by Kevin Allman
The Advocate, which moved into the New Orleans market from Baton Rouge earlier this year in response to The Times-Picayune going to a three-day-per-week production schedule, has been sold to New Orleans businessman and sometime-political candidate John Georges. The announcement of the "Georges Media Group" and its buy will be announced officially on Wednesday at a 10 a.m. press conference at The Advocate's Bluebonnet Road offices, which will be attended by Gov. Bobby Jindal and various politicos and dignitaries.
In an interview tonight, Georges said he would be getting his first look at the physical paper when he walks through the newsroom and plant tomorrow. "I've wanted to buy The Advocate for two years now," he said, adding that the deal was finalized just today.
Georges had signed a letter of intent in March to buy the paper from the Manship family, which had owned it for 100 years. Publisher David Manship, who had been publicly ambivalent about the family's sale, sent an email to employees tonight saying, "I can tell you personally I am happy that such a passionate and reputable Louisiana family is taking the helm."
"It got complicated when they [The Advocate] decided to come into the New Orleans market last year," Georges said. "Negotiations stalled for six months."
Georges, who has never owned a media company, has had a wide variety of businesses (including a paper boy route for The Times-Picayune at age 15). Most of his ventures have been successful. The New Orleans native and Tulane University graduate built his company, Imperial Trading, into a distributor for convenience stores across the South. Its parent company, Georges Enterprises, has had a wide variety of holdings, including video poker machines. In 2007, the longtime Republican ran for governor as an independent and was defeated by Jindal. In 2009, he purchased Galatoire's, the city's old-line restaurant (which has a spinoff, Galatoire's Bistro, in Baton Rouge), and ran for mayor of New Orleans as a Democrat in a hotly contested race which he ultimately lost to Mitch Landrieu.
Asked if people thought he was crazy to be getting into the newspaper business at a time when the future of newspapers seemed dim, Georges said, "Warren Buffett and the Koch brothers are getting into it. I don’t know who says it's crazy."
The news came hours after NOLA Media Group, publishers of NOLA.com and its print arm, The Times-Picayune, announced the company would be launching a new tabloid product on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, when the Picayune does not publish. That product, which will be called TPStreets, will be unavailable for print home delivery and will cost 75 cents, just as the daily Times-Picayune does. Jim Amoss, NOLA Media Group's Vice President of Content, said in an online story today that TPStreets will launch this summer. Reaction on NOLA.com itself has been largely scathing, with commenters wondering why the paper, which had infuriated many subscribers when it cut back publication, would now launch a completely new product that was unavailable by subscription. (Last week, NOLA Media Group doubled down on print with a new weekly tabloid, BR, which is distributed in Baton Rouge; the first edition was light on news and heavy on quasi-digital oddities like printed Twitter feeds and a page of "Screen Grabs of the Week.")
Adding to the newspaper-war intrigue is a personnel move by Georges: He has hired Peter Kovacs as the paper's new editor and Dan Shea as general manager/COO. Kovacs and Shea were managing editors at The Times-Picayune until last year, when Ricky Mathews replaced Ashton Phelps as publisher and led a newsroom putsch that claimed both Kovacs and Shea as two of its first dismissals. Both men start at The Advocate immediately. Kovacs will move to Baton Rouge; Shea will commute regularly, he told Gambit. Carl Redman, The Advocate's longtime executive editor, will continue as senior editor.
"They respect the journalists," Georges said, "and they understand what people in Louisiana want to read."
In a separate interview, Shea told Gambit that The Advocate "does a great job on sports, legislative coverage and other things." As for the paper's New Orleans edition, "I think we're doing a great job covering New Orleans now, and we just need more resources if we're going to be perceived as a truly New Orleans daily newspaper." (The New Orleans bureau of The Advocate has 10 full-time employees — three of them in sales — and a small network of freelancers. Current staffing numbers at NOLA Media Group are harder to come by, but are reported to be around 150 people.)
Asked if Kovacs' and Shea's strong ties to New Orleans would send a signal to subscribers and business owners in Baton Rouge, Georges said no: "The Baton Rouge community’s applauding increasing the chance of [the New Orleans edition's] success in New Orleans." Georges said he and the other two men had owned homes in Baton Rouge at various times since Hurricane Katrina, and added he had a long history in the capital city, from various business holdings to a seven-year tenure on the Louisiana Board of Regents.
Newspaper owners and publishers take a wide variety of positions when it comes to content in their papers; some concentrate on business operations and give full editorial rein to their employees, while others take an active role in editorial operations like the op-ed pages. Georges said that — despite his recent forays into electoral politics — he would not likely insert his views into The Advocate. "I'll leave it to these guys [Kovacs and Shea]. I reserve the right to, but I'm going to focus on the business side of the paper." One change, however: Georges will be setting up advisory boards in both New Orleans and Baton Rouge with local leaders, and his wife, Dathel Coleman Georges, will sit on both boards.
Asked if he had any changes or expansions in mind, Georges offered no specifics. "We’ll let Dan and Peter and the rest of them roll out things as they occur," he said. "I want the same things everyone else wants: the paper we’re used to reading.
"They [the Manship family] could have sold to bigger-name people than me," Georges added. "They're a legacy family — how often does a newspaper change hands? Once every hundred years? — and I want to honor that. Like them, I run a nearly-100-year-old family business. The paper was not sold to a national chain. I'm a Louisiana boy."
— Read Gambit's 2007 cover profile of Georges here.