‘This is a new beginning’

The new owner of The Advocate said he is “extremely proud” to own Louisiana’s largest daily newspaper and is aware of the enormous responsibility he has to the newspaper’s 450 employees and the Baton Rouge community.

John Georges, the chief executive officer of Georges Media Group and publisher of The Advocate, said he “felt like a son-in-law entering the family” during a meeting Wednesday with managers of the newspaper.

“This is a new beginning. This is a marathon, not a sprint,” Georges said. “We’re going to own this thing forever.”

Winning over The Advocate staff and showing his commitment to the city are two of the four immediate challenges Georges said he has. The others are to improve the New Orleans edition of The Advocate and pursue opportunities in digital media.

“Our core business is metro Baton Rouge,” Georges said. “We want to protect the flagship.”

That involves serving the community, taking care of employees and paying the bills, he said.

Georges completed a deal Tuesday to purchase The Advocate from the Manship family. Financial details were not disclosed.

The Manships had owned Baton Rouge newspaper properties since 1909.

At a news conference Wednesday to discuss the ownership change, Gov. Bobby Jindal, Mayor-President Kip Holden and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu all praised the Manships for their role in shaping Baton Rouge.

“As a Baton Rouge native, I have grown up not only reading The Advocate but (also) about the generous contributions the Manships have made to the Greater Baton Rouge community,” Jindal said. “But we’re not saying good-bye to the Manship family. They will continue to be an active part of our community. They will continue to own WBRZ, and I know they will continue to be very, very generous supporters of many worthwhile causes.”

Holden talked about his personal ties to the Manships. In 1968, when he was a student at Scotlandville High, Holden said, he became one of the first black student interns at The Advocate, covering sports. He later graduated from the Manship School of Journalism at LSU (now the Manship School of Mass Communications) and worked as a reporter with WBRZ.

“You have two operations between The Advocate family and the Georges family, but there’s a common denominator between these two families,” Holden said, “and it is simply the word ‘quality.’ ”

Landrieu said the philanthropic contributions from the Manships were “almost unparalleled” in the state. But he said under the leadership of Georges, the newspaper could play an even larger role in Louisiana by serving as a unifier for metro New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

“Everybody in our business knows that the future of Louisiana is about regions pulling together and working together,” Landrieu said. “When we pull together as a region, we can compete with anybody in the world. It really is The Advocate that has that perspective and that viewpoint.”

David Manship, the former publisher of The Advocate, said while it was a “sad day” for him, he had every confidence that Georges and his wife, Dathel, would continue to carry on the legacies his family set forth and improve the quality of the newspaper.

“I’m going to miss everybody who works at this paper. The good thing is, I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be in Baton Rouge. I’ll still live down the street and my phone number is not going to change,” Manship said during an emotional speech. Advocate employees applauded Manship as he walked into the news conference.

Georges, 52, said he used his own resources to purchase The Advocate. His billion-dollar company has business interests ranging from wholesale grocery distribution to Galatoire’s restaurants in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. During his 2007 run for governor of Louisiana, Georges estimated his net worth at “probably” more than $100 million.

Richard Manship, the former CEO and president of Capital City Press, praised Georges as a visionary who is up to the responsibility of running the newspaper.

“John believes in Louisiana and knows The Advocate can fuel its growth,” Manship said. “Not a three-day-a-week paper, but a seven-day-a-week paper,” he said in a reference to The Advocate’s expansion into the New Orleans market in October.

Georges said there are similarities between running a newspaper and his family’s business, Imperial Trading, which distributes groceries to convenience stores in a dozen states. Both involve the logistics of widespread distribution and dealing with tight profit margins.

While Georges praised The Advocate’s New Orleans edition, which was launched in the fall when The Times-Picayune decided to pare back to a three-day-a-week edition, he said there are ways to improve the publication and increase readership by tailoring that edition to New Orleans readers.

The New Orleans area accounts for about a fifth of The Advocate’s weekday circulation of 98,000. The Sunday circulation is about 125,000.

Georges said if The Advocate could double the number of subscribers in New Orleans, the newspaper would “be in great shape.” He said there are opportunities in the city because The Times-Picayune was “wounded and confused.”

“We have a unique opportunity to grow this newspaper,” he said. “It just happens that there’s a geography to the south that’s dying for quality journalism seven days a week.”

The Times-Picayune’s decision to reduce the frequency of its print edition generated widespread public outcry in New Orleans. On Tuesday, a few hours before it was announced Georges had completed the purchase of The Advocate, The Times-Picayune said it will launch a tabloid edition for three of the days on which it ceased publication. But the newspaper will not offer home delivery of those editions.

Georges introduced the two veteran Louisiana journalists who will be the new senior executives at The Advocate: Dan Shea and Peter Kovacs.

Shea and Kovacs were co-managing editors of The Times-Picayune, but they were laid off last summer when the newspaper let go nearly one-third of its staff in preparation for its reduced printing schedule.

Shea is the chief operating officer and general manager of The Advocate; Kovacs is editor. Both men have “full authority” to do what they want, Georges said.

The Advocate has a unique short-term opportunity to strengthen its position in Baton Rouge, develop a digital strategy and gain market share in New Orleans, Shea said. But Shea said nothing would be taken away from Baton Rouge to strengthen the New Orleans edition.

“We have an opportunity here to be a small, nimble family-owned company that reaches out, that looks for the best ideas and best practices in the industry, that has a stable local committed ownership,” he said. “We have been given a gift at a time of shrinking markets that there is another business that is turning away from its customers and not giving them what they want.”

Kovacs said The Advocate has a good market position in Baton Rouge and is a well-regarded company.

“It would be a mistake to use our well-regarded brand name to fund an experiment,” he said. “We’re trying to give the people of New Orleans a more New Orleanian paper.”

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