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How a newspaper war in New Orleans ended: With a baked Alaska and layoffs

The New Orleans Advocate, left, and The Times-Picayune for sale in New Orleans, May 9, 2019. The Advocate, the longtime newspaper in Baton Rouge, went into New Orleans six years ago to challenge the city’s 182-year-old paper, The Times-Picayune. Now The Advocate is the last one standing. (Edmund D. Fountain/The New York Times)
The New Orleans Advocate, left, and The Times-Picayune for sale in New Orleans, May 9, 2019. The Advocate, the longtime newspaper in Baton Rouge, went into New Orleans six years ago to challenge the city’s 182-year-old paper, The Times-Picayune. Now The Advocate is the last one standing. (Edmund D. Fountain/The New York Times) The New York Times

The announcement came via the baked Alaska.

On May 2, senior staff members at The Advocate newspaper gathered in a room at Antoine’s, one of the white-linen dining palaces in the French Quarter of New Orleans, for a lunch purportedly in honor of the paper’s first Pulitzer Prize. The win was the crowning moment for The Advocate since it stormed into New Orleans journalism about six years ago. Drawn in icing on one side of the dessert was The Advocate’s logo.

But on the other side, to the surprise of many in the room, was the logo of its 182-year-old neighbor turned rival, The Times-Picayune. The baked Alaska broke the news: The two papers were now one, bringing an end to an extraordinary modern newspaper war.

Within hours, the people who work at The Times-Picayune, or nola.com as the flagship website is called, learned they were losing their jobs. What The Advocate had bought, for an undisclosed amount, was the brand, the site, the archives, the subscriber list — not the employees.

New Orleans thus became the latest U.S. city to be left with fewer reporters covering its affairs, as local newspapers across the country — through mergers, buyouts, layoffs, whatever it takes — try to survive.

“The most optimistic person I know still says we are just going to have fewer journalists,” said Jeremy Littau, a professor of journalism at Lehigh University. “That is the cold truth.”

The purchase of The Times-Picayune delivered a stunning verdict on an unpopular and often-muddled strategy pursued by its owner, Advance Local Media, a company run by the Newhouse family, which also controls Condé Nast, the publisher of Vogue, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.

As print advertising has plummeted across the industry, newspaper businesses that once enjoyed profitable local monopolies have struggled to stay afloat. In response, Advance Local has rolled out an aggressive digital strategy for the roughly two dozen newspapers it operates around the country, including papers in New Jersey, Alabama and Michigan.

What went wrong in New Orleans, journalism experts said, was not the instinct to embrace change, but the execution. Nothing comparable has happened at other Advance publications since 2012, when the company introduced its “digital-first” strategy. And the company, which is privately held, said that last year was financially its best year since then.

Randy Siegel, the chief executive of Advance Local, acknowledged in an email that the company’s effort in New Orleans had gone along “a rocky and at times painful road,” but he pointed out that nola.com had become the largest news website in Louisiana. He said he still believed that the company’s focus on digital journalism was a “sustainable model” for the other newspapers owned by Advance.

The event that would set off the New Orleans newspaper war took place seven years ago to the month. In May 2012, Advance Local announced it was cutting back publication of The Times-Picayune from seven days a week to three, making New Orleans the largest U.S. city at that time without a daily newspaper. About one-third of the paper’s staff was laid off.

In a city that loves to read about itself, that decision about a paper that had been one of the very few local institutions to shine after Hurricane Katrina kicked up a storm of citywide outrage. It also kicked off an unusually vigorous stretch of journalism.

“We’ve had two newspapers in a small city, in a poor city — we’ve had a lot of journalists, probably more than the economics can support, and we’ve had a lot of good journalism,” said Stephanie Grace, a columnist for The Advocate and one of more than two dozen journalists who crossed over from The Times-Picayune in recent years.

“This,” she said of the war’s end, “is the reality check.”

There is no war without casualties. Shortly after 2 p.m. on May 2, the staff of The Times-Picayune was told to gather for a sudden announcement.

“It’s a difficult decision, needless to say,” Tom Bates, the Alabama-based executive who runs the Advance-owned outlets in the region, told the employees in the newsroom and those who had called in remotely — one of whom interrupted the somber 10-minute speech to ask who exactly was speaking.

“The company was not looking to sell,” Bates said.

In the days since, amid the unpaused business of covering the news, employees of The Times-Picayune have been in and out of the offices of The Advocate, interviewing for positions. The leadership at The Advocate is still figuring out the details of what, exactly, it has purchased.

But there is nowhere near room enough on the Advocate’s payroll for all 65 people who are being laid off from the nola.com newsroom, or the dozens more from other parts of the business.

The head count for the news staff at the combined Times-Picayune/Advocate, including those based in Baton Rouge and Lafayette, may ultimately be sizable for a regional paper in 2019. But it will almost certainly be below 175, the number who were working in the Times-Picayune newsroom on the eve of the 2012 cuts.

That the options are thinning in newspaper journalism is just as true now in New Orleans as it has been everywhere else for years.

