Statesman and served as editor of the Waco Tribune-Herald for several years before being let go in a Trib-Herald companywide layoff in 2011.
Sanchez was hired by NOLA Media Group last fall to helm its expanded bureau in Baton Rouge. In January, he created a stir within the company when — on the eve of President Barack Obama's second inauguration — the Baton Rouge bureau posted an online poll asking "Should we wish President Obama well in his second term?". That poll, which was the subject of dismay and some derision in the New Orleans office, where it was seen as "clickbait," has been removed from the NOLA.com site:
NOLA Media Group's Baton Rouge bureau also came under fire earlier this month in a lengthy, critical story by Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review — a story that triggered anger within the NOLA Media Group and, according to some current and past employees, a search for internal sources who may have spoken to Chittum. In tracing the changes at The Times-Picayune from a daily to a thrice-weekly publication with a digital focus, Chittum wrote:
The Baton Rouge bureau, under the purview of James O’Byrne, the former NOLA.com editor, is widely viewed internally as an embarrassment. The second sentence of one November story’s lede would be hard to imagine in a high-school paper: “Fortunately for the citizens of the Red Stick, local law enforcement continue to team up with state legislators and federal agencies to ensure stricter drug enforcement laws and regulations make it onto the books.”
Today's memo from O'Byrne and Amoss said that NOLA Media Group would be undertaking a national search to replace Sanchez. A call to NOLA Media Group's Baton Rouge office was not immediately returned.
(UPDATE: Sanchez has posted a farewell letter, saying, in part, "In the end, it came down to leaving one of the boldest experiments in American journalism today in favor of my family, still living in Texas. In short, there was no choice." He also praises the head of Baton Rouge's Downtown Development District.)
A letter went out late Friday to NOLA Media Group's "content employees" (aka reporters), inviting them to a training session (a mandatory "invite"), where they will begin to learn what the company is calling a Performance Management Process (PMP):
"Our organization’s current and future business objectives require an increased focus on improved performance and talent development."
"Discuss how your performance can positively impact your pay."
Meanwhile, the newsroom staff, which had written an open letter in June to Cunningham and Amoss, asking, “Will there be quotas for online entries?” (no formal answer was ever forthcoming), ended the year nervous about their role in drawing traffic, or “clicks,” to NOLA.com. A “Staff Performance Measurement & Development Specialist” position has been created; the job description included monitoring reporters’ and editors’ “amount of content created each day” and “[setting] standards for measuring performance aimed at achieving content and business goals.” (“I don’t know how to get more clicks without doing more stories every day,” one longtime reporter told Gambit.)
None dare call it quotas — but few in the newsroom doubt that quotas, or something like them, is coming in 2013.
Chittum paints a picture of a newsroom where "coverage looks thin at times," "incomplete versions of stories have ended up in the paper" and "some staffers say, the quality of the report is deteriorating." Much of this is attributed to unnamed sources at the T-P, as well as those who have left. Chittum's basic thesis is spelled out early:
Ten months later, a battle still rages for the soul of the Times-Picayune, and over the meaning of what happened. Much of the media coverage of the changes in New Orleans, while critical of Advance and the paper’s leaders, has focused on the decision to cut publication to three days a week and, to a lesser extent, on the layoffs, which were devastating even by today’s standards. Those are, of course, important storylines.
Less examined: the radical change in how journalism is done at the 176-year-old Times-Picayune and what that means for the future of news coverage. And even less examined are the strange finances of the move, which help explain what to many appears inexplicable, from either a journalistic or a business point of view.
Advance argues that it is taking a difficult but bold step into a digital future, in New Orleans and across the country. But its actions make more sense with a close look at the numbers, which suggest something other than its claim of “securing a vital future for our local journalism.”
Editor Jim Amoss, who does not come off well in the tale, has already responded in the comments section of the story:
John Mathew, president and CEO of Wick Communications, said the newspaper has long been in direct competition with many publications, and because St. Tammany Parish is so connected to metropolitan New Orleans and so many of its residents have moved to the Northshore in recent years, the newspaper has had a tough time finding the sense of community that a community newspaper needs to be successful.
Twenty-four positions will be lost as a result of the newspaper’s closing, though several employees will be offered positions at other locations within the company. Employees will receive severance and assistance in resuming their careers elsewhere, Mathew said.
Both The News Banner and the Slidell Sentry News began publishing in the 1970s as suburban growth created a new demand for newspapers in St. Tammany Parish. Wick Communications owns several other community papers, including L’Observateur in LaPlace and The Daily News in Bogalusa.
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