In the digital age, a rare fight for print readers

September 28, 2012 - 12:36 PM
Newspaper War

Free introductory copies of the Baton Rouge Advocate's new New Orleans edition, right, are seen next to copies of the New Orleans Times-Picayune at Lakeside News in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, La., Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012. As The Times-Picayune in New Orleans scales back its print edition to three days a week, the Baton Rouge newspaper is starting its own daily edition to try to fill the void. The move by The Advocate sets up an old-fashioned newspaper competition, even as more and more people get their news online and from cellphones.(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — When The Times-Picayune decided to print three days a week, a nearby publication saw a chance to expand in the newspaper's backyard and fill a void that for some in the New Orleans area is as much a part of the morning routine as beignets and French coffee.

The Advocate of Baton Rouge, a family-owned daily published 70 miles north, will begin a daily New Orleans edition Monday, setting up an old-fashioned newspaper war. The battle for print readers comes even as more people get their news online and from cellphones — generally from newspaper websites — and more news media share stories to save money.

The experiment will be closely watched by an industry that has struggled in recent years as print advertising declined during the recession.

Locally, readers will decide whether they still want The Times-Picayune, a Pulitzer-winning, 175-year-old New Orleans icon that will print every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

At the Morning Call coffee shop in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, manhandled sections of The Times-Picayune littered the chairs recently as Louis Gomez, 77, and three friends sipped cafe au lait. Wireless Internet was available, but the printed newspaper was the medium of choice.

"I will get The Advocate," Gomez said. "I will quit the Picayune."

Other people in this tradition-bound city don't want to lose the Picayune, as most locals call it. Hundreds of people have rallied against the changes, and elected officials and community leaders have been quick to criticize. Some people even embarked on a futile campaign to get the paper's owner to sell it.

The Picayune has had a stranglehold on print news for decades, consolidating other dailies under its banner. The newspaper — named after a Spanish colonial coin worth about 6 cents — has had its finger tightly on the pulse of the people and events. Its coverage of hurricanes such as Betsy and Katrina, the New Orleans Saints, the entertainment, political corruption and ties to the Mississippi River all forged tight bonds with readers.

The Advocate's challenge entering the city is the first by a major daily newspaper in New Orleans in more than 50 years. The Advocate has built its reputation on accountability reporting in state government and coverage of Louisiana State University, particularly school sports.

Both newspapers have steadily shifted to online news.

In June, The Times-Picayune's owner, privately held Advance Publications Inc., and a new subsidiary, Nola Media Group, announced the paper would lay off 200 employees and shift its focus to the free website Nola.com. Advance is pursuing similar three-times-a-week strategies with several other newspapers in the chain, including publications in Michigan, Alabama and Pennsylvania.

Edward Atorino, a media industry analyst at Benchmark Co., said other newspapers in major metropolitan markets will closely watch The Times-Picayune's experiment.

"The day of the seven-day newspaper is fading," he said. "This has been a long, deteriorating situation. It's not a shock, and we're going to see more of it."

Atorino said total print advertising dollars in the United States dropped from roughly $23 billion in 2008 to $19 billion in 2011.

While The Advocate takes steps into the New Orleans market, Nola Media is planning to strike back. The company said it will expand its operations in The Advocate's home turf and offer a customized version of Nola.com for Baton Rouge residents.

"There are a lot of competitors in the market," new Times-Picayune publisher Ricky Mathews said. "We've always got to strive to be the best we can be."

Nola Media is telling readers the print edition will be familiar, complete and even better. Prototype pages included an expanded opinion section and color comics for the Wednesday edition, which will carry three days' worth of comics and crossword puzzles.

Editor Jim Amoss, who oversaw a news operation that won four Pulitzers, said there will be plenty of news.

"Reduction is something of a misnomer," Amoss said. "Yes, we're reducing frequency of printing, but the three editions that we will be printing will hold their own in news hole and amount of content against what is now distributed over seven days."

Even after recent layoffs, including more than 70 from the newsroom, Amoss said the new operation is employing 156 people to gather and disseminate news.

The Advocate hopes to grow its print audience by 20,000 in the New Orleans area. Currently, they sell about 400 papers a day there.

Publisher David Manship said 10,000 free copies were being distributed this week.

"I will be able to give the people of New Orleans, on a daily basis, news from around the state and around the world — and from New Orleans," he said.

A New Orleans nonprofit news website, The Lens, is also beefing up its staff, and local television and radio station are ramping up their online presence.

"Between The Advocate and The Lens and other things that may come up, yes, I think there will be more competition than they've faced to date," said industry analyst Rick Edmonds of The Poynter Institute.

Advance is usually reluctant to release financial figures, but Mathews has been revealing some details.

Unique visitors to Nola.com — those who visit the site once or more — were up 31.7 percent in August from a year ago, he said. Print advertising revenue has been down for the past five years, he said.

Audit Bureau of Circulation figures show paid circulation for The Times-Picayune at just under 155,000 for Sunday and more than 134,000 daily. It has never come close to the more than 257,000 figure prior to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The paper won two Pulitzers for its coverage of Katrina.

Manship, publisher of the Advocate, said phone calls for subscription information jammed lines when the paper's expansion into New Orleans was announced.

"We're going to give it a minimum of six months," he said. "We think we'll be able to achieve some good numbers by then."