New Orleans Media Market Down But Not Out

Local Media Targets Smaller Population Spending Steadily for Massive Rebuild

By Published on .

NEW YORK ( -- Deborah Gentilini traveled from Dallas down to New Orleans in January and spent a lot of time stuck in traffic, which gave the local broadcast buyer from the Richards Group time to listen to local radio and the myriad commercials full of what she described as "rah-rah, moral support" and promoting shops and restaurants that were open for business.

Photo: AP
Hurricane Katrina displaced many New Orleans residents, scattering them as far as Houston, Chicago and even New York. Not all have returned, but some have, and six months later are starting to figure out how to rebuild their homes and lives.

"I was very encouraged," she said. "Unless you go on the bus tour and go to the parts that were really devastated, unless you're really looking for the devastation, it looks like it always did."

Hurricane Katrina swept over New Orleans and the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29. The real devastation for New Orleans, however, came the next day, as the levees surrounding the city broke and flooded neighborhoods, causing residents to evacuate in droves, scattering them as far as Houston, Chicago and even New York. Not all have returned, but some have, and six months later are starting to figure out how to rebuild their homes and lives.

Making the rounds
Broadcasters from the area will be making the rounds to agencies and advertisers in Chicago, New York, Atlanta and Dallas to communicate what Ms. Gentilini saw -- that the Gulf Coast is back in business and a place worth spending major media dollars. The local newspaper and outdoor industry are also eager to let advertisers know they are still delivering an audience that will be spending big. But advertisers going back into New Orleans will have to do so without the usual measures guaranteeing an audience has seen their ads.

"If you're not in New Orleans like we are, and you watch the news, you're going to get the idea that New Orleans is still down and out," said Larry Delia, president of the Greater New Orleans Broadcasters Association and general manager of two Tribune TV stations in the market. "You're going to hear all the info that suggests the population is maybe a quarter or a third of what it used to be, and if you're a media buyer in Chicago, that's very damaging."

The latest estimate from the city's Emergency Operations Center, released March 7, found that the New Orleans population had risen 35% from December to January to 180,000 residents. The daytime population, which includes those visiting residents and paid laborers (but not daytime commuters to offices and restaurants) was estimated to be a little more than 260,000. Still, both are far below the 2000 federal census that listed the city's population at 484,674. The Emergency Operations Center also determined that approximately 20,000 people were staying in hotels, 2,742 were living on cruise ships and 5,900 students were in college dormitories. Adding those into the population brings the total to about 210,000.

Populations still in area
While the city proper has lost many of its residents, the broadcasters serve the entire DMA, and areas outside of New Orleans are operating much as they always did. Mr. Delia and his cohorts at other New Orleans TV and radio stations will hit ad agencies armed with stats. In 2006 and 2007, they expect the market to see an influx of $100 billion in government money earmarked for recovery. And the residents who will be spending it need virtually everything -- cars, flooring, household goods, fast food.

The broadcasters association is using a variety of public and private studies to present a picture of who is living in New Orleans. Their pitch stresses that while the number of residents in some of the hardest hit parishes -- Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines -- remains significantly reduced, the head count in neighboring parishes has risen as much as 160% since the storm as residents of flood-damaged areas seek lodging close to their homes. For example, St. Tammany Parish, where Mr. Delia lives, has swelled from 79,260 households to 111,554 households. And those people are spending: local sales tax receipts from fall 2005 in several lesser hit towns were running 50% or more ahead of the same year, Mr. Delia said.

Photo: AP
The latest data shows that New Orleans has a population of about 180,000, significantly down from 2000 Census figure of 484,674. But outlying areas have gained residents looking to move back close to their former homes.

The bid from the New Orleans broadcasters is bolstered by a recent Kagan Research report that says the five-year period beginning in 2005 will indicate higher growth levels for the market, driven by increased activity among categories such as home improvement, autos, insurance and banks.

