If you haven’t seen The New Orleans Advocate’s new television campaign, you probably will soon. The brisk, clever ads emphasize the paper’s daily delivery schedule and feature local personalities - Archie Manning, Irma Thomas, Rita Benson LeBlanc, Andrea Apuzzo, the 610 Stompers - ringing a doorbell and handing copies of The New Orleans Advocate to a surprised homeowner. It’s all set to a jazzy soundtrack and the familiar Yat growl of Ronnie Virgets: “New Orleans is at ya do’ - seven days a week.”
But it’s not all chefs, musicians and sports figures. Among the familiar faces ringing the doorbell are several elected officials: Jefferson Parish President John Young and Sheriff Newell Normand; St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister; and New Orleans City Council Vice President Stacy Head.
“Business is good in Jefferson Parish!” Young says, handing the homeowner a newspaper, while Head announces, “Here’s the latest from the City Council!”
Most newspapers’ marketing departments - including that of The New Orleans Advocate - are completely separate from their newsroom operations. Nonetheless, using elected officials in ads for a newspaper is a new one on Kelly McBride, the house ethics expert at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit school for journalism in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“The Advocate obviously has a competitive relationship with The Times-Picayune,” McBride told Gambit. “If the politicians join The Advocate in sharing that message, what does that say about The Advocate’s ability to critically examine those politicians?”
Not surprisingly, Advocate owner and publisher John Georges - who ran for governor in 2007 and mayor of New Orleans in 2010 - disagrees. At last weekend’s Rising Tide conference at Xavier University, where he was introducing keynote speaker Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, Georges told Gambit, “That ad is filled with New Orleans newsmakers, and that’s what the people in the ad are appearing as - they’re newsmakers.”
As one of the region’s wealthiest and most successful businessmen, Georges is well acquainted with politicians both in New Orleans and across the state. At the May press conference in Baton Rouge where he announced his purchase of The Advocate, he was flanked by Gov. Bobby Jindal, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden.
Two sources with knowledge of the ad campaign told Gambit that Landrieu was approached about appearing in the television ad campaign as well, but declined to participate. Landrieu communications director Garnesha Crawford did not confirm this directly, but returned a request for comment saying, “Mayor Landrieu was pleased to stand with John Georges and his wife Dathel at the press conference announcing their new ownership of The Advocate and their expansion into the New Orleans market. As mayor, he welcomes new business and new investment with open arms.
“The mayor does not appear in advertisements to endorse one competing commercial enterprise over another.”
Asked for comment, Dan Shea, the former managing editor of The Times-Picayune who is now the general manager of The New Orleans Advocate, sent a text message saying, “Heard you spoke with John [Georges]. I’ll let his comments stand though I’m not sure why this is a story.”
None of the political figures were paid for their participation, according to The New Orleans Advocate, a fact Head confirmed. “I’m not an actress!” she said. “I just wanted to help because I truly believe New Orleans deserves a daily newspaper. I’ve known John for 25 years.”
The Ethics Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) has plenty of blunt advice for journalists who might be tempted to take part in politics (“Don’t do it. Don’t get involved.”), but has nothing to say about politicians taking part in newspaper ad campaigns. SPJ guidelines are aimed at reporters, not a newspaper’s marketing department. Nevertheless, the SPJ Code of Ethics for journalists is clear: “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived,” and “Remain free of associations that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.”
Could decisions made by a newspaper’s marketing department compromise a newsroom’s integrity?
David Craig is a journalism professor and associate dean of the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma and the author of two books on ethics in journalism. He also advises the SPJ on the group’s ethics hotline. “It raises questions in my mind around the issue of independence, and the principle of acting independently comes into play here, though it may be more of an issue of perception than reality,” Craig said. “It doesn’t make me start worrying that the members of the newsroom aren’t credible, but it does make me wonder what members of the public might think about it.”
“Let’s say they’re mortified by this,” McBride said, referring to the paper’s reporters and editors. “They would never cut a politician slack because he appeared in one of the commercials, but the audience perceives them to be all on the same bus. Perception can be as damaging as a real conflict of interest.”
Those associations, ironically, are what worried some when Advance Publications’ Ricky Mathews took the reins at The Times-Picayune after the retirement of longtime publisher Ashton Phelps Jr. For decades, Phelps had downplayed any political relationships he might have held, while Mathews was proud of his friendships with then-Gov. Bob Riley of Alabama and then-Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi and was often photographed with powerbrokers, some of them political.
Since taking over in New Orleans, however, Mathews mostly has stayed out of the public eye, with the exception of speeches at business functions. And The Times-Picayune has recently launched its own television ad campaign, which features no politicians or newsmakers, just iconic neighborhood images of the city snappily edited together to remind readers The Times-Picayune has been publishing in New Orleans for more than 175 years.
The New Orleans Advocate’s television campaign is just one way Georges has already shown he intends to be a different sort of newspaper owner and publisher. Shortly after buying the paper, he had his news staff manning a table and hawking subscriptions at the Greek Festival New Orleans (which was founded by his father, Dennis Georges). Before the New Orleans Saints season opener against the Atlanta Falcons, Georges and his staff covered every seat in the Superdome with a handsomely produced commemorative edition of the paper.
The New Orleans Advocate and The Times-Picayune are in a pitched battle for local advertisers and readers. New Orleans subscribers who have sampled and subsequently dropped The New Orleans Advocate in the past few months recently received a letter saying, “We Want You Back!”, offering a temporary half-off subscription deal. Meanwhile, former subscribers of The Times-Picayune report getting phone and mail solicitations offering deep discounts for readers who re-up their subscriptions.
As nontraditional newspaper owners get into the business - Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos recently bought The Washington Post, and investor Warren Buffett has been snapping up papers around the country - Georges’ unusual ad campaign may be a harbinger of new and creative ways a newspaper can be marketed.
“The reality may be that members of the public don’t care,” said the SPJ’s Craig.
The Poynter Institute’s McBride, however, still isn’t a fan. “People could assume - especially in New Orleans,” she said, “that these are the good old boys all getting to make decisions about which paper should be the city’s paper of record.”