Concerned Citizens Aim to ‘Save the Jersey Journal’ As it Faces Closure

photo by wally g

Early in February, while checking the streams of Facebook status updates of my acquaintances, I came across an interesting tidbit: Someone had joined the group “Save the Jersey Journal.”

There were only a handful of members, but it was just a week after the Evening Journal Association, which publishes the tabloid daily, announced an April 13 expiration date for the 142-year-old paper if its revenue was not sufficient to support a “reduced expense plan.”

Since then, the Facebook group has grown quickly as the fate of the newspaper remains uncertain. As of this writing, it had 124 members, including Ward E Councilman Steven Fulop and mayoral candidate Dan Levin.

“I decided it was the very least I could do to show the publishers that people care,” Kate Kaye says when asked why she started the group. The 36-year-old journalist who covers the digital marketing industry says she is all too familiar with the woes of the newspaper business, but she felt she needed to do something about the potential loss of the Journal.

“I realize to many this seems like a futile effort, and as one who has covered the online newspaper sector for years as a business reporter, I’m well aware of the reality — and cynicism — print papers face,” she says. “But I’m also someone who recognizes the value of having a daily print publication for any city for historical, cultural, communal, political, and utilitarian purposes.”

Much of the print media industry has been decimated over the past decade, as more and more people have turned to the internet — often branded web extensions of an existing print product — for news. It’s an old story by now: Circulations are sliding, ad revenues are in the tank and newspapers can’t figure out how to make money online.

It is in this environment that the Journal, which I freelanced for several years ago, currently finds itself. The paper, which is owned by the Newhouse family’s privately-held media conglomerate Advance Publications, has reportedly faced declining circulation, staff numbers and revenue for years. (Journal Publisher Kendrick Ross did not respond to our invitations to comment on this story.)

In 2005, when the paper transitioned from a broadsheet format to the current tabloid look, the New York Times reported that daily circulation was at 26,600, down from a peak of around 150,000 in the mid-1970s. This circulation slide came despite the Journal‘s absorption of its last major competitor, the Hudson Dispatch, in 1991. (The Journal merged with two other main competitors — the Jersey Observer and the Bayonne Times — in 1951 and 1971, respectively.) In 2002, when the paper faced similar threats of closure, reports said the Journal was losing as much as $4 million annually.

Reporter Ron Leir, the president of the Newspaper Guild’s Local 42, says that when he started as a full-time employee at the Journal in February 1972, there were about 60 editorial department employees. By 2002, that number had shrunk to 36, and today Leir says it is about 13 there are 13 editorial employees that are part of the Guild. (There are also eight editorial positions considered “management.”)* And at a meeting this week between editorial employees and management, the company expressed its interest in getting four to six additional newsroom staffers to leave voluntarily.

What kind of fat incentives is the paper offering for those who choose to leave? Paid health coverage for as much time as the employee would normally be entitled to severance pay under the union’s current contract.

Leir explains that this would range from as little as two or three weeks to 48 weeks, the mark at which severance pay is capped. Translated: If Leir, who has been employed full-time at the paper for 37 years, decides to take management up on its offer, he will be rewarded with less than one year of health coverage.

In addition, the company seeks to remove the nine-month cap currently placed on an intern’s tenure at the paper. Leir says the Journal now has “nearly as many” interns as staff writers, and that as higher-level editorial employees have moved on or moved up, their positions often haven’t been filled. Instead, they’ve often been replaced by interns. He says that the company also wants “total flexibility” if the paper survives past April 13, which translates to assigning any type of job to any reporter at any time.

“They want the ultimate efficiency machine,” Leir says.

When asked how a newsroom of less than 20 people could produce a comprehensive daily paper — and do it well — Leir acknowledges that’s “part of our concern” and says “we need to negotiate a better deal.” They will attempt to do just that when they present some sort of counter-proposal to management next week.

Other departments at the paper have shrunk as well. For example, as part of the last-minute 2002 deal that kept the paper alive, the Newspaper and Mail Deliverers’ Union agreed to halve the number of members employed by the Journal, from 18 to 9. During those same talks, the Professional Employees International Union also agreed to shed half of its employees.

To make matters worse, some observers say the paper’s slow embrace of web technology has put it in an untenable position going forward.

“The Journal needs to improve its presence on the internet,” Ian MacAllen, proprietor of the New York’s Sixth blog, says. “It treats the internet too much like a facsimile of the printed page and doesn’t really take advantage of the possibilities of multimedia, interactivity and the infinite column inches of HTML.”

The 27-year-old Harsimus Cove resident, who reads stories from dozens of papers every day but hasn’t read a printed paper “in two or three years,” says the Journal has failed to address — much less win over — readers like him.

“I’ve been reading the Journal and since 2001, and I still don’t know how to navigate through the site,” he says. “The look and feel is still very early 2000s. The site is confusing, poorly laid out, and even the ad placement is not really optimal.”

While MacAllen believes that the city absolutely still needs a daily paper, he doesn’t think it necessarily needs to be printed — or necessarily has to be the Journal.

“The differentiating factor between a publication like the Jersey Journal and some guy in his grandmother’s basement is not whether or not a printing press is used, but in the level of professionalism,” he says. “For some time that professionalism has been absent from the Journal, even if it arrives on paper.”

While Kaye admits that the paper could be improved, she says that the prospect of having no paper is far worse.

“Whether or not the paper always does the best job of covering our city, we need it,” she says. “A lot of people still rely on print papers to read while commuting on the train, enjoying their morning coffee at the diner, whatever.” In addition, many people in the city are still on the wrong side of the digital divide, and they need to be serviced by a print product.

Thurman Hart, a political science lecturer at New Jersey City University, local blogger and member of the Facebook group, agrees that the city needs the daily.

“Given the back-room nature of Jersey politics, just being able to know who to talk to about issues takes a bit of traveling along the learning curve, and the Journal has maintained a staff with sufficient know-how to pull that off,” he says. “If the best disinfectant is sunlight, then the demise of the Journal will do nothing but contribute to the ability of self-interest and graft to defeat the public will in Jersey City.”

Hart says he’s heard the rumors that if the Journal closes, the Star-Ledger, which is also owned by Advance, would begin to cover Hudson County on a more regular basis. But he doesn’t think that’s a great solution either. “I’m sure that the quality of the coverage (as well as the quantity) would suffer,” he says.

For now, the fate of the Journal hangs in the balance and for many, the deathwatch has begun. In 2002, when the paper last faced imminent closure, then-U.S. Rep. Bob Menendez got involved in negotiations and Mayor Glenn Cunningham reached out to the owners with a lucrative incentive package of tax breaks, loans and grants to help keep the paper open. Advance rebuffed the mayor’s advances, telling the New York Times that “under no circumstances should we be seen to even be considering any assistance.”

It looks as if Advance won’t have to worry about “considering any assistance” this time anyway, at least from City Hall. “While we never want to see any newspaper go out of print, especially our local newspaper,” Mayor Healy says, “the Jersey City taxpayers do not have the resources — particularly at this time — to assist in this situation.”

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. The Journal has started running house ads hawking yearly subscriptions at the bargain basement price of $60 (the normal rate is $120 for a year), Leir remains “guardedly optimistic” about the paper’s future, and Kaye is looking at ways to expand her activism beyond the internet.

“As someone who’s covered digital activism tactics and technologies as a reporter, I’ve had a healthy skepticism regarding their efficacy,” she says. She recognizes that many people in the city don’t even know about the threat to the Journal, much less the Facebook group. In hopes of raising public awareness, she’s also been distributing flyers around the city and is considering getting people together in a meeting or organizing an event to promote subscriptions.

“It’s another crisis to overcome,” Leir says with the weary but level-headed tone of a veteran of previous union battles. “For the sake of our readers, we hope that we can continue to productively serve them the best we can, considering the circumstances.”

*You can find the Save the Jersey Journal Facebook group on the web here.

* We originally reported that there were 13 total editorial employees at the Journal, based on our conversation with reporter Ron Leir. During a subsequent conversation, he pointed out that the 13 figure actually represented the number of editorial employees in the Guild he leads, and that there were eight additional editorial “managers” at the paper. We regret the confusion.

Jon Whiten

co-founded the Jersey City Independent. He is currently the Deputy Director of New Jersey Policy Perspective.