In the digital age, a rare fight for print readers

Associated Press Modified: September 28, 2012 at 11:02 am •  Published: September 28, 2012

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — When The Times-Picayune decided to print three days a week, a nearby publication saw a chance to expand in the newspaper's backyard and fill a void that for some in the New Orleans area is as much a part of the morning routine as beignets and French coffee.

The Advocate of Baton Rouge, a family-owned daily published 70 miles north, will begin a daily New Orleans edition Monday, setting up an old-fashioned newspaper war. The battle for print readers comes even as more people get their news online and from cellphones — generally from newspaper websites — and more news media share stories to save money.

The experiment will be closely watched by an industry that has struggled in recent years as print advertising declined during the recession.

Locally, readers will decide whether they still want The Times-Picayune, a Pulitzer-winning, 175-year-old New Orleans icon that will print every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

At the Morning Call coffee shop in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, manhandled sections of The Times-Picayune littered the chairs recently as Louis Gomez, 77, and three friends sipped cafe au lait. Wireless Internet was available, but the printed newspaper was the medium of choice.

"I will get The Advocate," Gomez said. "I will quit the Picayune."

Other people in this tradition-bound city don't want to lose the Picayune, as most locals call it. Hundreds of people have rallied against the changes, and elected officials and community leaders have been quick to criticize. Some people even embarked on a futile campaign to get the paper's owner to sell it.

The Picayune has had a stranglehold on print news for decades, consolidating other dailies under its banner. The newspaper — named after a Spanish colonial coin worth about 6 cents — has had its finger tightly on the pulse of the people and events. Its coverage of hurricanes such as Betsy and Katrina, the New Orleans Saints, the entertainment, political corruption and ties to the Mississippi River all forged tight bonds with readers.

The Advocate's challenge entering the city is the first by a major daily newspaper in New Orleans in more than 50 years. The Advocate has built its reputation on accountability reporting in state government and coverage of Louisiana State University, particularly school sports.

Both newspapers have steadily shifted to online news.

In June, The Times-Picayune's owner, privately held Advance Publications Inc., and a new subsidiary, Nola Media Group, announced the paper would lay off 200 employees and shift its focus to the free website Advance is pursuing similar three-times-a-week strategies with several other newspapers in the chain, including publications in Michigan, Alabama and Pennsylvania.

Edward Atorino, a media industry analyst at Benchmark Co., said other newspapers in major metropolitan markets will closely watch The Times-Picayune's experiment.

"The day of the seven-day newspaper is fading," he said. "This has been a long, deteriorating situation. It's not a shock, and we're going to see more of it."

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