One year ago, the Newhouses were threatening to close down their treasured jewel, The Star-Ledger, unless the paper’s union made a series of concessions, which included cutting the newsroom by 40 percent.
They got what they wanted, and it seemed like things could go back to normal, albeit with fewer deckhands on the ship.
Yet on Monday, George Arwady, the publisher of the The Star-Ledger, wrote in a memo to staff that “the revenue situation at our newspaper has worsened this year, and we expect a further significant revenue decline next year.” Now, the paper needs to cut 50 more jobs, with roughly 25 from the newsroom.
“The state of newspapers today—I’m speaking about all newspapers, not specifically our own—is that revenue is still a very serious problem,” said Donald Newhouse, the owner of Advance Publications (which owns The Star-Ledger) and the brother of Si Newhouse.
When asked if he would again consider closing the paper, Mr. Newhouse said, “No.”
“Last year we faced a specific situation in which we told our employees that if certain things did not happen, we would close the The Star-Ledger,” he said. “The things we said needed to be accomplished were accomplished.”
That’s wonderful news, but it doesn’t stop the bleeding. Can New Jersey’s largest paper sustain itself in this grim climate with such a diminished newsroom?
“We’re not the paper we were and we’re not the paper we want to be,” said Kevin Whitmer, the new editor of The Star-Ledger, who is replacing Jim Willse. “But comparatively, and when you look at online and video, there are more people seeing our content today than at any point in our history.”
This is ultimately the conundrum faced by every paper, large or small, in the country—more people are reading content online, but the eyeballs are not translating to dollars. There’s also the perception, thanks to narrower coverage, fewer stories and smaller staffs, that papers just don’t matter anymore.
“Newspapers are becoming irrelevant,” said Brendan Byrne, the former governor of New Jersey. “You don’t expect that the The Star-Ledger is going to have the kind of news it used to have.”
WHEN THIS ROUND of cuts is finished, The Star-Ledger’s staff will be half the size of what it was a year ago, but at least it will still have a bustling office. The Record, on the other hand, has existed essentially without a home base for over a year—reporters can drop into an office when they want, but they’re encouraged to stay out on the streets. Meanwhile, The New York Times killed its New Jersey section and cleared out its bureaus. The paper did assign two reporters—David Halbfinger and David Kocieniewski—to cover this season’s election, but soon their attention will be elsewhere. All The Times has left is a blog that covers three towns—Millburn, Maplewood and South Orange.
In an interview last year, Governor Jon Corzine told Off the Record that after The Times had emptied its Newark and Trenton bureaus of full-time staffers, he visited Arthur Sulzberger to express his “serious disappointment” with the decision. Mr. Sulzberger replied, effectively, tough luck—we’d love to do it, but we can’t afford it.
Meanwhile, the rest of the dailies in the state are basically enduring an endless nightmare. Gannett owns six daily newspapers in New Jersey—the Asbury Park Press, the Home News Tribune, the Courier News, the Courier-Post, the Daily Journal and the Daily Record—and the cuts have been almost seasonal: This past summer, 125 jobs were eliminated from the six papers; in December, 206 jobs were cut; last summer 55 jobs were cut; there were also more than 80 buyouts earlier in 2008.