Big gains for
Not too surprisingly, the online version of the market's largest newspaper, The Times Picayune, continues to be a bright spot in local media. The first few of weeks after the storm,, which houses the paper's content, had four million unique visitors but since then has settled into about 1.2 million or 1.3 million unique visitors a month -- roughly two-and-a-half times as many as were using the site pre-Katrina. General Manager Mark Rose, who considers himself part of the New Orleans quagmire since he had to flee his flooded subdivision for a place four miles away, estimates about 65% of those visitors reside in Louisiana and much the rest of the traffic comes from residents displaced to such places as Houston, Dallas and Chicago.

But the storm was enough to force a bit of a tipping point in the habits of newsreaders. Prior to the storm, the average reader was visiting 14 to 21 news pages a day and now those news pages are in excess of 44 a day. "These people are spending more time reading more information," he said.

The Times Picayune executives are also working toward getting national advertisers to understand that the paper serves the entire New Orleans market, which has about 80% of its pre-storm population, not just the hardest hit parts of the city proper, said General Manager Ray Massett. "People ask if the glass is half-empty or half-full," he said. "Well, it's neither -- it's 80% full."

Slow recovery for print
Still, full resuscitation is a slow process. Mr. Massett estimates before Katrina there were about 13,000 home deliveries in St. Bernard Parish, one of the hardest high areas. Two weeks ago they re-entered the area, delivering 1,000.

"We went down there and if we saw a FEMA trailer with a car parked next to it or a light on we delivered," he said. "We know people are living in these trailers, they're buying groceries, they're going to Home Depot or Lowe's to buy supplies."

The outdoor industry is also working hard to rebuild signs in the area, said Stephen Freitas, chief marketing officer for the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. The two biggest suppliers in the area are CBS Outdoor and Lamar, which is headquartered in nearby Baton Rouge. CBS estimates about 70% of its inventory in the market is up and running. Lamar, meanwhile, has reported it is back up in every Gulf Coast market except Gulfport-Biloxi and estimated Katrina will cost the company $1.8 million in the fourth quarter. "In the long-run the Mississippi Gulf Coast is going to come roaring back," said Sean Reilly, chief operating officer and president of Lamar's outdoor division.

Photo: AP
The two biggest suppliers for outdoor, CBS Outdoor and Lamar, are working to rebuild signs that were damaged. CBS estimates about 70% of its inventory in the market is up and running. Lamar, meanwhile, has reported it is back up in every Gulf Coast market except Gulfport-Biloxi.

Hard to measure
But the market is still without some of the important tools on which broadcast media buyers and advertisers rely -- Nielsen and Arbitron ratings.

According to media buyers and sellers who've been briefed on the plans, Arbitron could be back in the spring and Nielsen won't resume TV audience reporting until at least the fall if not early 2007. When Nielsen and Arbitron disappear, what's a buyer to do?

"It's a cost-per-spot marketing, and ratings are irrelevant if the rankings are gone," said Kathy Herbers, VP-regional spot director for Carat, Chicago. "Who knows where it'll show up once everything settles down?"

The Times Picayune is not yet ABC audited and doesn't expect to be before the end of the year. Last week, it delivered about 185,000 to 190,000 papers, compared to a pre-storm total of 250,000.

Ethnic shift
Additionally, the city's entire ethnic makeup could shift if many of the African-Americans who left choose not to return and if Hispanic temporary workers choose to stay in the market permanently.

For now, buyers are improvising, using historical data and internal research to come up with their own estimates. Some are advocating adding a direct-response component to ads, and others say it's a logical, intuitive buy.

"You might not have the volume, but you have a big need for daily staples," said Mary Kang, media director at StarLink, which was back in the market on behalf of auto client Suzuki. "The big hesitation is, do we have a true measurement of what our client's dollars are delivering?"

Mr. Delia recognizes the challenge in convincing buyers to put faith in other measurement besides Nielsen and Arbitron, but says there is information from tons of different agencies -- public and private -- coming out weekly. "Everyone's got an opinion," he said. "The whole point of our presentation is, don't walk away with the idea that it's down and out. Yes, it's been through a crisis, but in that can come some good."

Most Popular
In this article: