The Times-Picayune just lost a chunk of its lucrative classified advertising dollars to Gambit, a weekly newspaper that has been pushing for years for a piece of the action.

The classified ads in question – notices of proceedings in New Orleans’ Civil District Court which by law must be made public – historically have been placed in the city’s daily “paper of record,” The Times-Picayune. That all changed when The Times-Picayune announced it will soon scale back print publication to three days a week, costing it its legal status as a “daily.”

“The Clerk of Civil District Court’s Office has selected Gambit as its official journal for all advertisements required to be made in relation to judicial proceedings,” Clerk of Court Dale Atkins wrote in a June 29 memo directed at the public and members of the Louisiana Bar. The memo announcing her decision was first reported in NOLA Defender, an online community news website.

The “judicial proceedings” that Atkins refers to are paid for by parties to the proceeding. Gambit has an even bigger prize in mind, according to Gambit publisher and co-owner Margo Dubos: the full range of “official notices” that government agencies pay for and publish in The Times-Picayune, as the city’s “official journal.” She said Gambit has been working since the early 1990s to crack The Times-Picayune’s “decades-long monopoly on public notices in Orleans Parish.”

Gambit has nabbed at least two other groups of classified ads that are required by law to be published. Gambit co-owner Clancy Dubos told The Lens that the newspaper submitted six proposals this year and was selected by the constable of New Orleans’ First City Court as well as the Civil District Court to publish judicial notices.

The Jefferson Parish Clerk of Court, Jon Gegenheimer, selected Gambit to run judicial notices from his parish, Dubos added. The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office went with New Orleans CityBusiness.

He said Gambit is awaiting word on a possible fourth set of judicial notices that may go Gambit’s way: New Orleans’ Second City Court.

Margo Dubos said she hopes the New Orleans City Council will convene a committee to reconsider its official notices arrangement with The Times-Picayune. “The city selects the publisher of the city’s ‘official journal,’ which is governed under local ordinance, not state law,” Dubos said. “They have to meet as an organization and decide what the criteria are going to be. We hope we will be able to bid, based on what they decide.”

The Times-Picayune is one of several papers owned by Advance Publications that is attempting to shift its publishing focus from newsprint to the web. Since unveiling its plans several weeks ago, the venerable New Orleans daily has laid off about 200 employees and embarked on a public relations campaign to assuage readers unhappy with, which is to become its main news outlet.

The change also forced lawmakers in Baton Rouge to take another look at the statute governing judicial notices in Orleans Parish, in particular the requirement that the ads be placed in a daily newspaper. Gambit hired a Baton Rouge lobbyist to push for passage of a new law, written by New Orleans State Sen. J. P.  Morrell, that opened the New Orleans judicial-ads door to weekly newspapers, such as Gambit.

Atkins said the decision to go with Gambit was a no-brainer. “It’s plain and simple,” she said. “When The Times-Picayune changed from being a daily newspaper to being a three-times-a-week paper, it was an opportunity to have [the] ads printed at a substantially lower rate.”

The Times-Picayune was charging $1.57 per line, Atkins said, and Thursdays and Sundays cost more. In her memo, Atkins said Gambit is charging 93 cents a line for the advertisements. Clancy Dubos said Gambit made that same offer in each of its six proposals.

Under state law, the decision was Atkins’ to make and did not require consultation with Civil District Court judges, or the New Orleans City Council. Gambit will start running the Civil District Court ads August 1, Atkins said.

It may not be the end of Gambit’s inroads into the T-P’s classified ad revenues.  

Gambit secured the right to submit proposals for Jefferson Parish’s judicial notices in 2009, according to Margo Dubos.

Jefferson Parish was an easier nut for Gambit to crack, because since the 1960s the parish has not had a homegrown daily, Margo Dubos said. The Times-Picayune and New Orleans CityBusiness had secured a legislative exception to carry the ads, and in 2009 Gambit got the same exception.

CityBusiness has been the publisher of judicial notices in Jefferson Parish since about 1986.

In 2010, Gambit tried and failed to establish itself as a suitable outlet for Orleans Parish judicial notices.

“The Times-Picayune and the [Louisiana Press Association] were successful in defeating our proposed legislation in the Senate,” Margo Dubos said. “It’s interesting to note that had that bill passed, it would not have been necessary to change anything in response to [the] recent decision to cease publishing The Times-Picayune as a daily newspaper.” The Morrell law “effectively did the same thing that our proposed 2010 legislation would have done had it not been opposed by The Times-Picayune and the LPA,” Dubos said.

She noted that when The Times-Picayune announced its intention to cease publishing a daily paper, the Louisiana Press Association “embraced Gambit’s long-held position that judicial notices in Orleans Parish should be open to Gambit as well as The Times-Picayune.”

Pamela Mitchell, executive director of the Louisiana Press Association, said the selection of Gambit for the Civil District Court ads was indeed a sign of the times. “I have been in newspapers in Louisiana for over 30 years,” she said, “and I have never known a clerk of court to pick a paper different from what the parish chose.”

Part of the reason for that, Clancy Dubos said, is that most parishes in Louisiana only have a single paper of record.

Just how much the ads are worth is unclear.

Morrell told The Lens last month that The Times-Picayune netted some $6 million from Orleans Parish government ads, which are dominated by notices for properties subject to auction by the sheriff, a line of revenue that so far is staying with The Times-Picayune (and the Louisiana Weekly, which also runs the ads as the official “auxiliary” publication, under state law).

Another $500,000 to $1 million comes from classified ads placed by state agencies, Morrell said.

The Duboses said they thought those numbers were overstated.

Mitchell agreed. “I don’t know where that number came from,” she said of Morrell’s aggregate figure of $7 million. “That’s probably more than the whole state, let alone just Orleans parish.”

A call to The Times-Picayune’s business manager was not returned.

The Atkins memo said that when it comes to publishing judicial notices, the principals to the court casts can either submit the postings through the court or deal directly with Gambit’s classified department.

The good news for The Times-Picayune is that the sheriff’s department will continue to advertise with the paper, and it remains New Orleans’ official paper of record for taxpayer-funded public notices.

“The Sheriff’s Office did conduct a process last month to select an official journal for the [Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office],” sheriff’s spokesman Marc Ehrhardt said  Wednesday. “We sent a [Request for Proposals] to the two eligible entities – Gambit and The Times-Picayune. The Times-Picayune was the low bidder and was selected,” he said.

Ehrhardt could not provide the competing papers’ proposals, but based on Clancy Dubos’s statement that all of Gambit’s proposals were identical, the offer from The Times-Picayune would need to have been less than 93 cents per line to have beaten the proposal from Gambit.

Gambit spent much of June decrying the end of The Times-Picayune as a daily paper, making New Orleans the largest American city without one.

“Businesses compete all the time,” Margo Dubos said, when asked to comment on the irony of her paper seeking to exploit the daily’s demise for financial gain. “Exploit is not an accurate description of our longstanding efforts to open judicial notice publishing in Orleans and Jefferson to competition,” she said. “Our expressions of empathy for the reporters, editors and other employees of The Times-Picayune is genuine.”

Tom Gogola

Tom Gogola covered criminal justice for The Lens from February 2012 to May 2013. He is a veteran journalist and editor who has written on a range of subjects for many publications, including Newsday, New...