The New Orleans Advocate is asking state lawmakers to make it possible for the relatively young newspaper to compete for government classified ads in Orleans and Jefferson parishes.
The New Orleans edition of the Baton Rouge-based newspaper, created 18 months ago, is not eligible now to bid on the work. That’s because state law says a bidder must have a history of publishing in the area for the past five years.
This battle for government contracts is the latest in the newspaper war between The New Orleans Advocate and The Times-Picayune, with each hiring lobbying firms in Baton Rouge this legislative session. Weekly publications Gambit and New Orleans CityBusiness run some legal ads and also have a stake in the matter.
At issue are government contracts for judicial proceedings and other legal ads worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. If The Advocate can win the change in the coming weeks, the newspaper could bid immediately for the contracts, which are awarded each June.
The state Legislature has changed the law twice in recent years: in 2009 to allow Gambit to compete for public notices in Jefferson Parish, and in 2012 to deal with The Times-Picayune’s decision to publish three days a week. Until then, the publisher of the Orleans Parish notices had to be a daily newspaper. The 2012 change permitted Gambit to compete in Orleans Parish, and it won some judicial-notice contracts.
Two New Orleans House members are sponsoring bills at the request of Advocate owner John Georges.
House Bill 785 and House Bill 787 are identical and would allow bids by newspapers with only eight months of a presence in the area prior to Jan. 1. Neither bill has been heard in committee, the first step in the legislative process.
“The competition could bring down the rate,” said state Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-New Orleans, the sponsor of HB 787.
“We have a new, legitimate newspaper in New Orleans,” said state Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, the sponsor of HB 785. “They should have the right like any other legitimate newspaper to bid on public notices. It’s basically a free-enterprise bill.”
Each lawmaker said Georges called him with the request.
State Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner, will sponsor an additional bill in the Senate. He said Georges pitched it in a conversation.
“The Advocate has become the only daily paper in the New Orleans area,” Martiny said.
Georges did not return a phone call and an email seeking comment. Neither Times-Picayune Publisher Ricky Mathews nor Associate Publisher David Francis returned phone calls or emails. CityBusiness publisher Lisa Blossom did not respond to an email or a phone call.
Gambit co-owner Clancy DuBos said his publication is staying neutral on the bills.
Dan Shea, The Advocate’s Baton Rouge-based general manager, said he asked Georges to seek the legislative change.
“Having the right to compete for the legal notices is part of our being accepted as the hometown newspaper” in the New Orleans market, said Shea, formerly a Times-Picayune managing editor. “We have earned the right to have a seat at the table.”
Shea noted that if The Advocate’s legislation passes, it doesn’t guarantee the paper anything; it would still have to compete to get a contract.
At issue are two sets of public notices published as classified ads. One set is the legal and judicial notices administered by the sheriff’s office in each parish. These ads typically advertise real estate up for auction. Attorneys and creditors pay for virtually all of the legal and judicial notices. So a lower rate from additional competition would benefit private individuals or entities, not taxpayers.
Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand awards his contract to the lowest bidder, and he said he told Georges he wouldn’t oppose the bill. In recent years, CityBusiness held the contract from 2004-12, said Sheriff’s Office spokesman John Fortunato. The Times-Picayune regained it in 2013, and CityBusiness snatched it back again for this year.
In Jefferson Parish, taxpayers do pay for the official journal notices, which mostly contain minutes of parish council meetings, as well as requests for public bids and proposals.
Eula Lopez, the parish clerk, said The Times-Picayune has published the official journal for every year but one – when CityBusiness won the contract — for at least the past 20 years.
Jefferson Parish records show it paid $121,461.48 to CityBusiness in 2012 and $55,504 to The Times-Picayune in 2013, and so far has paid $48,029.77 to The T-P for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.
Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman was unaware of the legislation and has not spoken to Georges, spokesman Philip Stelly said.
If The Advocate’s bill passes, the paper also will have the right to bid to publish official journals of cities in Jefferson Parish as well as of other governmental entities in both parishes – but not the official journal for the City of New Orleans. Under the New Orleans Home Rule Charter, the City Council decides what publications are eligible.
Caught in the middle is the Louisiana Press Association, which represents the state’s publishers. The Times-Picayune and The Advocate are its two biggest members.
The press association board initially voted 6-5 to oppose The Advocate’s bills, then rescinded that vote and is now neutral, said Norris Babin, the press association president who is publisher of two weekly newspapers, the Plaquemines Gazette and the St. Bernard Voice.
“It’s kind of like having your two best friends in the schoolyard getting into a fight,” he said.