Politics

04.04.14

Inside the Purge at The Newark Star Ledger, The Paper That Makes Chris Christie Squirm

New Jersey’s biggest paper gets gutted—right when local reporters are most needed in Newark and Trenton.

Outside The Star-Ledger’s offices in Newark, N.J., on Thursday afternoon, a man in his late fifties took a drag of his cigarette. Asked if he worked at the paper, he sighed, “I’ll find out in about 15 minutes if I still do.” He turned to stare out at the street. “Get out of this fucking business while you can.”

He disappeared into the building.

"Are you here to pick our carcasses?” another reporter outside the building asked me.

Thursday morning, The Star-Ledger announced “in a grim day of reckoning” that it was cutting 167 jobs, including 40 members (25 percent) of its already-downsized 156-person newsroom staff.

In July 2008, the Star-Ledger’s parent company, Advance Publications, said that it would sell the paper unless they could get 200 non-union employees to agree to a buyout. A few months later in October, the result of those buyouts was announced: a newsroom that was 45 percent smaller.

Thursday’s cuts to the Star-Ledger mean that today, the newsroom is less than one third of its pre-2008 size, and they come during a time when the importance of local reporters has been underscored by the remarkable work done by those covering Gov. Chris Christie in New Jersey.

In January, MSNBC host and Washington Post columnist Rachel Maddow wrote that Bridgegate became a “gate” because of local reporters. “If it weren’t for the dogged local press corps, Christie would still be ridiculing this story, attacking the legislators investigating it and persuading most of the national press to dismiss it.”

Maddow noted that “the first reporting on the scandal was by the local traffic columnist in The Record, John Cichowski.”

But no matter how good the individual reporters, New Jersey’s local press is not as robust as that of its neighbors in New York (home to one of the biggest media markets on the planet) and Philadelphia (not exactly small-time, either). And now, Jersey’s press corps appears to be shrinking before our eyes.

A one-time running mate of Christie’s, Richard Merkt, told me he believed the guv’s ascent is largely due to the fact that there just weren’t enough reporters to thoroughly vet him. “The advantage he had was we don’t really have a state media,” Christie could just ignore the real issues raised by local reporters, and then go on national television and “puff himself up to get out without having to really answer any hard questions.”

“You think you can replace reporting with aggregation? Aggregation is a fucking sin. Call some people!”

Merkt continued, “New Jersey’s kind of a backwater. We’re the keg tapped at two ends, as Ben Franklin said, and so, a lot goes on, and people in New Jersey have no idea what goes on in Trenton. How would they? No one covers it.”

After about 20 minutes, the maybe-still-maybe-not Star-Ledger employee came back outside. The look on his face told me everything. “I get to stay on until September,” he explained. In September, he will get a severance of 16 weeks' pay from the company, which he said, “should last me until the New Year.” (The severance, another reporter explained to me, will not be paid to anyone who takes another job before September.) “At least my house is paid off,” he said. And then, “Man, I hate this fucking country.”

He lit a cigarette. “I became a reporter when I was 19. I’ve been doing this for over 30 years. I don’t know how to do anything else.” Senior reporters, he said, are the first to go when publications need to make cuts. “They want some 20-year-old who will go do the job for half the price. They don’t care about expertise.”

Besides expertise, he said, they don’t care about original reporting, either. “You think you can replace [reporting] with aggregation? You go online and it’s all aggregation now. Aggregation is a fucking sin. Call some people!”

In 1832, the city of Newark began publishing its first daily paper, the Newark Daily Advertiser, which became the Newark Star-Eagle. When publisher Samuel Irving Newhouse bought the Star-Eagle in 1939, he merged it with the Newark Ledger, forming the Newark Star-Ledger. The paper eventually dropped the “Newark.”

The Star-Ledger is New Jersey’s largest daily paper, with a print circulation of 167,600 and 265,500 on Sunday. They have won three Pulitzer Prizes, including for its coverage of the resignation of scandal-plagued Gov. Jim McGreevey in 2005. Tony Soprano used to pick up copies of it in his fictional driveway.

Thursday’s drastic cuts at the publication, the paper’s management said in its announcement, were part of the now more than decade-long trend of a decline in revenue for daily print publications. “Industry analysts say newspapers across the country, hit hard by the digital age, have been experiencing a steady decline in readership and dramatic declines in ad revenue, with many large public newspaper companies reducing their work forces by 30 percent to 42 percent since 2006.

In its 2013 census, the American Society of News Editors found that for the first time since 1978, the number of full-time professional editorial employees fell below 40,000. From 2011 to 2012, the number of full-time editorial jobs at newspapers declined by 6.4 percent. (The Daily Beast has not exactly been immune to this trend; dozens of editors and reporters were laid off after the ill-fated merger and de-merger with Newsweek.)

In addition to the Star-Ledger, Advance Publications owns, among other things, The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. In May 2012, Advance announced that beginning in the fall, the Times-Picayune, a daily paper, would only be published on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, making New Orleans the biggest city in America with no daily newspaper. In April 2013, it was announced that the Times-Picayune would begin printing a tabloid version of the paper, called the Times-Picayune Street on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.

The Star-Ledger announcement says Advance Publications has overseen severe cuts at many of its papers “as the company has pursued an aggressive ‘click-based’ digital strategy, questioned by critics, aimed at driving traffic to its websites in hopes of generating revenues.”

In the elevator, employees quietly chattered about the gutting of their paper. Forcing those fired to stay on until September in order to get their severance, they said, seemed particularly cruel. “It’s an awkward day,” one employee said. “It’s going to be an awkward summer.”

The sprawling and dimly lit newsroom—its walls adorned with press clippings and accolades—was virtually empty on Thursday afternoon. Among the rows of unoccupied desks, I could only count about seven people.