The Drivers of the Star-Ledger Crisis

When Newark Star-Ledger publisher George Arwady announced this month that the newspaper would be sold away from its longtime parent, the Newhouses, or folded if certain conditions weren’t met, he didn’t say anything much about dwindling advertising revenue, falling circulation, staff redundancies or inefficiencies.

Two hundred employees seemed poised to take buyouts since the alarm was first raised at the newspaper over the summer; the mailers union, he said, had agreed to a new contract the management could live with.

“Therefore, the only stumbling block to meeting the three conditions is ratification of an agreement by the Drivers,” he wrote in a message to staff on Sept. 23.

The notion that The Star-Ledger could still close simply because it couldn’t reach an agreement with its drivers is not a bit of political posturing, a hard-line negotiating tactic. For the Newhouses, continuing to publish without changing the contract with drivers was out of the question.

“That’s what we’ve told our employees and we do not bluff or lie,” Star-Ledger owner Donald Newhouse told The Observer in a telephone interview.

If a settlement with the union that represents the 90 drivers who deliver the newspaper throughout the state of New Jersey is not reached by Oct. 5, the paper looks for a buyer. No buyer by the end of the year? The paper closes in January.

“The problem with distribution is, it’s not amenable to much change,” said John Morton, a newspaper analyst. “It takes bodies and trucks. And you can’t, through technology, improve that in any significant way. It’s one of the reasons that among the unions that still exist, it’s the one management worries the most about.”

If there’s a strike? That’s really no alternative, said Mr. Morton. Prior attempts by other papers to find new drivers to deliver newspapers have not worked—and it’s almost never tried in a major market, he added.

The Star-Ledger isn’t alone in experiencing the problems with distribution. On Sept. 8, The New York Times announced that it was closing down its wholesale distribution company, City & Suburban; they said it was for financial reasons.

“It is part of our expense reduction program,” said Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis to Off the Record.

“This was a difficult decision to make since it affects a large number of dedicated employees,” said Scott Heekin-Canedy, president and general manager of The Times, in a statement. “But the business environment has changed dramatically since 1992 when City & Suburban was formed and wholesale distribution is no longer an economical business for the Times Company.”

In printing plants, technology can get faster and nimbler—in some cases, machines replace people. But the basic mechanics behind delivering a newspaper don’t get any easier—it needs to be put in a truck, and it needs to be put on someone’s doorstep, or delivered to a newsstand, and someone—a living, breathing human—must be the one to do it.

“The fact is we have a contract with the drivers presently, but under the conditions as they exist today, we cannot continue publishing The Ledger,” Mr. Newhouse said. “We’re seeking a modification of that and we’re hoping the drivers membership agrees.”

“Unlike everything else you can do at a newspaper, it’s very hard to do what they do because it is one of the most complicated management systems at a newspaper,” said Mr. Morton. “It’s become expensive, too—these unions in particular know their power.”

The Drivers of the Star-Ledger Crisis