“The former fish swallows the whale.” – NPR Media Correspondent David Folkenflick on the sale of the Times-Picayune
Yesterday afternoon, John Georges, an erstwhile political candidate who expanded his grandfather’s wholesale grocery distribution company into an empire that generates more than $2 billion a year in revenue, and his wife Dathel Coleman Georges, an heiress to a family fortune estimated to be worth nearly a billion dollars, announced their purchase of the Times-Picayune, the 182-year-old New Orleans news institution, from the Newhouse family’s Advance Local Media. In so doing, the Georges become the most powerful people in the state’s media and return the Louisiana’s most iconic newspaper back into local ownership, ending the Newhouse family’s nearly six decades of control.
According to the Greek publication The National Herald, John Georges has a net worth of approximately $381 million. Georges, who is of Greek heritage and contributes generously to Greek-related charities and causes, spoke exclusively to the paper in 2015.
Six years ago, the Georges purchased The Advocate, the 177-year-old, Baton Rouge-based newspaper, from the Manship family. Under their ownership, the news organization has dramatically expanded and remarkably improved. This year, the paper won its first-ever Pulitzer Prize for Best Local Reporting and finished as a runner-up for Best Editorial Writing. Their exhaustively researched and captivating series on the history and the consequences of Louisiana’s reliance on non-unanimous jury convictions was instrumental in securing in the passage of a constitutional amendment ending the practice, which was approved through statewide popular vote.
According to some industry estimates, only three months after launching The New Orleans Advocate, the paper attracted more than 23,000 paid subscribers; at the time, the Times-Picayune had approximately 31,000 paid subscriptions. By 2015, The Advocate surpassed the Times-Picayune in print circulation, officially dethroning the T-P as the state’s largest newspaper. Notably, many attribute the recent successes of The Advocate to the Georges’ decision to recruit veteran journalists and editors from the Times-Picayune.
Shortly after the deal was announced, employees at the Times-Picayune were told they would only be kept on for another sixty days, though in public statements, the new owners signaled their intention to retain a number of current reporters and staffers. Among others, the Times-Picayune currently employs at least three different, individually-named Pulitzer Prize winners, the James Beard award-winning food writer Brett Anderson, state political reporter Julia O’Donoghue, sports writer Jeff Duncan, and nationally acclaimed columnist Jarvis DeBerry. DeBerry was also a part of the team of columnists awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2006.
Thus far, there have been no public statements from the Georges or the leadership at The Advocate concerning specific employees, but upon hearing the news, several staffers immediately turned to social media to announce their departure from the paper and to promote their desire for employment elsewhere.
The decision to fire the entire staff, in one fell swoop, has been roundly criticized on social media by the paper’s readers and among fellow members of the press, while the announcement of the purchase has been met with a range of reactions. Still, among journalists and mass media professionals, the consensus seems to be one of cautious optimism and a sense of relief. In recent years, the Times-Picayune has been faltering under poor corporate management.
According to some reports, in 2013, the Georges allegedly spent nearly $50 million for the acquisition of The Advocate; John Georges subsequently denied those reports and claimed the deal for The Advocate involved no debt. He has not disclosed the purchase price of the Times-Picayune, and because it was also a transaction between two private companies, he is under no legal obligation to do so. However, it seems likely the deal for the Times-Picayune was also largely cash. Only two weeks ago, Ken Doctor of Harvard University published a lengthy analysis of why the newspaper industry has suddenly become “thirsty for liquidity as it tries to merge itself out of trouble.”
The Newhouses own one of the nation’s largest privately-held newspaper conglomerates. By contrast, Gannett, which ranks closely alongside the Newhouse family’s Advanced Media in circulation and owns more major market newspapers in Louisiana than any other corporation, is publicly-held.
Samuel Irving Newhouse, Sr. first purchased both the Times-Picayune and The States-Item in 1962. Eighteen years later, the papers merged, and the consolidation created the single largest media organization in Louisiana. In 1997, the paper earned two Pulitzer Prizes, one for public service and the other for cartooning.
“Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” – A.J. Liebling, 1960.
After the Times-Picayune won two additional Pulitzer Prizes in 2006 for their coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Newhouse family attempted to transition the paper into a digitally-oriented publication, reducing its print distribution to only three days a week and ultimately laying off hundreds of staffers. These decisions were met with intense local criticism, with many demanding the Newhouses sell the paper back to a New Orleans-based group. The outcry resulted in significant national media attention and inspired at least one book. Tom Benson, owner of the New Orleans Saints, joined another local investor to signal his interest in purchasing the paper, but the Newhouses didn’t budge.
According to a 2011 estimate, the paper’s print advertising revenue was nearly $60 million a year, while its digital advertising revenue was less than $6 million annually. But even though print revenue was still ten times as much as online revenue, the paper was still losing thousands of its print readers to its online, free edition. While online revenue accounted for a significantly smaller share of its business, the leadership at the Newhouses’ Advanced Media decided to push aggressively toward an online model. To many industry observers, the decision seemed reckless, and the pushback in New Orleans undermined the paper’s greatest asset: the goodwill of its brand.
The Georges’ decision to purchase The Advocate in 2013 was a deliberate and open response to the Newhouse family company’s disinvestment from the New Orleans daily print edition. A nonprofit publication, The Lens, also launched around the same time; according to their first 990 report, the start-up attracted more than $700,000 in funding in its first year, the bulk of which came through foundational support.
Thirteen months ago, the Georges purchased Gambit, New Orleans’ most popular alt-weekly publication, retaining much of their core staff and branding. With their purchase of the Times-Picayune, they not only become the most powerful couple in the Louisiana news business, they also effectively control the entire print news market in the city of New Orleans.
Last month, on the same day and only hours before The Advocate won their first Pulitzer Prize, the paper announced it would now charge readers for content online through a flexible, metered paywall; digital subscriptions are $10 a month. Thus far, the Times-Picayune, despite its emphasis on online expansion, has avoided implementing a paywall, though that, right now, appears to be one of many things that is about to change.