Who’s Covering New Jersey?

Newspaper staffs are shrinking. Can they still satisfy our need for news?

Photo illustration by Anthony Tremmaglia.

It’s rarely good news when newspapers make headlines. But that’s been the case in New Jersey in recent months as most major papers in the state have undergone significant belt-tightening. Now the editors and publishers of those papers are scrambling to do more with less, promising they can compensate for staff cuts through reorganization and new approaches to news coverage.

Many in the business—especially those whose jobs have evaporated—question whether these decimated newspapers can continue to fill the Garden State’s information needs. For the skeptics, it just does not add up. How, they ask, can fewer people cover the ongoing scuffles in state and local government at a time of increasing economic pressures and growing concerns about education, health care, and many other crucial issues? Then there’s the matter of New Jersey’s reputation for corruption and scandal. And let’s not forget the upcoming gubernatorial election.

“What is tragic is that some key investigative journalists are leaving,” says John O’Brien, executive director of the New Jersey Press Association. “There are several strong, well-entrenched journalists who are not going to be reporting.”

Consider, for example, Robin Gaby Fisher, a fifteen-year Star-Ledger veteran who was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 and 2005 for her coverage of the Seton Hall University fire and a feature story on a local alternative high school, respectively. Fisher is among the many editorial stars departing the Star-Ledger, the paper with the largest circulation in the state.

“The Ledger had really committed to watchdog coverage,” Fisher says. “Without it, I really, truly feel there could be rampant corruption.”

The Star-Ledger threatened to close or sell last summer if it could not get 200 employees to take buyouts and its unions to accept new contracts. The paper got its wish by October as 151 of the paper’s 330 newsroom staffers agreed to leave with one-year severance deals, marking a 45 percent newsroom cutback. The paper’s Trenton staff, which covers the state government, is among the areas being cut, although the exact headcount remains unclear. Sources say the Trenton team is dropping from eleven to four. Other employees are departing, including 100 mailers who agreed to buyouts as part of their union’s new accord.

The state’s number two paper, the Record in Hackensack, has consolidated numerous operations and assignments with its sister daily, the Herald News of West Paterson, and is expected to sell its headquarters building.  Most reporters will be relocated to smaller offices in towns including Cresskill, Rutherford, Ridgewood, Fairlawn, and Westwood and will be armed with laptops, cell phones, and BlackBerries for mobile reporting. North Jersey Media Group, which owns both papers, also recently merged the two papers’ websites.

Gannett Company, owner of the state’s number three paper, the Asbury Park Press, and five other New Jersey dailies, cut 206 jobs across those papers in December. Its Trenton bureau was cut from six staffers to two. Gannett also combined the websites of two of its papers, the Home News Tribune of East Brunswick and the Courier News of Bridgewater.

“You are going to see a shift,” says Keith Dawn, publisher of the Press of Atlantic City, which lost fifteen non-editorial staffers. It will be, he says, “A newspaper shift from saying, ‘Do we cover every council meeting and school board meeting?’ to giving something up.”

Newspapers have long assumed the role of watchdog over official government business. But at the Star-Ledger, a number of newly departed veterans are now working for official agencies—some for the very agencies they used to cover. Ron Marsico, now at the Port Authority, had a reputation for doggedly monitoring it as a transportation reporter. Tom Feeney earned credit for watching the Turnpike Authority’s every move. He is now a media coordinator there.

Others include Paul Wyckoff, who landed a job with New Jersey Transit, and Joe Donohue, a Trenton reporter now working for the state. Bruno Tedeschi, the former city editor, is working for a Newark social services agency that his former reporters must cover.

The Star-Ledger lost most of its Essex County staff, which includes Newark reporters, and all but one person on its editorial board. The Union County and Warren County bureaus are closed, at least temporarily, although some of the reporters have been relocated. In some cases, interns have been promoted to reporting.

Longtime Star-Ledger writers and editors are buzzing about what the changes will mean.
“For me, it was a little cloud suddenly following me around,” says Steve Hedgpeth, a thirteen-year features employee who took the buyout at age 57. “If I stayed and they sold the paper or closed it, I would be left with nothing, or very little.”

Tedeschi predicts it will no longer be possible for the Star-Ledger to cover every state agency. What’s more, he says, “the Ledger always tried to cover all of its counties. I don’t see how that can be the case [now].”
Ian Shearn, a former Trenton bureau chief, says suburban coverage is in peril: “The bureaus are decimated. They are going to have to decide where to put their energy.”

Anne-Marie Cottone, assistant features editor and a 35-year veteran who took the buyout, says, “I am really wondering what is going to happen.”

Editor Jim Willse has the burden of figuring that out. He cites recent Star-Ledger innovations such as an increase in online video and the recent launch of the paper’s new monthly magazine, Inside Jersey. But Mary Yanni, the launch editor of Inside Jersey, is among those taking the buyout.

New Jersey is particularly reliant on newspapers for information because it has no major television or radio market. Weeklies can provide local news and are well-positioned to do so in the future, along with a growing, though uneven, online news presence. But, experts and longtime journalists agree, slashing the daily newspapers makes the future of New Jersey news coverage uncertain.

