‘The Advocate’ tightening belt in Baton Rouge amid new hires in New Orleans

Less than two weeks after moving into its new building and professing its long-term commitment to locally owned news in Baton Rouge, The Advocate is restructuring its local operations, eliminating several positions and leaving several vacant ones unfilled, according to multiple sources familiar with the situation.

Sources say as many as seven positions in the news and features departments altogether will be eliminated and that other departments will undergo belt tightening as well.

The changes come as The New Orleans Advocate staff is growing. In October, the paper’s New Orleans office announced four high-profile hires, all former journalists from The Times-Picayune.

Among the casualties of the restructuring in Baton Rouge is longtime music writer John Wirt, a 25-year veteran of the features staff, who says he was notified Monday his position was being eliminated because of the paper’s new music critic in New Orleans, Keith Spera.

Spera was among those hired earlier this fall by The New Orleans Advocate. It is unclear whether he will cover the Baton Rouge music scene in Wirt’s absence.

Also gone from The Advocate is veteran Capitol Bureau reporter Marsha Shuler. It is unclear whether Shuler took early retirement or whether her position was eliminated.

Additionally, The Advocate has eliminated two longtime feature columnists: Julie Kay and Chante Warren.

Dan Shea, president and publisher of The Advocate, says he cannot comment on personnel matters other than to say, “there is a constant adjustment of our workforce to match our needs and economics.” He adds the number of newsroom staffers is “about the same” as when owner John Georges bought the paper in 2013.

“That is a large newsroom for a paper our size,” he says.

Georges, who with his wife, Dathel Georges, bought the paper in 2013 and launched an aggressive push into the New Orleans market, said in a text message requesting comment the paper would not respond to “silly” questions about cuts.

“We are a growing company,” he said.

The Advocate overall has seen growth in its print circulation over the past two years, though in the Baton Rouge area print readership has continued to decline, according to circulation data from the Alliance for Audited Media.

Between September 2013 and September 2015, paid subscription and single-copy newsstand sales of The Advocate, The New Orleans Advocate and The Acadiana Advocate together increased about 6.5% to 83,800 from 78,700. However, Sunday print circulation during the two-year period actually decreased to 97,500 from 101,200, a 3.6% decline.

What’s more, during that same period, daily print circulation in the Baton Rouge market alone declined more than 14% to 41,400 from 48,400, while Sunday circulation fell nearly 22% to 53,500 from 68,400.

—Stephanie Riegel

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