New Orleans paper goes back to 7-day print edition

A year after announcing a plan to reorganize The New Orleans Times-Picayune into a more digitally focused enterprise that produced a newspaper just three days a week - enraging local residents - its owners have added a new innovation: They will go back to producing a printed product every day.

"We are excited about this opportunity to extend our daily reach in print," an advertising executive at the newspaper said in the announcement.

You don't say.

This daily newspaper thing may be catching on. The Philadelphia Inquirer recently announced that it would begin printing a Saturday edition again after a nearly two-year hiatus.

The much ballyhooed unmaking of daily newspapering seems to be unmaking itself, and there's a reason for that. Most newspapers have hung onto the ancient practice of embedding prose on a page and throwing it in people's yards because that's where the money and the customers are for the time being.

The industry tried chasing clicks for a while to win back fleeing advertisers, decided it was a fool's errand and is now turning to customers for revenue. But in order to charge people for news, you have to prosecute journalism.

The belief that historic monopolies will hold together just on the basis of inertia has proved to be wrong. Newspapers that have cut their operations beyond usefulness or quit delivering a daily print presence have suffered. The audience has to be earned every day.

Newspaper publishing will never return to the 30 percent plus margins it once had, but some people believe there is a business model. Warren Buffett thinks that a 10 percent return is reasonable, now that sale prices have sunk.

Clearly, commanding a market to change on a dime because it suits your business plan does not mean readers will obey. Just ask Advance Publications, owned by the Newhouse family, which is back to where it started in New Orleans with The Times-Picayune.

Except that the name Times-Picayune, which had stood for quality and civic constancy for decades, does not mean the same thing anymore. The vaunted website that was to be the lifeblood of the new enterprise remains a creaky mess, and the newsroom has been denuded of remarkably talented people.

Several of those people, including the two former managing editors of the newspapers, have gone to work for The Advocate, the Baton Rouge daily that has introduced a New Orleans edition. With a new, rich owner, it has taken aim at the market The Times-Picayune once owned.

Advance made its decisions up against some very dark trends in the business, but they were made with the dead-eyed arrogance of a monopolist in a much-changed world. Columbia Journalism Review described The Times-Picayune's strategy of the last year as a "rolling disaster."

It's been a jaw-dropping blunder to watch. Advance misjudged the marketplace - the whole city and state went ballistic when the changes were announced - and failed to execute a modern digital strategy.

On Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, a broadsheet called The Times-Picayune will be available for home delivery and on the newsstands for 75 cents. On Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, a tabloid called TPStreet will be available only on newsstands for 75 cents.

In addition, a special electronic edition of TPStreet will be available to the three-day subscribers of the home-delivered newspaper. On Saturdays, there will be early print editions of the Sunday Times-Picayune with some breaking news and some Sunday content.

There's more, but you get the idea - or not. It's an array of products, frequencies and approaches that is difficult to explain, much less market.

The move was clearly defensive, unveiled the day before John Georges, the new owner of The Advocate, announced that it would expand its incursion into New Orleans. Since early fall, The Advocate has been publishing The New Orleans Advocate, with 20,000 subscribers.

Georges, a successful businessman who had less success running for governor of Louisiana and mayor of New Orleans, held a news conference on May 1 where he was accompanied by the governor, Bobby Jindal, and the mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu.

It was an indication that the home team had chosen sides and the once-beloved Times-Picayune was on the wrong side of the field.

Last July, Sen. David Vitter, a R-La., wrote a brutal letter to Steven Newhouse, the chairman of Advance.

"From a pure business perspective, you're about to get smoked," Vitter wrote. "The Advocate and others are moving in to fill the void you are creating. And TP subscribers, including me, will be eager to cheer them on by trading our subscriptions."

The Advocate has never had the assets or the reputation that The Times-Picayune built up over the years, but the management of The Times-Picayune managed to create the one thing the paper never had before: actual competition.

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