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Opinion Louisiana paper juggles the coronavirus, furloughs

A business is seen boarded up on March 19 along Bourbon Street, a usually bustling section of New Orleans. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

The Tigers of Louisiana State University won college football’s national championship on Jan. 13, prompting demand for keepsakes. “Today alone, we’ve sold over 45 new digital only subscriptions, 8K papers and 4K posters!” noted Judi Terzotis, president and publisher of the Advocate, Louisiana’s largest newspaper, in an email to staffers. “Today alone.” (Bolding in original.)

The football windfall prompted optimistic chatter in the office. “We’re at least not going to get laid off from all these sales that they’re making,” recalls a staffer at the newspaper. “We’re possibly even getting bonuses. Those were the conversations we were having.”

More coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

Those conversations have shifted. Louisiana ranks third in the United States in “per capita cases of people infected with the deadly novel coronavirus,” according to the Advocate. On Sunday, Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) issued a stay-at-home order until April 12, and the state has promulgated various commerce-killing measures — shutting down bars, casinos, gyms and movie theaters, as well as limiting restaurants to takeout, delivery and drive-thru service — to enable its citizens to survive the virus. Authorities pin the blame for the outbreak in New Orleans, at least in part, on a thronged Mardi Gras celebration, which ran through Feb. 25.

The result? Advertising at the Advocate has “dropped off,” according to a memo from Terzotis and Advocate Editor Peter Kovacs. “This week, we will be temporarily furloughing about a tenth of our 400-member workforce,” notes the memo, “and the rest of us will begin four-day workweeks. Our newsroom, with about 120 employees, is the largest in Louisiana, and the furloughs will chiefly impact people who cover sports and social events, which have been curtailed.” The reduced schedule is part of a 20 percent pay cut for all employees.

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More instability in Louisiana newspapering, in other words. Last year, in a surprising move, the Advocate gobbled up the New Orleans Times-Picayune. The transaction didn’t include the venerable Times-Picayune’s 65 editorial staffers (though some of them subsequently joined the Advocate). That acquisition came seven years after the Times-Picayune’s retreat from daily to thrice-weekly delivery, a widely panned move that invited competition from the Advocate, based in Baton Rouge. As of the fourth quarter of 2019, the Advocate and the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate had a combined circulation of 163,172, according to the Alliance for Audited Media.

The Advocate’s grim news comes paired with classic newspaper business rhetoric. “We needed to make some hard decisions now to protect our readers and our advertisers and our workers for the long-term health of the business,” said Terzotis during an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog. In preparation for the move, Terzotis “pulled every other lever” in the organization to save on expenses, including suspending the company’s program that redelivers to customers who report lost or stolen papers.

Asked why the company took this step so early in what’s expected to be a months-long economic slowdown, Terzotis said, “It would have been foolhardy for us to hold off.” The “backbone” of the company’s advertising base, said Terzotis, consists of mom-and-pop businesses, including mortgage companies, clothiers, restaurants, health-care firms and so on. Many sectors, in other words, that are getting socked by the covid-19 pandemic. Now, Terzotis is working with grocers and home-improvement businesses to extract whatever revenue can be wrung from the coronavirus economy.

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After all, the Advocate can’t power ahead just on subscription revenue. Only last April did the newspaper inaugurate a digital subscription/paywall model; it now has 7,800 digital-only subscriptions. Other newspapers — most notably the New York Times — have used digital subscriptions to diminish their dependence on sagging and whimsical advertising. That said, the Advocate’s rate for new digital-only subscriptions has improved to about 100 per day, about twice its rate before coronavirus. That uptick has occurred even though the publication placed its coronavirus coverage in front of its paywall. Or perhaps because of that decision, notes Kovacs.

Before jumping to the Advocate in 2013, Kovacs had spent nearly three decades as managing editor of the Times-Picayune, which bagged two Pulitzer Prizes for its coverage of Hurricane Katrina. There’s at least one important parallel between the hurricane and coronavirus. “It’s hard to cover something that has tentacles in every aspect of life,” Kovacs said of the coronavirus, “and Katrina was the same way.” Coverage on reflects the stranglehold of coronavirus on news everywhere these days. There are stories on the chaos in the medical sector; a federal disaster declaration; positive tests for plant workers; teddy “bear hunts” for kids; nursing home clusters; and so on. So what else is going on? Nothing.

Brooks Kubena, a 26-year-old sports reporter for the Advocate, churned out 19 stories in 10 days on coronavirus’s impact on collegiate sports. He has changed beats and is now covering state politics in Baton Rouge. On Tuesday, Kubena reported about the state’s exploration of hotel rooms and college dorms to ease pressure on hospitals. “My main focus with this whole thing is to just go help with something that’s really important right now,” Kubena said.

Kovacs & Co. have to cover the coronavirus with a smaller newsroom that works fewer hours and earns less money. “I hope that the effect on coverage is as small as it can be,” says Kovacs. “You can’t have less hours of working and not have some effect on your coverage.”

The scramble to cover every aspect of the coronavirus outbreak in southern Louisiana makes a mockery of the idea that journalists at the Advocate will somehow ramp down to a four-day workweek. “The kind of reporters I would want to cover this crisis aren’t the kind of reporters that are only going to work four days a week,” says one Advocate journalist who requested anonymity. “This is a story that is moving and changing and if you take a three-day break, you’re going to miss a bunch.”

In balancing dwindling resources against surging demand for journalism, the Advocate is every local/regional newspaper in the United States right now. Each day of the crisis brings more bad news about local news, a sector that has had a ruinous 21st century. News publications in Pittsburgh, D.C., Michigan, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, California and beyond are facing down the downturn with one shrinking measure or another — layoffs, pay cuts, furloughs. BuzzFeed News’s Craig Silverman has called it a “media extinction event.”

The Advocate wouldn’t go that far. “The business will come back,” noted Terzotis. “But our experience in other disasters helped us get out ahead in preparation for the governmental closings and restrictions.”

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