Newspaper rivalry good for readers
When I was growing up in Baton Rouge, after my family moved here from New Orleans just before I was born, The Times-Picayune was thrown in our yard each morning. After school, I would get on my bike to deliver The State-Times, the afternoon counterpart of the then-called Morning Advocate.
Besides the paper route, I've never worked for either paper (this is a syndicated column), but as with most of their dual readers, their newly engaged business rivalry holds my attention as much as any stories they publish these days.
On May 1, both papers ran front-page banner headlines announcing their big changes: "Georges buys Advocate" and "T-P adding newsstand tab 3 days a week."
The great south Louisiana newspaper war is on. This one is unlike those from the early 20th century in big cities, when the struggle was between two established papers rooted in the same market. New publisher John Georges plans to expand on The Advocate's recent incursion into New Orleans, while the The Times-Picayune prepares to defend its turf with its new tabloid, TP Street, to be published on three of the four days of the week on which it has stopped printing. The Times-Picayune also is making a foray into the capital with its new tabloid BR, while both companies will compete digitally through their websites.
It is an audacious move by Georges to buy a newspaper that one member of the owning Manship family said was not worth what he was offering to pay. Such an assessment by a seller would give the ordinary buyer pause. But Georges is nothing if not confident, optimistic and driven.
He built a family fortune into a much bigger one that supplies grocery and convenience stores and services cigarette and video poker machines. He will say that gambling makes up only a small part of his holdings; but Georges Enterprises, which he founded, is a major player in the state's video gaming industry.
With those businesses producing enormous cash flow, Georges has estimated his net worth at about $100 million. But men richer than he have lost more than that by trying their hands at newspaper publishing. (Ask Chicago real estate tycoon Sam Zell what owning The Chicago Tribune did to his bottom line.)
Georges becomes a publisher after running unsuccessfully for governor in 2007 and for mayor of New Orleans in 2010, making him a Louisiana-style William Randolph Hearst in reverse.
In his brief career as a politician (who's to say it's over?), he distinguished himself as one of the more colorful characters of the post-Edwards era. The man would say anything, and on the record. My favorite quip of his came after Bobby Jindal—then running for governor in 2007, as was Georges—delivered his wife's baby in their Kenner bedroom when there was no time to get her to Woman's Hospital in Baton Rouge. While others heralded Jindal's heroics, Georges faulted him for "poor planning."
In those days, Georges loved talking to political reporters, helpfully telling them how they should write their leads. To succeed as publisher he will need to resist that temptation, mighty as it is.
The daunting challenge facing him is to publish separate editions for two vastly different communities. The two cities have grown somewhat closer since Hurricane Katrina, but the remaining gap can still be as wide and impenetrable as the great swamp that lies between them.
To increase its New Orleans circulation to the point where it can compete for advertising, the new Advocate needs to offer a product that is embraced and not just accepted, while not losing the connection to its hometown readers.
TP Street needs to be more than a day filler if the Times-Picayune is to woo back former subscribers who feel jilted by not having their daily paper on their front steps every morning.
The solution for both, of course, is to beat each other to the best stories and to better capture the cultural vitality of both cities. Doing so will require big long-term investments for both companies, with the dividends to be reaped by better-informed and entertained readers. How this all plays out could foreshadow the future of daily journalism across the land. The whole newspaper world is watching. Gentleman, start your presses.
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