Saturday, August 23, 2008

NJ Media - NY Observer - Ledger, Record, Gannett Woes

Published in the New York Observer, Wednesday, August 12, 2008

Welcome to New Jersey, Media Wasteland
What if a big juicy scandal happens
and there’s no one to cover it?

by John Koblin | August 12, 2008
This article was published in the August 18, 2008, edition of The New York Observer.

Is New Jersey really that uninteresting?

Since the start of summer, The New York Times emptied out its two New Jersey bureaus in Trenton and Newark; in June, The Record of Bergen County announced it would shut down its headquarters and its reporters would be homeless; in July, The Star Ledger announced that it was cutting about a third of its newsroom, and its owners said they would consider selling the paper.

It’s becoming reasonable to wonder if, at this rate, there will be anyone left to cover the state soon.

“Can you cover the big stories that really mean something to people—how taxes are spent, projections for jobs, stuff you just need to know if you live here—if you have too few journalists?” said Frank Scandale, the editor of The Record. “That’s a concern I have now as a journalist and as a citizen of New Jersey.”

As usual, it all comes down to money. The Record’s publisher said it would save $2.4 million per year by shutting down its Hackensack home; Donald Newhouse, president of Advance Publications, which owns The Ledger, said the paper is losing $30 million to $40 million and needs to cut 200 jobs in order to stay afloat; The Times eliminated its bureaus amid larger job cuts.

So what caused the problems?

“The Ledger has been very badly hit by the real estate downturn,” said Mr. Newhouse in a phone interview with Off the Record. “New Jersey was a very strong real estate economy, but it soured. It is much more serious in New Jersey than in any of the other markets that we are publishing in.”

But even if the housing market is crashing, that’s cyclical. Those things don’t last. Newsday, the Long Island daily newspaper, is battered by the same things that are affecting Jersey papers, and yet it makes money—last year it had an operating cash flow of $88 million, according to its publisher, and it sold for $650 million in July.

Like Newsday, The Ledger caters, in theory, to a populous, affluent market rich in potential advertisers.

And yet it would be a stretch to imagine that The Ledger could be sold for anything like that number, since it loses so much money. (Mr. Newhouse declined to discuss precise financials.)

One reason The Ledger, or The Record for that matter, could never be the Newsday of New Jersey is simply that there’s competition.

“Those papers aren’t surrounded by water, which, believe me, helps Newsday a lot,” said John Morton, a newspaper-industry analyst. “It sort of insulates the Long Island market and Newsday owns Long Island. New Jersey, in the overall market, is one of the most highly competitive markets in the country. If you look at a map and see how many daily newspapers are in that part of New Jersey, it’s astounding.”

There are 18 daily newspapers in the state that are members of the New Jersey Publishers Association, a trade organization. A retrenchment, in retrospect, was only a matter of time.

It’s been grim.

“It almost happened overnight,” said State Senate President, former governor, and all-around Jersey cheerleader Richard Codey.

The smaller papers haven’t fared much better than the big ones. Gannett, whose stock price recently hit an 18-year-low, eliminated 55 jobs this year at four of its six Jersey papers including the Asbury Park Press, the Home News Tribune in East Brunswick, the Courier News in Bridgewater and the Daily Record in Parsippany. This came just weeks after it extracted 83 buyouts from the Press, the Home News Tribune, the Courier News, the Courier-Post in Cherry Hill and the Daily Journal in Vineland. The Record’s sister paper, the Herald News, recently collapsed its sports department into the Record’s since it wasn’t sustainable to run both independently. The Ledger’s sister paper, the Trenton Times, is absorbing 25 buyouts.

But Mr. Codey seemed particularly shocked at the rapid dissolution of The Times’ presence on the other side of the river.

Shortly after The Times announced it would cut 100 jobs earlier this year, the paper began to unroll plans to remove reporters from its Newark and Trenton bureaus. Ever since The Times eliminated most of the original content for its Sunday New Jersey section two years ago in favor of consolidated material shared by all its regional supplements, its presence in the state has been dropping. Now, it’s pretty much all gone.

“Fortunately, when I was governor, The Times did really good stuff,” said Mr. Codey. “I miss it. Now I go to the metro section and when I see a Jersey story, I go, ‘Whoa! This is unbelievable—a story!’”

In a July Q&A with Times metro editor Joe Sexton, a reader asked why the paper had abandoned the state. Mr. Sexton wrote: “Dude, ouch! But Jersey? Love Jersey.”

He said that The Times was leaving behind David Kocieniewski, an accomplished reporter who is well regarded by the masthead. He added that The Times was indeed planning to “concentrate more on New York City,” but pledged that the paper would continue to send reporters to Jersey to cover “major news” and trends on the regular metro beats. Also: Peter Applebome’s twice-weekly “Our Towns” column.

But the numbers speak for themselves. The dozen or so reporters and editors that The Times had covering the state two years ago are gone, farmed out to cover areas still of interest to the paper. David Chen, the former Trenton bureau chief, is the New York City Hall bureau chief; Andrew Jacobs, who covered Cory Booker in Newark, is now in Beijing; Newark reporter and published poet Tina Kelley is, according to an internal memo sent out by Mr. Sexton, “spending more and more of her reporting life online, busting rhymes here and there along the way.”

The cost-saving measures that The Times has taken in Jersey, however, aren’t much more dramatic than what The Record has done. In order to stay afloat, the Hackensack-based daily is actually shutting down its offices and sending reporters onto the streets.

“We have two counties we focus on—primarily Bergen and Passaic—so our reporters will be in these counties and they’ll be running around with their cell phone, a laptop, a camera, and he’ll be writing a story in the lobby of a building and he can shoot and file a picture,” said Mr. Scandale, the editor of the paper.

The Record will keep a small office in West Paterson, but Mr. Scandale said the vast majority of its reporters wouldn’t have office space there, and only some editors would have some.

“People will be coming in and out all day long,” he said. “They can touch base, or not come in for three or four days because there’s no need to.”

Job cuts notwithstanding, The Ledger, under the leadership of Jim Willse, is acting with relative restraint.

It has always been regarded as a good-paying place to work—interns are paid $700 a week, according to one source—and Mr. Willse raised the salaries company-wide. In addition, The Ledger still generates stories out of fully formed suburban bureaus. As a result, it is a good editorial product, but it is expensive to produce.

That, with the combination of the loss in real estate advertising, seems to have taken its toll on the paper.

“It is a perfect storm of economic problems,” said Mr. Newhouse. “It is a very bad year, there’s no question about it. I don’t think there were any forecasts that would predict how serious the downturn would be.”

The Ledger will do it the old-fashioned way: job cuts. The paper will cut 200 non-unionized employees, and one newsroom source anticipates that will mean about 100 newsroom jobs—a little less than a third of the newsroom’s body count of roughly 350. In the course of announcing the cuts, Advance Publications said in a memo that if the cuts couldn’t be achieved, they would consider selling the paper. (Observer publisher Jared Kushner was cited in news reports as a potential buyer.)

Mr. Scandale is confident that The Record will remain a good paper, even without a newsroom. But when asked what the general decline means for the state, and if things will actually get far worse than they are right now, he didn’t offer much.

“I don’t know,” he said. “It remains to be seen.”

Online story here. Archived here.

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About Me

Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.