by Kevin Allman
The New Orleans Advocate, which expanded from Baton Rouge into the New Orleans market 11 months ago, is now the official newspaper of the New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Pelicans, Advocate owner John Georges announced tonight at a reception at the Superdome, along with Tom Benson, owner of the Saints and Pelicans, and Saints co-owner Rita Benson LeBlanc.
The deal does not extend to naming rights to the New Orleans Arena, though Georges said there would be plenty of Advocate signage in the city's Superdome/Arena sports complex.
The partnership between two of New Orleans' wealthiest and most influential families drew a crowd of several hundred business leaders and politicos to the Bienville Club Lounge on the third floor of the Superdome, including most of the New Orleans City Council and Jefferson Parish President John Young, as well as Benson's wife Gayle and Georges' wife Dathel.
Most of The Advocate's New Orleans editorial staff was on hand as well, though editor Peter Kovacs said the newspaper and sports teams' partnership would not extend to editorial in any way, but simply be a marketing and promotional tool for both entities.
(Editorial will be involved in one immediate way; The Advocate plans to print a commemorative broadsheet edition this Sunday to mark the Saints' season opener against the Atlanta Falcons, and the paper's New Orleans staff has been told to show up at the Dome Saturday night so they can personally tuck 70,000 copies of the paper in the seats.)
After Georges announced the deal (and gave Benson LeBlanc credit for coming up with the idea), Benson took the mic to lavish praise on Georges and The Advocate. "We've got a great newspaper here, a daily newspaper," Benson said, pausing before he took a swipe at NOLA Media Group, publishers of The Times-Picayune: "... instead of having one three days a week, or whatever it is."
Georges said the New Orleans paper, which began as a bureau of fewer than 12 under its previous owners, the Manship family of Baton Rouge, now has a staff of 41 (in comparison, The Times-Picayune has upwards of 150 employees, though the official number is not public). But advertising has been slow to follow the paper's growth, a fact that Georges noted tacitly when he told the crowd, "I'm asking everyone here to subscribe to the paper, but if you're in business, advertise."
After the press conference, Georges said he wasn't concentrating on ads for the time being, but that a subscription push and an ad campaign that is rolling out Monday are Phase 2 of a plan that began with building a New Orleans office. Asked if he has benchmark goals for advertising, he said no: "Our goal first was to make the product better. I think we're there already. Our next goal is circulation; we hope to grow our circulation with some really creative advertising over the next few months, featuring iconic New Orleans newsmakers, on television and billboards. And then advertisers come as the circulation [grows]." (A taste of that ad campaign played on video screens in the lounge: chef Andrea Apuzzo* standing at someone's front door, presenting a newspaper; Archie Manning in a front doorway, holding the paper like a football.)
Various circulation numbers for The New Orleans Advocate have been reported in recent months. So what's the figure? "We have about 20,000 to 25,000 total [home delivery and newsstand]," Georges said. "They started with about 21,000 [paid home delivery subscriptions in the New Orleans market] when the Manships had it; it fell to about 15,000 home delivery." Georges' goal, he said, is to use the Saints/Pelicans partnership and the new ad campaign to double that figure by year's end, bringing the paper to 30,000 paid home delivery copies.
Though Georges did not talk about it and editor Kovacs refused comment, sources at both The Times-Picayune and The Advocate say one of the most senior veteran reporters remaining at The Times-Picayune is poised to make the leap to The Advocate in the next few days, which would bring the New Orleans newsroom total to 42. (The paper's most recent acquisitions, both made in the last two weeks, were former T-P photographer Matthew Hinton and former Gambit food columnist Ian McNulty.)
For now, though, The Advocate joins a long list of official businesses with partnerships with the Saints — businesses both behemoth and medium-sized, from Coca-Cola ("The Official Soft Drink of the New Orleans Saints") to SDT Waste and Debris Services ("The Official Waste and Debris Services Partner of the New Orleans Saints") and Anheuser-Busch and Coors Light (jointly the "Half-Exclusive Malt Beverage and an Official Beer Partner of the New Orleans Saints"). Georges pronounced himself pleased with the deal.
"We jointly market each other, so we promote them seven days a week and they promote us," Georges said. "We're on the Arena, we have billboards there." Asked if he saw any conflict of interest in this mutual self-promotion, Georges shook his head no. "We separate our business and our editorial, just like Gambit and all other papers do."
* An earlier version of this story misidentified chef Andrea Apuzzo.