Will Facebook come to the “rescue” of Louisiana’s home of “there’s more to the story”™ and “reporting you can trust?”
Undoubtedly, snickers arose in newsrooms from Shreveport to Thibodaux and among news consumers from Vinton to Mound when reports surfaced that the source of these phrases to describe itself, the Baton Rouge Advocate, which includes allied operations in Ascension, Lafayette, and Orleans Parishes and several weekly newspapers – with competition from another daily newspaper only in Lafayette – sent out an e-mail plea to its subscriber base to “donate” money to it. This came in the wake of staff cuts and furloughs about a week after Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards’ first of three proclamations that progressively have brought a fair portion of the state’s economy to a standstill to combat encroachment of the Wuhan coronavirus.
Understand that, as the media landscape has changed with the advent of broadband delivery via Internet, cable, and satellite plus the social media revolution that in part cuts out information intermediaries, print newspapers have suffered tremendously. However, Advocate owner John Georges – a former gubernatorial and New Orleans mayoral candidate – since his 2013 purchase of the operation had pursued an aggressive expansion strategy that gobbled up or created outlets big and small, while smaller operations in particular have had difficulty in adapting to rising fixed costs and in getting a handle on increasingly important targeted digital advertising.
His strategy seems to have backfired now with the disease-inspired slowdown. Having swept away the last vestiges of competition, Georges adopted the soft paywall model of all the state’s other large daily newspapers and many of its other dailies and weeklies. Whether that has offset the loss of revenue from fewer ad views, the Advocate now has abandoned it partially for what it calls its coverage of the virus, and the message included that as a justification for the webathon.
So, after it mowed down the opposition, the rest of the state’s industry can afford to feel a bit triumphal that what recent pain it has felt – sometimes triggered by the Advocate’s actions – now the Advocate feels. Yet keep in mind that, as bad as things may be for the state’s largest newspaper, smaller papers probably have it worse with their higher fixed costs and reduced ability to take advantage of digital advertising, thus making for them the evaporation during this stretch of local print ads by businesses out of business more painful.
Interestingly, one of the two giants of digital advertising that have sucked so much business from newspapers, Facebook, earlier this month announced small grants for outlets to cover the pandemic. Monday, Facebook upped the ante by pledging $25 million more for that purpose, along with another $75 million in its own ad spending going to news organizations of all sizes and kinds.
A review of the first round of grants shows that mostly small, in some cases digital-only, outlets received funding. Notably, large interlopers the Albuquerque Journal and Charleston (SC) Post-Courier grabbed a share of that dough. Considering the second tranche is a hundred times larger than the first, expect everyone to get a piece of the action.
And maybe Louisiana outlets might get a bit of a bonus. Leading the effort is Facebook’s Vice Pres. of News Partnerships Campbell Brown, not only an experienced veteran of the national news scene but also a Louisiana native.
Regardless, if it genuinely cares about local news provision, Facebook should concentrate its gifts on small local newspapers in Louisiana and elsewhere. The only charity Georges, who a couple of years ago had an estimated net worth approaching $400 million, might expect should come from subscribers answering the Advocate’s fundraising appeal willing to overlook how they already paid for it while others get some of it for free online. He needs to own his newspaper business decisions, in good times and in bad.