Louisiana’s The Advocate purchasing The Times-Picayune

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — In 2012, The Times-Picayune was New Orleans’ Pulitzer-winning juggernaut of local journalism, employing hundreds in a sprawling building in the city and bureaus in surrounding parishes, while The Advocate was the smaller, staid family-owned paper 80 miles west in Baton Rouge — respected for its state government coverage, but no threat to a New Orleans media institution that was as ingrained in the city’s culture as Mardi Gras.

Just how much things have changed became suddenly evident on Thursday with the unexpected announcement that George and Dathel Georges, who purchased The Advocate’s parent Capital City Press in 2013, have bought the 182-year-old The Times-Picayune from the Newhouse family’s Advance Local Media. It marked the ending of a rare 21st century newspaper rivalry in the age of internet-driven media.

Both entities are privately held and didn’t disclose terms.

The Times-Picayune name will survive. A story outlining the plans on The Advocate’s website said both paper’s flags will be on the new daily, home-delivered publication that will debut in June. And the papers will share a website under the nola.com banner currently used by The Times-Picayune.

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“The Advocate will be expanding its New Orleans news, advertising and circulation staff by hiring from current nola.com and Times-Picayune employees, and will increase its coverage of suburban communities, sports and arts and entertainment, and also improve its opinion pages,” The Advocate story said.

However, it was unclear how many of the Times-Picayune’s employees would survive. Some were already announcing their layoffs on social media — an echo of the painful job losses seven years ago.

The Georges are the millionaire owners of a wholesale grocery business as well as the historic Galitoire’s restaurant in the French Quarter. John Georges had made unsuccessful runs for governor and mayor by the time they bought the 177-year-old The Advocate from the Manship family in late April 2013.

That was nearly a year after Advance Publications Inc. announced The Times-Picayune would cut back publication to three days a week, lay off 200 employees and shift focus to its website, Nola.com.

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Advance was pursuing similar strategies in other markets, including Michigan, Alabama and Pennsylvania, with relatively little pushback. But the move stunned many in New Orleans, where tradition dies hard. Protests were organized and some prominent local figures called for Advance to sell the paper to local owners.

“The old owners wanted to go full digital because this is a small market with more tech savvy residents moving in every day,” New Orleans native Christopher Williams recalled in a Facebook conversation Thursday. “The pushback from residents who are used to their traditions and their writers was real then and will be real again with this move.”

Many readers had formed a deep bond with the Times-Picayune after the catastrophic flooding following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“When Katrina hit, the Times-Picayune not only detailed the disaster, it connected us while we were scattered,” recalls attorney Bill Quigley, who had evacuated during the flood.

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The paper’s dogged work covering the storm’s aftermath, despite having to evacuate its flooded plant, resulted in two Pulitzer Prizes — adding to two won in the 1990s. It also resulted in admiration from readers, recalls former Times-Picayune photographer John McCusker, who remembers people approaching him when he was on assignments. “Nobody ever wanted to buy me a drink before because I was a newspaper man.”

Sensing that the cutbacks at the Picayune had changed the market, the Manships put Advocate staffers in New Orleans and began printing a New Orleans edition — stressing that it would be published and home-delivered seven days a week in the still print-hungry city.

The intensity of the rivalry grew when the Georges purchased Capital City Press — which publishes The Advocate, The New Orleans Advocate and The Acadiana Advocate — and hired Times-Picayune veterans, including Dan Shea as general manager (now publisher) and Peter Kovacs as editor.

“It’s funny,” said McCusker. “It’s like The Advocate is the old Picayune and the Picayune is whoever they’ve hired since the last purge.”

That The Advocate’s moves paid off was evident recently when a project led by some of those veterans won a Pulitzer for The Advocate.

The leaner version of The Times-Picayune has also won accolades. Just last month, an in-depth look at the long-term effects of trauma on New Orleans children won an award from the Dart Center at Columbia University.

Shea, Kovacs and The Advocate President Judi Terzotis will continue to lead the combined news organization, the paper said. How the staff of The Times-Picayune will be affected, and how readers of both papers will react, were not immediately clear.

The unexpected consolidation worries Williams. “I think it’s a sad day when so much of our news is in the hands of one man,” he said.