Welcome to New Jersey, Media Wasteland

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.

Welcome to New Jersey, Media Wasteland