June 28, 2019

At midnight Sunday, the switch will be flipped, and The New Orleans Advocate will absorb the Times-Picayune and its NOLA.com digital site.

I asked whether the Sunday issue of the Times-Picayune will be packed with remembrances of its 182-year history. Advocate editor Peter Kovacs had a ready answer: “The June 30 edition is not a farewell edition because it is not going away. It will be getting better, and will be available seven days a week.”

When Advocate owners John and Dathel Georges bought its competitor from the Advance Local chain May 2, they had a redesigned double flag at the ready with both papers’ names. A subhead highlights the Advocate’s side of the rivalry — Louisiana ownership and seven-day-a-week home print delivery.

Because the Times-Picayune home-delivered print only three days a week, the merged unduplicated delivery of the two will vary a good deal by the day: 90,000 on Sundays, 80,000 on Wednesdays, and 65,000 other days of the week.

The Advocate, Kovacs said, has hired about 25 staffers, half of them for the newsroom. Many, but not all, were from the Times-Picayune. The Advocate had offered to interview anyone from the Times-Picayune interested in working in the combined operations, but some chose not to.

Pay was an issue, columnist Tim Morris wrote in a Facebook exchange with Georges. In some instances, the Advocate was offering 25 to 40 percent less, Morris said.

Of the 65 or so Times-Picayune news staffers, editor Mark Lorando told me, only two, to date, have found work at other Advance properties — a columnist at Cleveland.com and sports producer at Al.com. As for Lorando, he says he intends to stay in local journalism.

The two papers had close to the same print circulation, but the Times-Picayune’s NOLA.com digital site — the focus of operations over the last six years — had roughly four times the traffic. The combined site will operate under the NOLA.com name.

Putting the two together has probably been the toughest part of the transition.

“That normally is spread over four to six months,” Advocate president Judi Terzotis told me. “We have done it in two … and the transition has been phenomenal.”

Integrating two systems brings with it a host of small technical issues, she said, down to re-engineering a system for accepting credit card payments.

The NOLA.com staff has been working on the handoff during their last weeks of the job.

“They have been remarkable,” Terzotis said, “really holding our hand … They want to take care of New Orleans readers and advertisers.”

The Advocate implemented a paywall the same day in April it won the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting. Terzotis said that it will be rolled back for at least a month to ease in the Times-Picayune’s NOLA.com readers, for whom the site has been free.

The combined operation fits in the Advocate’s building, a remodeled two-story converted car dealership Georges owns on St. Charles Avenue, in the downtown/warehouse district (the other side of Canal Street from the French Quarter).

The deal did not include any real estate. NOLA.com and Times-Picayune news and sales staffs have operated in leased quarters since its swing to a digital-first operation in mid-2012 (which prompted the Baton Rouge-based Advocate to publish in New Orleans).

The former Times-Picayune headquarters on Howard Avenue near the Pontchartrain Expressway was sold in 2016. Never exactly a showpiece, the building became a graffiti-covered eyesore with broken out windows.

It is currently being demolished. New owners of the site have said that they plan a deluxe entertainment complex, centered on a giant driving range for golfers with 90 bays.

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The original version of this story mislabeled Howard Avenue as Howard Street. We regret the error. 

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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