BAYHAM: The Fall Of The Times-Picayune

While driving home on Tuesday night along the Pontchartrain Expressway, I made a point of looking to the right at the massive headquarters and publishing facility that was once occupied by the mighty New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Since the publication stripped down its operations to a minimum and moved to more intimate quarters in the warehouse district, the building has become a modern ruin totally covered with graffiti, looking far worse than anything I have seen in Detroit.  It actually looks like something out of Pripyat (Google it) and would make for an outstanding location to film a zombie apocalypse movie.

And what was left of the non-vandalized remains of the Times-Picayune brand has been scooped up on Thursday by local millionaire businessman John Georges, owner of The Advocate and The Gambit.

The sales price was not disclosed but you would think Georges had to have acquired it for quite a bargain compared to the Times-Picayune’s value before they launched their business paradigm shift in May 2012.

Seven years ago the Newhouse Family of New York, whose Advance Publications included newspapers across the country, announced that the Times-Picayune was no longer going to be a daily paper but would be published three times a week.

What followed were unwelcome buyouts of veteran reporters who possessed a wealth of institutional knowledge about the state and its unique culture, especially its signature politics, and their replacement with freelancers and contract workers.

One of the most telling manifestations of that loss of experienced talent came with the death of Marion Edwards, the consiglieri and brother of longtime Governor Edwin Edwards.  The “new team” at the TP ran with the news article a picture of the very much alive Jefferson Parish Judge Marion Edwards, who bore no resemblance in any way to EWE’s sibling.

And thereafter came the elimination of more local jobs with the consolidation of the paper’s production work in Alabama.

Not lost on observers was the irony of a newspaper that had endorsed Barack Obama for president that ran its operations like Mitt Romney.

Prior to the devolution of the local journalistic institution, New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson made a public play to purchase the newspaper though Benson was coolly rebuffed by the Newhouse family, stating that the Times-Picayune was not for sale to anyone.

And though New Orleans is not one of America’s largest cities, its residents did enjoy reading its newspaper cover to cover.  On a regular basis, the Times-Picayune was recognized for having the highest rate of readership in the country’s top 50 media markets.  That’s an impressive distinction when considering education is not one of Louisiana’s strongpoints but in terms of the business of advertisement, the relatively small Times-Picayune had a great deal of value.

So what changed in between 2012 and 2019?

First, the Times-Picayune’s out-of-town owners destroyed the paper’s reputation through their much ballyhooed “new vision.”  After the shock of losing their daily paper wore off and the yard signs that had instantaneously sprouted out across the metro area decrying the publication reduction of the TP were thrown away, the natives grew rightfully resentful.  Particularly in the face of Mr. Benson’s standing offer to buy the paper.

And the TP’s tabloid edition didn’t do the paper any favors.

Secondly, the Baton Rouge Advocate decided to fill the daily vacuum left by the Times-Picayune, expanding its news coverage and circulation to the New Orleans area.

The Crescent City had gone from one daily newspaper to a half-newspaper and now to one and one-half newspapers.

And how did the Times-Picayune respond to this challenge?

Badly, opening an office in Baton Rouge and announcing that it would publish a Baton Rouge edition.

It was a credibility-shredding moment that would in no way challenge the Manship Family’s media hold on the capital city.

And a year later John Georges happened.  The former candidate for governor and mayor made a shock play of his own acquiring The Advocate.  All of a sudden the Times-Picayune found the wherewithal to be a daily newspaper all over again, to the great chagrin of their furloughed staff.  But the damage had been done though there was far more ink to be spilled.

In an act of defiance and protest people took great joy in cancelling their subscriptions and as time went on, the Times-Picayune assumed an increasingly left-leaning identity, cheering on Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s crusade to take down Civil War era monuments without challenging him on whether he had a plan or was just winging it.  And more newspaper cancellations followed.

In the Trump Era, the Times-Picayune front page became little more than a broadsheet for running Twitter troll headlines against the President and Roger Goodell.  It had ceased to be a journalism powerhouse that commanded respect if not abject obsequiousness from the political class and relegated itself to being the print edition of MSNBC with Saints coverage.

This evening I made a point of doing something I had not done in a while: buying a copy of the TP.  Though it was late in the evening there were still plenty on the stands. The May 2nd edition contained two sections, eight pages back and front each.  But what really caught my interest were the print ads.

Or rather ad, for there was only one in the entire newspaper that was unrelated to the obituary section.

Yes, newspapers are getting thinner if not going away altogether.  But what happened to the Times Picayune was exponentially accelerated by their own doing, from their business decisions to their news coverage.  They lost the market long ago and it was only a matter of time that the paper essentially folded/merged.

The Newhouses should have heard out old man Benson.

I don’t know what Georges paid for the paper, but I’d bet my copy of the Super Bowl 44 edition that it wasn’t as much as Benson would have paid.

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