Summer in New Orleans is when things slow down to a sweaty crawl. It’s too hot for overly strenuous outdoor activities, especially in the age of climate change. With the conclusion of Essence, the festival season is now officially over. One reason the Essence Festival thrives is that it’s held in the air-conditioned splendor of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and the Superdome.
Summer is when those of us who lived through Hurricane Katrina and the Federal Flood watch the weather carefully.
Hurricane season has just begun, so it’s wise to track the tropics. The National Weather Service and others have outstanding predictive models, but hurricanes are inherently unpredictable. After such wet slow-moving storms as Harvey and Michael, we’re nervous. I evacuated in 2005, which resulted in a six-week exile, but despite the lack of direct trauma, I still have a mild form of PTSD any time we’re in the cone of uncertainty.
It’s been quiet so far but that could change in a hurry. Beware, take care.
In between the start of hurricane season and Essence Festival, something major happened.
Eight days ago, the upstart New Orleans Advocate swallowed the venerable Times-Picayune. So much for things slowing down in the summertime.
It’s been interesting to have a front-row seat to what was probably the last print newspaper war in American history. The Times-Picayune seemed to have all the advantages but lost the war. What was once the monopoly daily in New Orleans destroyed itself through a combination of bad personnel moves, poor planning, and the almost farcical inability of its outside owners to understand the New Orleans market.
Reporters and editors gamely tried to overcome inept corporate management, but it was a losing battle that ended on July 1st, 2019.
Some historical perspective is required to reinforce my point. This is the third merger involving the Times-Picayune, so a relevant timeline that focuses on recent events as well as sales and mergers is in order (in two parts):
The paper is now known as The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate.
(Publisher’s Note: For the sake of posterity, rather than directly embed tweets, we decided to publish screenshots, with links attached).
The decline and fall of this local institution began in the summer of 2012. The paper was at the peak of its prestige because of its brilliant coverage of Katrina and the Federal Flood. It had formed an even closer bond with its readership during the storm, flood, and recovery. In that pre-social media era, I kept up with the local news from exile in Bossier City, Dallas, and Baton Rouge via NOLA.com and, more importantly, its message boards.
It’s how I learned my neighborhood had not flooded, which was the beginning of an ongoing case of survivor’s guilt but that’s for another day.
In 2012, the Picayune’s Newhouse/Advance masters decided to turn it into a guinea pig for their digital first strategy. Here’s how I described what happened in a 2012 First Draft post: Abattoir On Howard Avenue:
“The Newhouse Corp greedheads are wielding the ax today at the Picayune, which is located at 3800 Howard Avenue. 202 employees are being ‘laid off’ (fired or sacked to you and me) today, which is 49% of the Picayune’s newsroom staff. It appears that some folks, including venerable sports columnist Pete Finney found out about being made redundant by an article at NOLA.com. Stay classy Newhouse.
“The city has been in denial about this development: there are petition drives to stop the demolition derby, but Newhouse isn’t even interested in selling. They have a point to make and they’re going to make it. The Picayune as we know it is on life support and will be dead in the fall. But stupidity, not the internet killed it.”
Newhouse/Advance rebranded the Picayune company as the NOLA Media Group. They should have stuck with Advance to emphasize the irony of the company’s retreat in the New Orleans market. It was at that point that I started calling the rump newspaper, The Zombie-Picayune. Another nickname of the period was The Sometimes-Picayune.
For some reason, Newhouse/Advance thought that shitting on its own product and firing many of its more experienced (thereby higher paid) staffers would result in a “lean, mean, and robust” product. All these actions did was alienate its local readership and open the doors to a competitor.
In response to the “disruptive” chaos wrought by Newhouse/Advance, The Baton Rouge Morning Advocate started a New Orleans print edition later in 2012. It did not become fully competitive with the Picayune until it was sold in 2013 to the Greek tycoon of New Orleans, John Georges. I’m also Greek-American but do not know Georges. In fact, I once called him, “the dullest Greek tycoon in recorded history.”
Georges is on the record as disliking the “dangerous people of the internet.” And that means me.
In addition to being one of the wealthiest people in New Orleans, Georges is a failed political candidate: In 2007, he lost a campaign for governor, running as an Independent. Three years later, he lost a campaign for New Orleans mayor, running as a Democrat. Then, in 2015, while vacationing in France, he dispatched one of his attorneys to sit in the parking lot of the Louisiana Secretary of State’s office during the final hours of the final day for qualifying. (Lamar will have more on this bizarre chapter in an upcoming article).
Georges has always been a Republican at heart, interested in power and influence however he can accumulate it. So, now, he’s decided to become a Greek media tycoon, pursuing a regional strategy by buying news organizations throughout South Louisiana.