“There will be a net loss, in many ways, for New Jersey,” says John Pavlik, a Rutgers University journalism professor. “It is especially acute here because so many states have a strong television presence and New Jersey does not.”

Pavlik says local coverage, daily news, and investigative reporting are key areas that will be lost. “Local government, council meetings, school board meetings—there won’t be resources to report on that,” he says. “More serious is investigative; stories that take time to do, digging through records, that takes a team to dig out.”

Steve Adubato, a presence on several cable and public television shows and a columnist for a number of publications (including New Jersey Monthly), agrees: “The downside is the investigative pieces, the in-depth reporting, suffers.”

New Jersey news coverage likely will not be getting much help from across the Hudson River. The New York Times, which long had a substantial New Jersey base including Trenton staffers, now has just one: David Kocieniewski. The paper declines to reveal its specific cutbacks, but several staffers indicate it no longer has a Trenton or Newark office. A spokesperson says in a statement: “Our New Jersey weekly section has a columnist assigned to New Jersey and offers weekly coverage, as well as a variety of listings and reviews. And all of our beat reporters—on immigration, the environment, the economy—are responsible for identifying major stories from their beats in New Jersey.”

But that is still not the same as having reporters full-time in the state. The weekly New Jersey section—which runs on Sunday—has not been all-Jersey for more than a year, serving instead as a regionalized weekly that includes other tristate news.

Across the state, the Philadelphia Inquirer intends to remain strong in South Jersey, according to editor Bill Marimow, a former Baltimore Sun editor who joined that paper in 2006. He says the Inquirer still boasts two people in Trenton, as well as several staffers in bureaus in Cherry Hill, Camden, Atlantic City, and Burlington and Gloucester counties. “Each day, we are trying to have New Jersey on the front page,” he says. “The coverage is much more visual and deeper and broader than when I got here.”

A recent South Jersey edition had no Garden State news on page one, but a teaser along the top noted an inside story on New Jersey’s pension shortfall. Inside, the eight-page New Jersey section filled its opening page with New Jersey stories ranging from prison gang members to new legislation tightening penalties for unsafe day-care centers. But most of the section included non-New Jersey articles, obituaries, and weather.

While most of the New York-based television stations have not cut their New Jersey reporters, they have only one or two bodies in the state. New Jersey has long had three dedicated television news outlets, but one of those, Comcast’s CN8 channel, was shuttered at the end of 2008. Cablevision-owned News 12 suffers from lack of exposure on non-Cablevision systems, and public station New Jersey Network is facing funding uncertainties and recently lost its executive director, Elizabeth Christopherson.

“There is no question that, as we go through this wrenching change in the news business, you have to wonder what information people are going to be able to get and how important it is going to be,” says Brian Thompson, a ten-year New Jersey reporter for WNBC-TV and one of two in its Moonachie office. “Casual news viewers are not getting a full plate of TV news. When you cut back their newspapers, they aren’t exposed to as much as folks in other states.”

The Associated Press still has five bureaus with seventeen staffers, according to its website. Trenton-based interim bureau chief Andrew Fraser declines comment. While AP remains robust in the state, consumers generally rely on newspapers and websites to see AP stories.

It was just four years ago that the Star-Ledger had its most notable journalistic triumph, earning a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of Governor Jim McGreevey’s bombshell resignation announcement on August 12, 2004. That was the second Pultizer in the paper’s history, coming four years after photographer Matt Rainey won for a photo of students burned in the Seton Hall fire, coverage that also earned the paper a finalist nomination in breaking news the same year.

The Star-Ledger is not alone in enjoying some glorious moments in recent years. The Asbury Park Press led the way on investigations of the state’s infamous pay-to-play practices, including a much-heralded series in 2003. And the most famous photo of September 11, 2001, continues to be the Iwo Jima-like shot of firefighters raising the American Flag in lower Manhattan, snapped by Thomas Franklin of the Record.
But those glory days seem like distant history. Star-Ledger circulation is at its lowest point in decades. Some in the company claim annual losses have reached $40 million.

The declines spurred the call for job cuts and union concessions. By the end of October, the Teamsters and the Newspaper and Mail Deliverers Union, which represented about 90 drivers, had approved new deals, while more than 230 nonunion workers had put in for buyouts.

Star-Ledger editor Willse agrees the downturn is difficult but not a complete surprise. “We got caught in the same combination of forces that everybody else got caught in,” he says. “It is a bad economy, there is an erosion of some advertising, some related to the Internet. A newspaper company our size got caught in the plague. There is not an awful lot that is unique to this paper that has not hit other newspapers.” Among those are the Gannett papers, which have slashed 3,000 newspaper jobs nationwide since August, including those 200-plus at its New Jersey dailies, which also include the Courier-Post in Cherry Hill, the Daily Record in Parsippany, and the Daily Journal in Vineland.

The Gannett departures include Charles Paolino, the former executive editor of the Home News Tribune and the Courier News. Interviewed before exiting his post, Paolino described some of the ways the papers are learning to adjust.

