SADOW: Louisiana Political Journalism Has Been Roiled By The Advocate-Picayune Merger

Well, scratch that. When the Baton Rouge Advocate decided to pursue a paywall strategy, this created a significant ripple in the Louisiana political journalism landscape. Its decision to buy the entity that owns the New Orleans Times-Picayune induces a tsunami.

An independent T-P looked to gain much from the paywall choice. As the last major newspaper standing in the state without one, it would have benefitted from the flow away from The Advocate. Keep in mind what the research says about paywalls: they act to capture revenue not from the online market, but by shoring up offline subscriptions for people wanting local news. Thus, those wanting something else, like statewide political news, would go to other sources.

But, inevitably now, the new entity entirely will go behind a paywall. This will magnify a bit the effect: those really desirous of state political news from outside the papers’ areas will cough up the online subscription fee, but most will continue to opt out in favor of that news freely available from other sources such as television stations and/or sites devoted to state politics or pay up but to sites dedicated to state politics.

I suspect four sites in these categories really will see a significant bump, aside from incrementally higher traffic at TV stations’ pages and the Associated Press site. This site should see a boost, as its articles tend to provide a mixture of news with commentary (and already has corralled the market on conservative commentary). A new think-tank funded site, the Watchdog, already has a dedicated a reporter to covering Louisiana state news and now has an opportunity to expand its offerings further. And LA Politics, a subscription-mostly site focused mainly on inside information, looks set to reap the patronage of hardcore state politics consumers.

Perhaps the Greater Baton Rouge Business Report, whose owner’s editorials hew to the conservative side, might also benefit as the only significant newsprint-based competition left in either city. It has a soft paywall, so it will have some free material of interest to consumers of political news, as most of its paid content relates to business.

(Keep in mind as well consumers increasingly are bypassing the media in total to receive especially state and local news. Direct communication by government, policy-makers, and candidates through social media and websites cut out the middlemen and dampen demand for the interpretative and agenda-setting lenses the media traditionally have provided.)

Note, however, that in a sense the local-emphasis strategy also is a statewide strategy. Consider that the Lafayette through to the Mississippi border, north shore included, coverage of the new entity comprises around three-quarters of the state’s population. That leveraging will help the bottom line. Especially note that the situation comprises more consolidation than ever: even if there was less competition prior to 2012 than in the 2012-19 period, there’s now less competition than ever with the same entity monopolizing print news coverage in the state’s two largest cities.

Still, impact from the combined entity’s greater share of political reporting won’t be that substantial. People involved in politics easily forget that the subject exists as a niche for most of the public, and of the four levels – international, national, state, and local – the state level the public cares about the least. To put it another way, the local subscriber revenue The Advocate hopes to pick up mainly will come from those now reading about sports and entertainment, and to a lesser degree some other areas, but hardly any from politics.

With its reduced readership outside the I-10/12 corridors, the combined entity will have less impact on state politics, but with that reduction mitigated by the fact that the “local” audience is three-quarters of the state audience. Its only advantage will come from readers subscribing for other interests, but who occasionally might check on politics news for something like an election.

By contrast, the opinion portion of it, behind the paywall, will attenuate considerably. The T-P at its takeover had only two political columnists: far left Jarvis Deberry and center-right Tim Morris. With my leaving The Advocate earlier this year it’s down to just one definably conservative contract opinion writer, Dan Fagan, who might now get his walking papers (this recent development likely adding another element behind my departure).

I suspect both Deberry and Morris will be asked to stay on, the former because he would be the one non-white regular writer in a service area with a large minority population and the latter as he would be the only regular writer not on the left on staff (The Advocate’s Lanny Keller assumes a largely centrist voice, but doesn’t get many solo opportunities as he writes most of the paper’s editorials).

Regardless of who’s left standing, it won’t matter much. People just won’t pay to read opinion when so much quality opinion about state politics already exists for free (got you, didn’t I)? That’s especially true for conservatives, who won’t want to subsidize the largely leftist opinion page of the new entity just to get a peek at whatever non-liberals who survive the merger write.

In sum: the only newspapers making money in America now are at print journalism’s highest end. The Advocate has gone behind a paywall to stem losses, and expanding its footprint for economies of scales represents another effort to do that. The new entity will have less of an impact on state politics than did its separate parts, while other traditional and non-traditional outlets will pick up consumers. Its political reporting will reach fewer people, and its political opinion will dramatically decline in its reach. Its world is changing, and not for its better.

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