Katrina Flight Means Boom for Baton Rouge ‘Advocate’

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By: SETH SUTEL, AP Business Writer

(AP) As the streets of Baton Rouge swell with thousands of people displaced by Hurricane Katrina, so too have the fortunes of the capital city’s newspaper, The Advocate.

A look into the sudden changes occurring at the newspaper reveals some of the economic forces reshaping Baton Rouge as it absorbs the nearly 250,000 people who fled the devastation of New Orleans some 75 miles to the southeast.

Demand for temporary housing is surging — and so is real estate advertising, which is up about 60% so far in September versus the same period a year ago, according to Kirk Fisher, director of operations at The Advocate.

Many people lost their cars and need to buy new ones, so automotive ads are up about 80%. Employers in other cities want to lure away badly needed nurses, lawyers, accountants and other professionals displaced by the storm, so help-wanted ads have more than tripled.

Overall, advertising revenues at the family-owned newspaper have jumped 48% so far in September compared with the same period a year ago, with classified ads alone up 75%, Fisher said.

To accommodate the booming demand for ads, the newspaper has been adding pages, going from a typical 400 pages on Fridays pre-Katrina to about 450 to 460 in the past few weeks, Fisher said. A recent Sunday paper was up to 532 pages, versus 496 on the same day a year ago.

The Advocate’s circulation has also seen a jump of about 30,000 copies on weekdays as well as Sundays, putting its recent paid circulation to about 130,000 on weekdays and nearly 160,000 on Sundays, said circulation chief Dean Blanchard.

Fisher readily acknowledges that this massive surge in advertising and circulation will likely fade as New Orleanians either return to rebuilt homes or permanently relocate elsewhere. But he believes that Baton Rouge’s population — and thus its potential base of advertisers — may eventually see a permanent increase.

It’s hard to tell how big that will be in the long run, however. The newspaper is not making big additions to its staff for now, and the paper expects perhaps another month or so of “hyper advertising activity,” Fisher said.

“We’re still trying to feel our way through this,” Fisher said. “We anticipate growth in circulation, but where that ends up, we’re not sure.”

For now, companies seeking to reach or provide services to people affected by the hurricane are buying many of the ads being placed in the paper, said Larry Ruth, the newspaper’s advertising director.

Insurance companies are providing information on how to make claims; banks are soliciting loans for people who want to rebuild; and out-of-state car dealerships are seeking to sell cars to people who lost vehicles in the storm.

The newspaper, which has been owned by the Manship family since 1912, has not raised its advertising rates despite the upsurge in demand for ads, Fisher said. “While we are profiting from this storm and this tragedy, we don’t want to profiteer from it,” Fisher said. “Raising rates at this point would be unethical.”

Being a private company, the newspaper does not disclose full financial results like public companies do.

Even with the groundswell of new business, Fisher doesn’t expect The Advocate to make a big move into New Orleans as the city rebuilds, given the cultural differences between the seat of the state government and the freewheeling party atmosphere of New Orleans.

“Baton Rouge, while it’s certainly not a sleepy little town, lacks the big city luster of New Orleans,” Fisher said.

Hancock Bank, a regional bank that has customers in the New Orleans area, has taken out ads explaining its expanded branch hours, services it is offering to people rebuilding their homes and phone numbers of mortgage agents.

Paul Guichet, vice president of investor relations for Hancock Holding Co., the bank’s parent company, said the bank’s marketing expenses have increased “by a considerable number” as it tries to reach people displaced by the storm.

The New Orleans newspaper, The Times-Picayune, has soldiered on despite having to abandon their offices after the storm. After publishing an online version only for three days after Katrina hit on Aug. 29, the paper resumed publication under an arrangement with The Courier newspaper in Houma, 50 miles on the other side of New Orleans. It currently publishes its paper at the facilities of the Mobile Register, a paper in Alabama that like the Times-Picayune is also owned by the Newhouse family.

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