Georges plans to strengthen N.O. edition

New Orleans businessman John Georges, the new owner of The Advocate, said Wednesday that he plans to strengthen the New Orleans edition of the newspaper to better meet the demand of the community.

“We have a unique opportunity to grow this newspaper,” Georges, the chief executive officer of Georges Media Group and publisher of The Advocate, said during a meeting with the newspaper’s employees Wednesday. “It just happens that there’s a geography to the south that’s dying for quality journalism seven days a week.”

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 the edition to New Orleans readers.

The goal is to get the new changes in place by September, he said.

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

The Manships have owned Baton Rouge newspaper properties since 1909.

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.”

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 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.”

Georges said Shea and Kovacs will have the final say about The Advocate’s New Orleans edition.

“But one would assume they’re going to want to do more content in New Orleans,” he said.

Shea said there is a balancing act that has to go on.

“We have to have enough specific metro New Orleans content there to make the paper attractive to get more people to buy it. In turn, that leads to advertising,” he said.

“But we’re not going to give away the store. We’re not going to hurt our franchise here.”

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

“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.

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

“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 (TV) and I know they will continue to be very, very generous supporters of many worthwhile causes.”

Landrieu said that 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.”

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 New Orleans and Baton Rouge. 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.”

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, he said.

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