The New Orleans newspaper war ended Thursday with the owner of The New Orleans Advocate buying The Times-Picayune, or, as one writer put it, with David conquering Goliath. That’s true — if Goliath were missing one arm and one leg.
The Times-Picayune’s owner, the Newhouse family’s Advance Local Media (for which I worked for 30 years), gave up several years ago on daily newspapers as having a viable long-term financial future when it reduced print publication from seven days a week to three in New Orleans, Birmingham and other cities.
Marketers dream and toil and spend in hopes that their product becomes part of the daily ritual of a mass of people. In New Orleans and elsewhere, that’s what daily newspapers once were. Even as expensive as newspapers were to produce and distribute, and even with readership trends working against them, what marketing sense did it make to take that product away four days a week and let people discover sooner rather than later that they didn’t really need it after all? But that’s what Advance did.
That move gave an avenue for the Baton Rouge Advocate in 2013 to create the daily New Orleans Advocate, which has since competed well with the Times-Picayune journalistically and economically. Also working in favor of The Advocate was the chance to hire some of the sadly large number of talented and community-connected journalists laid off by The Times-Picayune as part of its emphasis switch from print to its digital platform (which was also sold). The Advocate lured some other top talent from the T-P, as well. Soon, a potential wide gap in quality between the established outlet and the newcomer disappeared.
Advance is well known for its reluctance to sell its regional news organizations. (In 2012, New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson tried to buy the T-P but was told no.) Still, for a company that was, like almost all newspaper companies, shedding expenses, it apparently didn’t want to continue competing in the fractured New Orleans market that it helped to create. (The lucrativeness of the sales price as a factor is uncertain because both companies are privately owned.)
The situation is different elsewhere. Advance does not face similar competition from a large-scale print rival in its other locations. Other sales are unlikely, especially as Advance has continued to seek an acceptable bottom line by significantly and alarmingly reducing its newsroom costs, primarily personnel, for all its local news organizations.
The sale in New Orleans, unfortunately, represents yet more lost personnel, as the entire Times-Picayune newsroom lost their jobs. They may apply for work at The Advocate. Some, not all, likely will be hired. I know some of them and know of others. That’s a lot of good journalism walking out the door.
Ideally, though, The Advocate will fill the space in coverage, and it has pledged to offer a daily newspaper that is home-delivered in addition to the current rack sales. I believe Advance isn’t wrong about the dire long-term future of print. But timing is everything. Other major news companies still print every day. They haven’t yet followed the Advance model. And now it’s heartening that a city the size of New Orleans gets back a daily doorstep paper.
Newspaper wars motivate good journalism, produce more voices and benefit a community. Anyone remember The Birmingham News and the Birmingham Post-Herald? But such competitions are economically untenable in all but the largest markets. A shakeout in New Orleans was inevitable. Still, in these days of numerically receding local and regional journalism, the key question shouldn’t be who’s the better medium, but rather do communities know everything they should.
Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog. About News is a new BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch shares these articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.