Grim outlook for New Orleans media
It will take many months to rebuild after Katrina
By Nate Herpich and Diego Vasquez medialifemagazine.com
With the disaster in New Orleans seeming to worsen by the hour, the city's remaining media outlets are in full emergency mode, reporting on the chaos left by Hurricane Katrina and the mounting relief efforts as the city evacuates.
Many of those outlets are just now beginning to assess the damages caused by the storm and how long before they might return to full operation. Their biggest concern has been ensuring the well-being of workers. But there's the sense it that it could be many months, if not more, meaning it could take far longer for the city's media economy and that of the region to fully recover.
"In all honesty, the New Orleans market could be crippled six months to a year, if not longer," Dennis P. McGuire, vice president and regional spot director for Carat, tells Media Life.
Of the city's TV stations, only the CBS affiliate, WWL-TV, continues to broadcast, doing so from the Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
As far as damage goes, it's too early to assess, we're still worrying about personnel," says Carey Hendrickson, communications vice president for WWL-TV parent Belo. As to costs incurred by the storm, Hendrickson says, "We are working through all those details right now. The truth is, we just don't yet know. We are in the throes of trying to work this all out.
The city's paper, the Times-Picayune, is publishing on it web site, but parent Advance Communications is not venturing a guess as to when it will resume putting out a print edition. As an interim step, it hopes to publish limited editions at papers outside the city.
Just when the paper can expect to begin repairs on its presses is the big unknown. Much will depend on when power is restored to the city, which could be weeks or even months away.
Actual press repairs could take months longer, depending on the extent of damage, says longtime newspaper analyst John Morton of Morton Research. The 270,000 circulation paper has 52 presses, and Morton notes the presses are highly susceptible to water damage, both because of their of their advanced electronics and the precision with which they are built. The computer system will most likely have to be replaced and the presses themselves taken apart, cleaned of contaminants from the flood water, and then rebuilt. The cost could run into the tens of millions of dollars, and that's before all the costs associated with rebuilding the infrastructure of the news operation.
As for the region's ad economy, media people say the destruction is all but unprecedented, making it that much harder to forecast recovery.
"I can't think of anything else like this, and I've tried," observes Carat's McGuire. "Even earthquakes or major fires have been limited in scope to certain areas, but they didn't stop people from getting to work. It's not like we know next Tuesday everyone will be back in place."
"I've never seen anything this widespread," says Sue Johenning, executive vice president and director of local broadcast at Initiative.
"This is not even close to what happened during the San Francisco earthquake. Most disasters affect a relatively small geographic area. New Orleans is underwater. Biloxi is pretty much gone."
Media people don't expect to see much ad spending anytime soon, certainly not in the coming days or weeks.
"It would be ridiculous to run spots," says Kathy Crawford, president of local broadcast at Mindshare. "Who in the world is watching TV? People who are can't go buy anything, they can't do anything. The few people who are watching TV are watching for information, they're not watching for commercials."
In the long-term, buyers see a slow recovery in the ad economy. Says Johenning of Initiative:
"It's going to take a long long time before advertising will come back to any sort of normalcy. I don't think we've begun to realize the severity of everything that's happened yet.
"I have no way of knowing, but it seems like it could be many, many months. I don't even want to speculate."
(Nate Herpich is a New York writer. Diego Vasquez is a staff writer for Media Life.)