The crown jewel in the Georges Gret Stet media empire was a newspaper in his hometown. The New Orleans Advocate newsroom became a veritable Picayune-in-exile, employing Dan Shea, Peter Kovacs, Martha Carr, Gordon Russell, Stephanie Grace, Keith Spera, and a host of others. They helped put the Advocate on the map and made it a serious contender in the newspaper war, winning a Pulitzer Prize earlier this year for Best Local News Reporting (and finishing as a runner-up for Best Editorial Writing).
Meanwhile, the Picayune moved locations several times, had a second major wave of layoffs in 2015, and sold the paper’s former headquarters on Howard Avenue. It’s under demolition to make way for a high-tech golf driving range. I am not making this up.
The demolition accelerated on the same day that the Advocate absorbed the Picayune. Here’s a report by WWL-TV’s Danny Monteverde (who was purged by the Picayune in 2012):
I mentioned the 2012 and 2015 layoffs, but there was a third wave this year. This time by new ownership. It’s a tough time to be a journalist with a local news organization. The process was similar: Some offers came with demotions and pay-cuts; others were equitable and accepted. A grand total of ten of the last 65 Advance-era Picayune newsroom employees remain on staff as of this writing.
The reason I’ve gone into detail about what’s happened since 2012 is to provide context for our readers in support of my analysis of the newspaper war. I’ve followed the conversation on social media, which seems to center around the notion that the Times-Picayune was sacked and pillaged by barbarians bent on vengeance. Instead, repeated mistakes by Newhouse/Advance management ended their run in New Orleans.
The human costs of the Picayune purges and the newspaper war have been considerable. Reporters and other staffers bore the brunt of Newhouse/Advance’s poorly planned, badly executed transition to a digital first strategy. Making matters worse is that these mistakes were made by managers who were no longer with the company at the end of its run.
I like to call New Orleans the world’s largest small town.
I know many of the people who were laid-off in 2012, 2015, and 2019. Some have landed on their feet with the winner of the newspaper war; others have left town; still others have left the profession, which is a pity.
“Columnist Jarvis DeBerry said he turned down the Advocate’s offer for several reasons, including doubts about their opinion content, business model, pay grade and the fact that they are owned by a politician (Georges unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2007 and mayor of New Orleans in 2010. He has served on the Louisiana Board of Regents and is a commissioner of the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad). He also said he felt a sense of ‘triumphalism’ that ‘rubbed a lot of people completely the wrong way.’
“‘They seemed to think we would all be desperate for jobs,’ DeBerry said. ‘It didn’t seem like there was a healthy respect for the people who were, like I said, just working hard.’”
Respect is in short supply in the 21st Century.
History essentially repeated itself in 2019. The same thing happened when Newhouse/Advance had the hammer in 2012 and 2015. They used that metaphorical hammer to smash a successful newspaper to pieces.
What does the future hold for journalism in New Orleans?
I have some serious concerns about John Georges.
Foremost among them is his ownership of both The Times-Picayune-Advocate and Gambit Weekly. When the Picayune was the monopoly daily, Gambit was an independent voice, and Kevin Allman covered the hell out of the 2012 Picayune purge. Kevin remains editor of Gambit. Thus far, Team Georges has let Kevin and his team do their own thing. Let’s hope that continues. Author’s note: Kevin Allman is a friend of mine, so I get to call him by his first name.
It has also been fascinating to watch the newspaper war play out on social media. There are those who have either forgotten the 2012 Picayune purge or are ignorant of it.
Neither Newhouse/Advance nor Georges Media have clean hands.
They’ve laid off many journalists and made others feel disrespected. Respect is a precious commodity; once it’s withdrawn, it rarely returns.
I hope that local ownership will benefit the community and the Picayune after 57 years of absentee owners. I’m not an admirer of John Georges but he has more of a stake in the paper than the Newhouses and their minions ever did. It’s his town; if he blows it, he must live with the consequences.
And New Orleanians are not shy about voicing their opinions.
I have some unsolicited advice for the journalists who work at the newly merged paper: Form a union as soon as possible. There have been three waves of layoffs, and there may well be more to come. Georges is all about the money and if the company isn’t profitable, the ax will fall again.
I am cautiously optimistic about the future of journalism in New Orleans. It’s a great news town, the local TV stations do good work, and there are many online outlets that are ready, willing, and able to take up the slack; one of which is, of course, the Bayou Brief.
Finally, a note on the title: This piece started off life with a different title, but my wife, Grace, suggested this play on the Tennessee Williams play and movie, “Suddenly Last Summer.” It was number six on my list of the top forty movies set in Louisiana, after all. Besides, when you steal a title, you should steal from the best. Thanks to Grace, Tennessee Williams, and Gore Vidal, who wrote the screenplay, for the “sudden” inspiration.