“Do I want to do this anymore?” said Andrew Lopez, 32, who started writing for The Times-Picayune as a 19-year-old in 2006. He could go to work for another newspaper, he said, “and this could happen to me again next year.”

The 2012 decision to cut back The Times-Picayune’s print publication schedule was a strategic move by Advance, a digital approach to the challenges of the news industry that would be tried at other Advance papers nationwide. But in New Orleans, where daily newspaper readership was unusually high, the resistance was immediate and loud.

Rallies were held, T-shirts were made, and mocking Mardi Gras floats were paraded. Still, anger at “The Sometimes-Picayune” appeared futile. The Newhouses were not going to change their plans and were not going to sell the paper to someone who would.

An unlikely combatant soon emerged in John Georges, the 58-year-old millionaire owner of a local wholesale grocery business and a man who was, as Peter Kovacs, the editor of The Advocate, put it, “looking to play a civic role but hadn’t figured out how.”

Georges had run unsuccessfully for mayor and governor. In 2009 he bought Galatoire’s, the dining room of the city’s elite. He was also, at dinners and in stadium skyboxes, courting the local publishers of The Advocate, the longtime newspaper in Baton Rouge, which began printing a daily New Orleans edition after The Times-Picayune retrenched.

In 2013, he bought The Advocate and hired Dan Shea, who had been axed by The Times-Picayune a few months earlier, to run it as publisher.

“The endgame from the very beginning,” said Kovacs, “was to run the Newhouses out of New Orleans.”

The Advocate hit strategically, and hard. It nabbed the advertising of the grocery stores, ate into the ads of the real estate business and dominated the incredibly valuable market in paid death notices. And it built a Picayune-in-exile. Employees who were let go from the Picayune were quickly picked up by The Advocate. Stars who were still on the older paper’s staff were poached. About half The Advocate’s journalists in New Orleans are former Picayune employees.

Meanwhile, The Times-Picayune, which had begun emphasizing its digital identity as nola.com, tried new approaches — and then tried other ones.

There was a short-lived tabloid version of the paper. Then there was a regular broadsheet, once again available at newsstands every day of the week. Journalists in the newsroom, now known as “the content operation,” had to fill daily quotas for online posts, and then they didn’t. The paper left its longtime headquarters, an old boxy landmark in the middle of the city, and moved into offices with a Silicon Valley aesthetic. Then it moved again.

“They picked the wrong strategy,” Jack Davis, a former reporter for The Times-Picayune who went on to become publisher of The Hartford Courant, said over lunch at a restaurant in the French Quarter.

“Or the wrong city,” suggested John Pope, the city’s pre-eminent obituary writer, who is now working freelance for nola.com.

But as the newspaper war escalated, so did the journalism.

Reporters for The Advocate dogged crooked officials, exposed racist police and, in 2018, wrote a series of articles on Louisiana’s acceptance of nonunanimous jury verdicts in criminal trials, which led to a change in the law and a Pulitzer Prize.

For their part, reporters for nola.com detailed the flaws of the state mental health care system, broke big stories about sexual harassment in the restaurant world and chronicled the steady and ominous disappearance of the Louisiana coastline. The purchase of The Times-Picayune, in fact, took place in between two separate ceremonies where articles by the newspaper received awards.

Still, Shea, the publisher of The Advocate, knew the city could not support two newspapers forever. The trends in circulation figures and newsroom size were favoring The Advocate, so about three years ago, he said, he began to reach out to people at Advance — casually, over coffee in New Orleans or New York — “to see where their head was at.”

Calling a truce was not so easy, though.

It takes no time at all to pick up the bitterness among some of the laid-off Times-Picayune employees who have landed at The Advocate and still feel that they were unceremoniously kicked aside. Or the irritation among journalists who stayed on at The Times-Picayune and who see a streak of self-righteousness in the attitude from their rivals that journalism is somehow more pure if it’s delivered on paper every day. The entry code to a certain keypad at The Advocate’s bureau in New Orleans is, to those in the know, a vulgar swipe at the competition.

But last fall, Shea and Georges both sensed that something had changed at Advance. The Newhouses suddenly seemed open to some kind of deal.

“Literally, I spent six months with the most sophisticated people in the top of the food chain in New York,” Georges said in his office, where a double magnum of Champagne, sent by a local banker in congratulation, sat on his desk.

At the end, Georges and his wife, Dathel, had a deal. The paper and the website were now theirs.

“In a time of crisis, you can pack up and go, or you can double down,“ Georges said, comparing his embrace of a seven-day printed paper to residents’ refusal to abandon New Orleans after Katrina.

The journalists losing their jobs at The Times-Picayune are polishing resumes, looking at their finances and gathering for drinks at the Howlin’ Wolf, a bar across the street from their office.

On the day last month when Pulitzer Prize winners were announced, The Advocate put up a pay wall for the first time, limiting the number of articles nonsubscribers can read free online. With the end of a six-year battle and one big paper left in town, the journalists of New Orleans now turn to the real newspaper war: surviving in the news industry at all.

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