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La. daily remains advocate of free press

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Ralph Bender describes Louisiana as a highly political state - one where the tongue-in-cheek motto is "Vote early, vote often" and where the dead still have voting rights.

Thus, coverage of state politics has become both the franchise and mission of The Advocate, longtime daily newspaper of the state capital Baton Rouge.

"When it comes to freedom of information, we lead the charge in this state," said Bender, CFO of the 100,000-circulation daily. "We are the watchdog."

The Advocate is a veteran of freedom of information battles, tracing its roots back to 1909 when Charles Manship Sr. founded a newspaper promising to "dare to tell the truth of any man living." Manship fought for the independence of the Advocate in the 1920s and 1930s during the turbulent leadership era of Huey Long, a Louisiana governor and U.S. senator known for his near-total control of Louisiana politics.

Known as "The Kingfish," Long founded his own state newspaper to promote his agenda, taxed advertising revenues, and withheld "official printer" status to try and subdue his newspaper critics.

The Advocate and its newspaper ancestors have served Louisiana's capital city for 160 years. The paper is in its third generation of family ownership. David Manship, grandson of Charles Manship Sr., is the current publisher.

Today's Advocate traces its publishing history back to The Democratic Advocate, founded in 1842. The paper underwent numerous ownership transitions before being purchased by Charles Manship Sr. as The State-Times in 1909.

The State-Times was an afternoon paper until 1991 when television news and changing reader habits forced its closure. Manship had created the Morning Advocate back in 1925 to provide an early edition of the news.

The Advocate serves the parishes around Baton Rouge. The state capital is the heart of Louisiana's petrochemical industry and a significant university town, home to Louisiana State University and Southern University, the largest historically black university.

The Advocate has a staff of 570 full and part-time employees. It prides itself on local news, sports and food coverage - but political news is its franchise. "We are the source of political information in this state," said Bender. "Nobody covers politics like we do."

The family-owned daily maintains a 55:45 ratio of editorial to advertising. "Being a local paper we probably have a bigger news hole than some of the chains," said Bender. "It doesn't make us more money, but it makes a product more people want to read."

The Advocate produces numerous special sections each year, including a 128-page football tab that covers all college, high school and pro football in the state. Another special section supports a "Life After 50" expo hosted by the Advocate along with Manship family-owned TV station WBRZ 2.

The Advocate continues to improve its print and online products. It opened a new production facility in November 2006 that switched the paper to offset press and reduced the Web width to 48 inches. And like many newspapers, the Advocate is working to improve its Web site, www.2theadvocate.com, in order to better cover news and entertainment, appeal more to younger readers, and monetize the content.

"Our goal is very simple: excellence," said Bender. "We do it through good management." The Advocate participates in most newspaper associations, and regularly offers training for all its departments.

"We spend an inordinate amount of money on training in an era where this is not a popular thing to do in the newspaper business," said Bender. "If we want to continue to improve, we have to continue to educate and train."

Contact: Ralph Bender, rbender@theadvocate.com

New member profile: The Advocate

Circulation: 100,000

  Address: 7290 Bluebonnet Blvd., Baton Rouge, LA 70810

  Phone: (225) 383-1111

  Web: www.2theadvocate.com

  Days Published: Sunday - Saturday

  Key People: David Manship, publisher; Ralph Bender, chief financial officer; Carl Redman, executive editor; Larry Ruth, advertising director; Dean Blanchard, circulation director; Linda Wunstel, marketing director; Bubba Nola, production director; Candace Quave, HR director; Freda Dunne, new media director.