May 3, 2019; New York Post
In another big news shakeup, the New Orleans-based Times-Picayune and its website NOLA.com have been sold to its competitor, the New Orleans Advocate, and all its 161 staff members have been laid off, including 65 reporters and editors. The paper, at 182 years old, is one of the oldest in the country.
NPQ readers will recognize this kind of loss as a regular part of the now-turbulent landscape of local news. This field is one into which increasing amounts of philanthropy are being invested (see here and here) on the theory that trusted and ready investigative local news sources are critical to civil society. This particular situation, however, is the end result of competition between two for-profit newspapers.
The new masthead of the merged entity, which will be published seven days a week starting in June, will have both logos. The websites will consolidate under NOLA.com, which is the Times-Picayune’s brand.
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The seller is the Newhouse family, which owns Advance Local publications, home to other local papers in other states, including Michigan, New Jersey, and Ohio, and to Conde Nast, which has been having its own struggles. The buyer is the Georges family; John Georges is a grocery wholesaler who has run unsuccessfully for mayor of New Orleans and governor of Louisiana.
Staff were stunned by the news, which came to them on Thursday afternoon. However, the selling of the Times-Picayune did not come as a big surprise to many observers. For a few years starting in 2012, it slowed its frequency of publication to three days a week, and the circulation of the paper had declined to less than 90,000 from its pre-Katrina circulation of 257,000.
Douglas MacIntire of 24/7wallst.com writes that the fault lies in the refusal of the Newhouse family to invest any of its billions in the strengthening of the operation, and the result is a public gutting.
The deal shows two themes about the newspaper industry as it continues to implode. The Newhouse family has a net worth of over $12 billion, but they were not willing to use some of that fortune to save a major daily newspaper. The Georges family, on the other hand, was willing to take over the money-losing property, but only if it could cut its expenses to zero. The Georges have gambled that the brand is enough to keep subscribers and advertisers. It will use the infrastructure of The Advocate to support the bet. With the 161 staff gone, that is a very little risk at all. The major financial cost to seller and owner was only the end of one of America’s oldest major city newspapers.
The fact that the Times-Picayune was able to accurately predict Hurricane Katrina three years before it happened based on its close tracking of local realities will now become part of local lore.—Ruth McCambridge