Time warp: Newspaper war in the Big Easy

New Orleans - 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. The move will be closely watched by a struggling industry.

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. 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 Nola.com. 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."

Atorino said total print advertising dollars in the United States dropped from roughly $23 billion in 2008 to $19 billion in 2011.

While The Advocate takes steps into the New Orleans market, Nola Media is planning to strike back. The company said it will expand its operations in The Advocate's home turf and offer a customized version of Nola.com for Baton Rouge residents.

"There are a lot of competitors in the market," new Times-Picayune publisher Ricky Mathews said. "We've always got to strive to be the best we can be."

Nola Media is telling readers the print edition will be familiar, complete and even better. Prototype pages included an expanded opinion section and color comics for the Wednesday edition, which will carry three days' worth of comics and crossword puzzles.

The Advocate hopes to grow its print audience by 20,000 in the New Orleans area. Currently, they sell about 400 papers a day there.

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