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“We’re drinking now”: The oldest newspaper in New Orleans just fired its entire staff

New Orleans is officially a one-newspaper town, sort of.

by David Uberti
May 3 2019, 5:41pm

One of the nation’s last local newspaper wars is officially over.

Owners of the New Orleans Advocate announced Thursday that they had bought The Times-Picayune, ending a six-year battle for media turf in a cultural capital grappling with inequality and the long-term fallout from Hurricane Katrina.

In the end, the upstart Advocate, a Baton Rouge-based organization that launched its New Orleans edition in late 2012, overtook the 182-year-old Times-Picayune, which wilted in recent years under wayward ownership of the national chain Advance Publications. The purchase announced Thursday promised to create a unified daily newspaper and website — publishing under both organizations’ flags — held in local hands.

“This is a trophy,” John Georges, the New Orleans grocery wholesaler who now owns both publications, told VICE News. “We've been competing with the Times-Picayune for the past six years, and we were very successful. But despite that success, there is overlap.”

In an industry where companies are frantically consolidating to cut budgets and stay afloat, that’s code for job losses. “I bought the assets yesterday,” Georges added, as opposed to the newsroom.

You're fired

An official from Advance told Times-Picayune employees Thursday afternoon that they would all be laid off as part of the deal, according to three staffers. The journalists will keep their jobs for the next 60 days as the deal is finalized and the merging of the brands is completed, they said. Staffers will have the chance to apply for new jobs in the unified newsroom. But the details of that process, including how many positions might be available, remain thin.

Times-Picayune staffers were shocked, employees told VICE News, with some crying in the newsroom and others tweeting out the sad news. The staff went to a bar across the street to commiserate about the work the newspaper had produced amid intense financial pressure in recent years.

“We’re drinking now,” one former staffer said on Thursday night. “There’s not much else to do.”

Peter Kovacs, editor of The Advocate, told VICE News in an email Friday that he was “not privy to what Advance Publications told their employees yesterday.” Advance Publications and Mark Lorando, editor of The Times-Picayune, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“We will be expanding our New Orleans news operation and have held open some positions in Baton Rouge as well,” added Kovacs, a former Times-Picayune editor. “We already have some interviews scheduled with some of them.”

The purchase illustrates the remarkable ascent of The Advocate, which is owned by Dathel and John Georges, who has unsuccessfully run for governor of Louisiana and mayor of New Orleans. Now the largest newspaper in the state, The Advocate employs many former Times-Picayune castoffs on its 110-person staff, and it earned its first Pulitzer Prize this year for reporting on racial disparities in the Louisiana criminal justice system.

Two Pulitzers

For the Times-Picayune, the sale caps off 15 years of remarkable highs and lows. As Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing storm surge engulfed New Orleans, the newspaper’s scattered staff continued putting out papers. Their work earned two Pulitzers for coverage of the crisis and its aftermath, including a contentious and ultimately unsuccessful plan to shrink the city’s footprint by abandoning flood-prone areas.

“The bond that had been forged between the newspaper and the community in the aftermath of Katrina, given how the staff had worked so hard to relay information in the midst of that crisis, was incredibly strong,” said Rebecca Theim, a former Times-Picayune writer who wrote a book about the newspaper’s decline.

But the paper’s print circulation has declined consistently since then, from a reported 257,000 per weekday in the lead up to Katrina to fewer than 100,000 as of 2015. And management decisions in response have mimicked those of many local newspapers inching their way toward extinction-level events.

In 2012, Advance fired roughly 200 employees — a third of the total staff — and cut print delivery to three days a week in the hope of maximizing digital traffic and advertising. The move, which made New Orleans the largest American city at the time without a daily newspaper, drew fierce public pushback.

It opened the door for The Advocate to launch its own New Orleans edition. While uncertainly now hangs over the Times-Picayune staff, it’s clear that fewer journalists will be on the streets of a great news town.

“This city needs journalism — not that there are cities that don't,” said one Times-Picayune staffer. “But New Orleans does especially.”

Cover: A Times-Picayue newspaper bin with the print edition sits along Tulane Avenue on October 26, 2012 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)

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