Darkness on the Edge of Town: ‘Star-Ledger’ Cuts Mean More Than Most

By: Joe Strupp

(Commentary) When word broke yesterday that The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., was looking to slash some 200 jobs through buyouts — and threatened to be sold if it did not get enough takers — the bombshell meant more than the usual newspaper facing a crisis.

The Ledger, as it is known to any Jerseyan, was different. It was the big fat and happy daily that got most of the advertising, paid employees well enough that they didn’t need a Newspaper Guild, and circulated statewide.

The paper continues to boast the largest statehouse bureau of any daily paper, with just under a dozen staffers in Trenton, and in recent years finally won its coveted Pulitzer Prizes. For years, the Newhouse Family always maintained it would never lay off employees due to economics and pretty much left it and its sister papers in New Orleans and Cleveland alone.

A Jerseyan since second grade, I grew up in Summit, N.J., with the Ledger always on the kitchen table and the clear arbiter of big news in the state. It was never The New York Times or The Washington Post. But if you lived in the Garden State, it was the paper to get.

I can still drive down Ashland Road in my old hometown and point to the houses that took the paper when I was a delivery boy in fifth and sixth grade. Back then, you got it for a dime a day, 25 cents on Sunday. Such a low price was possible because the Ledger made so much money elsewhere.

Even in the state’s difficult economic times that native son Bruce Springsteen sings about — auto plant closings and textile mill layoffs — you’d never hear him lament the financial troubles of the newspaperman, especially the behemoth Star-Ledger. Maybe that will change with an updated version of “My Hometown” to “My Hometown Paper.”

Later, when I got my first job at the now-defunct Daily Journal in Elizabeth, The Ledger was again the big gun. If a big story broke in our backyard, we would send a reporter and a photographer, while the Ledger had three or four scribes there.

It also treats its readers with more respect than those dailies in New York or Philadelphia, our two big-city neighbors. It knew we were more than big hair and Turnpike exits. The paper properly looked at development issues, taxes, and the overly corrupt state government that too often needs a watchdog. But it also promoted the state’s great assets, from shore life to great schools and successful business.

Even when writing about local favorites such as Springsteen or “The Sopranos,” the Ledger always offers respect for the home state. It was always the paper Tony Soprano picked up at the end of his driveway, but never one to wrongly depict all Jerseyans as Soprano-like.

Now comes word that the big major daily is in trouble — deep trouble, if you believe Publisher George Arwady’s message to staffers that indicated the paper is losing tens of millions of dollars a year and is “on life support.” While this is not a surprise given the state of the industry, it is still something of a shock given the Ledger’s long-running status.

“It is very dark,” said veteran Ledger reporter Gabriel Gluck, who has been at the paper 20 years. “The buyout part didn?t surprise everyone. It is the sale that has really thrown everyone because even if it is a negotiating tactic, it is on the table.”

The tactic is Arwady’s contention that at least two non-newsroom unions must agree to concessions, along with the 200 buyouts, for the paper to remain under current ownership.

“I thought it was going to be something less than this,” Union County Bureau Chief Mark Angeles added. “This turned out to be much, much worse. That the paper is up for sale, that is a punch in the gut.”

The cracks could be seen in recent years as the paper, like most Advance Publications dailies, was slow to expand to the Web. While the papers had Web sites, none of them offer a real breaking news pizzazz or individuality. All of the chain’s cookie-cutter sites share the same template and are still among the most difficult to navigate.

The Ledger didn’t even offer a daily Web video report until this past week. While its circulation is still the highest in the state at 345,000 weekdays and 500,000 on Sunday, according to the last ABC FAS-FAX report for the six months ending in March, those numbers are sharply down. Just a year earlier, they were at 372,000 daily and 570,000 on Sunday.

With a staff of 1,400 and just over 750 union employees, losing 200 non-union people will not destroy the paper. But the idea that it is in such bad financial state that it might have to be sold shows the ugly downturn of things.

With many other papers cutting 10% and 20% of staff, the Ledger is clearly not immune: It will make cuts and it will go on. The print product, long one of the meatiest daily and Sunday print versions, will likely get smaller and, hopefully, its Web presence will become greater.

But for us Jerseyans, both in and out of the news game, the Ledger as we know it — the statewide news source that lands with a thud every morning on the driveway — will be gone. Just as my children are learning where to find the paper’s sports section “Fridge Grid” of game schedules; the full-color Sunday comics; and the beloved “Munchmobile” restaurant reviews, it will eventually all go to the Web site.

Well, at least Tony Soprano won?t have to drudge down the driveway each morning. He’ll just have to log on to a computer. Chances are, he’ll be able to “borrow” one somewhere.

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