Less than a year ago, we learned that New Orleans was about to become America's largest city without a daily newspaper. Last week, we got something different: the first salvos in what looks to be a protracted, old-fashioned newspaper war. And that could be a very good thing.
Last Tuesday, the new NOLA Media Group (or, as it calls itself in print, "NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune"), which last autumn trumpeted its transformation to a thrice-weekly newspaper and a "digitally focused company," announced it would once again produce a print product every day of the week. Rather than resume daily production of the T-P, however, the company will introduce a new tabloid paper, TPStreet. The new tab will appear on the days the T-P doesn't print (Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays) and will cost the same as the T-P (75 cents). But TPStreet will not be the T-P; nor will it be available for home delivery. Current T-P subscribers, however, can get it online for free. Got all that?
That announcement came one week after the "digitally focused" company launched another new print product, a weekly tabloid called BR, which is distributed only in Baton Rouge. That's an awful lot of paper and ink for a company that months earlier promised to lead New Orleans into a bold digital future.
Those who wondered at the scope and timing of last week's announcement had their answer that same night, when news broke that New Orleans businessman John Georges, who had been negotiating to buy Baton Rouge's family-owned daily The Advocate, had completed the purchase — and was installing former T-P managing editors Peter Kovacs and Dan Shea as editor and general manager, respectively. Both newsmen are widely respected, and both had been kicked to the curb when the T-P's new publisher, Ricky Mathews, rolled into town last year and unveiled the "more robust" thrice-weekly T-P publishing schedule. Hiring Kovacs and Shea underscored Georges' pledge to beef up The Advocate's New Orleans coverage — and it was a shot across the T-P's inky bow.
Georges is an enormously successful businessman, a New Orleans native whose portfolio reflects a wide range of interests and a competitive nature. He immediately installed himself as publisher, even though he has never before owned a media company. (This may not be a bad thing, though; Mathews has extensive newspaper experience yet he has made an embarrassing public hash of the T-P's transition.) Georges buying The Advocate has some parallels to Mark Cuban buying the Dallas Mavericks in 2000. Cuban had never owned a sports team before but, like Georges, he expressed few doubts in his own abilities. He soon got Dallas excited about its home team again — and he sold plenty of tickets.
Georges' plans for The Advocate will likely force the T-P to step up its game in print and online. As for building out a New Orleans newsroom, Georges says he intends to defer to Kovacs and Shea. That's good news. The Advocate is nicely positioned to pluck off any remaining talent that might be dissatisfied at the T-P.
"We need the New Orleans edition to be more New Orleanian," Kovacs told the American Journalism Review last week. "It shouldn't be an edition. It should be a separate newspaper. People in New Orleans don't want to think of themselves as subsidiary." That's what citizens here have been screaming since the Newhouse family, which owns The Times-Picayune, announced it was firing veteran reporters and cutting back editions. Judging from last week's announcement, NOLA Media Group might finally be getting that message.
Equally interesting to watch will be Georges' next political moves. He has run for governor and mayor, and polls he has underwritten often include him as a potential candidate. It's unclear how Baton Rouge readers and advertisers will react to a New Orleanian owning a local institution — and it's equally unclear how The Advocate's political coverage will change, if at all, under a publisher with obvious political interests.
The coming newspaper war will be entertaining to watch, but it can also have a more salutary effect, increasing competition and (one hopes) increasing quality. The sale of The Advocate certainly has caught the attention of The Times-Picayune in a way that all the popular protests never did. On the night of the sale, Georges told Gambit, "I want the same things everyone else wants: the paper we're used to reading." If he moves in that direction smartly and aggressively, this newspaper war could get very interesting, very quickly.