‘Jersey Journal’s Crisis Highlights Industry Problem

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First things first: Thank goodness The Jersey Journal survives.

The death of a daily newspaper wounds any community it once served, but it was especially distressing to think that Jersey City, N.J., and its environs would have to suffer such a blow after shaking off decades of urban decay to emerge as a vibrant home for young professionals and a gateway for ambitious immigrants. It’s somehow appropriate that teeming Hudson County is the only Garden State county without a golf course. But it would be very wrong if it did not have its own daily newspaper.

That the Journal, which first came off the presses on May 2, 1867, is publishing today is a tribute to its union truck drivers, office workers, and journalists. In an agonizing decision, every second union member voting to approve Advance Publications’ survival plan was casting a ballot that would eliminate his or her own job. Management must not betray that brave leap of faith.

All that said, the Journal‘s still-precarious fate cannot be explained only by the brutal publishing recession or Hudson County’s polyglot demographics. As usual, our Allan Wolper gets immediately to the heart of the matter in his “Ethics Corner” column this week.

His most dispiriting revelation is the cynical way the Journal — after negotiation with The Newspaper Guild local, it must be said — has twisted the honorable institution of journalism internships to get reporters on the cheap. With a degree in hand and no academic need for an internship, a rookie journalist is hired on as an “intern” and serves a nine-month tryout for a salary of $326.32 a week — with no benefits — before becoming eligible to become a “beginning reporter” with its own six-month probation period. This bit of semantic legerdemain allows the Journal to pay new journalists $217 a week less than what the union contract says beginning reporters must be paid.

It isn’t just The Jersey Journal. With ever-fewer exceptions, the entire newspaper industry appears to be doing all it can to convince college graduates that working in a daily or weekly newsroom requires taking a vow of poverty. According to the University of Georgia’s most recent survey of journalism and mass communications graduates, in the fall of 2000 — when political-science majors, for crying out loud, were starting at $33,690 — daily papers were paying new journalists a median salary of barely $26,000. And that was in the good times.

This surely is an extraordinarily difficult period to start raising salaries, for beginners no less. But this problem has persisted in good times and bad, and it’s a fair question to ask if the newspaper industry ever intends to offer salaries that attract the best and brightest. When even a city paper in the shadow of Manhattan offers a starting salary low enough to qualify for food stamps, the message to a new generation of journalists is clear: You are not valuable to newspapers.

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