“We reexamined our priorities and rearranged staffing, but I don’t think we missed a beat,” said Paolino, who has been in New Jersey news since 1965. “A lot of times if you reexamine what you are doing, you can do it with less.”

Paolino pointed to the website of the papers, noting that the credibility of newspapers and the immediacy of the web is a powerful combination. 

Gannett’s New Jersey papers have taken advantage of a nationwide Gannett edict launched several years ago to focus on breaking news and online information through what the company calls “information centers.” The approach includes having online news, traffic, and other happenings as early as 5 am each day. The papers have also been pioneers in posting public records, ranging from state employees’ salaries to links to registered sex-offender listings.

At the Record and Herald News, executives say the shift to remote reporting should improve, not hamper, news coverage. “Our Bergen County reporting efforts will continue to be the Record’s top priority,” says Stephen Borg, president of North Jersey Media Group and publisher of the Record. “The news is not in our building, but out on the streets. As such, we are arming our editorial staffers with many tools to report from the field. This is no different from how television stations have done it for many, many years with their remote vans.”

Borg, son of legendary North Jersey Media chairman Malcolm Borg, declined to cite specifics on job cuts or consolidation, but noted in a statement: “Cutting our newsroom expense is not part of our growth strategy. We have made reductions because we were inefficient. One such example is copy-editing. We were copy-editing AP stories that come to us already edited. The Record and Herald News were both copy-editing the same stories from Clifton and other places where these two papers share resources. Getting rid of these inefficiencies and others is simply sound business. But cutting our newsroom to save expenses is not our growth strategy."

Other smaller, local dailies such as the New Jersey Herald in Newton say they are not being hit as badly—although they have hardly escaped the current economic slump. Bruce Tomlinson, general manager of the Herald, says, “It cannot do anything but hamper or hurt the amount of and probably the credibility of news.”
Weeklies remain the main source for local news, although most are still on a once-a-week news cycle. In some areas, websites are creeping into the local news business.

Other sites—often unaffiliated with a newspaper—are carving out online niches in specific subject areas. Political sites and blogs abound, including politickernj.com, bluejersey.com, njpolitics.com, and inthelobby.net. The sites specialize in gossip and breaking news.

“We have a lot to sell, we fill in the news hole on the politics end in many ways,” says Matt Friedman, a reporter for politickernj.com. “We are aimed at political junkies.” The site is owned by the New York Observer, which operates similar sites in other states.

Several of the newspapers also have blogs, and Gannett is setting up an online blog boot camp for its scribes. Still, they are limited in many ways by their roots in traditional, objective journalism. 

Such traditions are less of an issue for the dozens of independent local news and opinion sites around the state, including Redbankgreen, Hoboken411, and Baristanet, which covers Montclair, Bloomfield, and Glen Ridge.

“We are really good at spot news and when there is a big breaking story, a big fire,” says Debbie Galant, a Glen Ridge resident who launched Baristanet in 2004 with Montclair freelancer Liz George.
“We post at least five items a day, Monday through Friday. On the weekends we shut down because there is not that much traffic,” Galant says. “We have people who work for us on a freelance basis and about eight total who do things for us.”

Galant declines to reveal ad revenue but says she runs some 60 ads throughout the site, and the main page is sold out regularly. “We are one of the few sites that is making money,” she claims.

Redbankgreen was launched in 2006 by John T. Ward, a former Star-Ledger business writer who left in 2001. “It makes money, but not full-time money,” he contends, claiming about 83,000 page views per month. “My goal is to make it full-time; I have been funding it from my savings. I intend for it to be a real player in the media news here. I have every intention of outlasting the print media down here.”
Ward says local sites are filling an important void. “My experience is that people are hungering for local news and local media, and the print media is unable to provide that,” he says. 

But Willse warns not to count out his paper, or others, just yet. Despite cuts and realignment, he says that newspapers are still the most credible information sources, and his newsroom is still the largest news-gathering operation in New Jersey.

“In a way, it may force us to make choices that in the long run make us more useful, more valuable,” he says.

Top 10 Daily NJ Newspapers by Circulation:

Name                                                       Circ 2008      Circ 1998        % Change
1)Star-Ledger (Newark)                            316,280        405,182              (down) 22%
2)The Record (Hackensack)                     156,817        144,515                 (up)     9%
3)Asbury Park Press (Neptune)                133,241        157,366              (down) 15%
4)Press of Atlantic City                               67,916          74,804               (down)   9%
5)Courier Post (Cherry Hill)                        60,844          86,905               (down) 30%
6)The Times (Trenton)                                53,303          78,324               (down) 32%
7)Home News Tribune (East Brunswick)    46,206          74,270               (down) 38%
8)Trentonian                                               38,504           58,032              (down)  34%
9)Daily Record (Parsippany)                      32,171           49,480              (down)  35%
10)Burlington County Times (Willingboro)  28,757          39,518               (down)  27%                 

Joe Strupp is senior editor at Editor & Publisher.


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