The state of the NJ news industry. Is the red ink at newspapers forcing reporters to jump ship?

Fourth in a five-part series on the revolving door between journalism and government in New Jersey. Yesterday, Debbie Holtz asked if reporters protect their former sources when they move from journalism to working for politicians.

These days, it seems like a week does not pass by without news of red ink running through daily newspapers. Is the troubled financial condition of the newspaper industry driving more and more reporters to PR jobs?

“Anyone who reads the business section of the newspaper knows the current climate,” explained Dr. Barbara Reed, a professor of Journalism at Rutgers University. “Everyone in journalism is aware of the current climate and we are all very worried.

“Whether it is the New York Times, the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune or the Miami Herald – and these are among the best 10 papers in America – they are all experiencing hard times. It’s a very hard place to be in because the advertising is drying up.”

Back in and around New Jersey, the picture isn’t any rosier.

According to a story published by Editors & Publishers at the start of the year, the Star Ledger “has lost at least $11.5 million in advertising in the past year, according to a letter to staffers from Publisher George Arwady, which predicts the paper will have to undergo serious cutbacks and plans to ask its four unions for work-rule changes in their current contracts.”

In the letter which was published along with Joe Strupp’s byline story, Arwady writes: “As a result of several years of such trends, your newspaper is losing money – a lot of money. If you’ve attended any of my employee meetings, you’ve been hearing about this situation in detail for some time. Fundamentally, the Star-Ledger cannot continue to operate the way it has. We need to cut our expenses drastically, and we need many new sources of revenue.”

In another story published last month by Editors & Publishers, it was more bad news for the daily across the Delaware River: “Brian Tierney, one of the owners of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, called a meeting with the heads of the union to discuss the impact of the current economy concluding the papers have to shave costs by 10% in order to meet debt repayments.”

Yesterday, the ax fell when “Philadelphia Newspapers laid off 68 employees today in the advertising, circulation, customer service, finance, marketing, and systems departments” as reported by Editors & Publishers.

“I don’t blame any reporter who goes from a newspaper to a public relations position when an opportunity presents itself, especially in the climate we are in today,” reflected Reed.

“This is not a new phenomenon”, she added. “What’s new is the amount of switching going on.”

Is the trend likely to continue?

“I can’t really say that there has been an increase in the number of political reporters who go to work for politicians due to the current climate,” noted Dr. Donna Leff who previously worked as a reporter and assistant editor at the Chicago Tribune. “I think this has always been a logical choice for reporters and for politicians to hire reporters, who are people who can write well and who understand the subject matter because they have been covering it.

“This is not a new phenomenon; it has been a forever phenomenon. Some of our most famous Chicagoans have followed this path, like David Axelrod.”

Axelrod was a political reporter for the Chicago Tribune before he started his own Democratic political consulting firm – his clients include Barack Obama.

PR jobs have long been a place where old reporters go to die,” Leff added. “I am not convinced anything has change (due to the current economic climate). It has always been this way and always will be.

“Until everything shakes out and we see universal health care so reporters can have some financial security…we will see this continue,” she emphasized.

“We are likely to see more of this in the future,” added Dr.Carl Hausman who teaches Journalism at Rowan University and had a long career working as a reporter. “Unfortunately, we’re not sure what journalists are going to be in the future. Take CNN’s iReporter for instance.

“There is a lot of speculation about the future of the business,” he continued. “I think we are going to see more and more erosion of where (the) lines should be drawn.”

Tomorrow: Protecting the public interest. An inside look at newspapers covering the Garden State.

The state of the NJ news industry. Is the red ink at newspapers forcing reporters to jump ship?