‘The Jersey Journal’s Replacements

By: Allan Wolper

I’m a journalism professor at the Newark campus of Rutgers University. My office is a 15-minute car ride to Journal Square, the home of The Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

For 20 years, I promoted the Journal as a great place to work. I pushed my students to compete for internships at the newspaper and to try to land a job there after they graduated. I told them the Journal had a newsroom of mentors who would mainline them into journalism and teach them about life in Hudson County — one of the best news spots in all of America. I believed it was a great training ground for young reporters.

I was sure The Jersey Journal would remain a force forever because Steven Newhouse, the paper’s fine editor in chief, would never permit his family’s publishing empire to dismantle it. I had forgotten that Steve Newhouse had become more involved in other media projects and was no longer the hands-on editor he used to be.

Without him, the Journal lost its way. The news hole shrunk to 40% from 60%. Reporters were given more territory than they could cover. Editors had less time to train people. There was less to read and fewer people read it. And the red ink flowed.

If the Journal is publishing a paper a month from now — a definite uncertainty considering its repeated threats to close itself down — its eggshell of an editorial staff will get even thinner. The newspaper’s recent decision to force The Newspaper Guild to accept buyouts of 50% of its editorial staff has kept the Journal on the newsstands. But 11 of the 17 full-time journalists who are taking those buyouts were editors — the kind of people my students used to rely on to understand the urban madness of Hudson County.

The old-timers still in the city room — such as Managing Editor Margaret Schmidt and her husband, political writer (and office curmudgeon) Peter Weiss — may be too busy to give my students the direction they used to rave about.

But now I hope that my students will rethink working at The Jersey Journal. I don’t want them to be seen as youthful predators who took the jobs of journalists who might have mentored them if they hadn’t been pressured to leave. Here’s why.

During all the turmoil leading to the buyouts, some reporters asked Bruce Berry, the lawyer for the Journal‘s parent Advance Publications, how the paper expected to cover Hudson County with a Slim-Fast editorial staff. Berry’s answer? “Interns.”

It was what the union had worried about since June 1996 when it caved in to the paper’s demands to redefine the word “intern” so that it could hire entry-level reporters at $326.32 a week without benefits — about $217 less than they ordinarily would receive. That trick permits the paper to hire college apprentices to replace the most senior journalists, who receive $795 at the top of the contract pay scale.

Under this scheme, college graduates are hired on nine-month tryouts as “interns” before qualifying for a six-month probationary period as “beginning reporters” at $543.86, along with some health and welfare benefits. A young reporter can be fired at any time during this 15-month process. No one at the Journal can remember any recent college graduate being hired during the last six years as a beginning reporter without going through the $326.32 internship program.

John Watson, who was at The Jersey Journal from 1975 to 1996 as a reporter, city editor, and news editor (and a former president of the Journal‘s Guild unit), couldn’t understand why the union would allow the paper to get away with its labor shell game.

“Wow, that really stings,” said Watson, now an assistant professor of print journalism at American University in Washington. “Using the ‘term’ intern implies it is a pure educational experience. I guess it’s a way to get over cheap.”

Journal management prefers to see The Intern Gambit as a benevolent boon to young journalists trying to make a name for themselves rather than a move to create a squadron of replacement workers.

“There is not a better place to be a reporter than Hudson County,” Steve Newhouse said in a telephone interview from his New York office. “I think the best thing for an intern is to do a lot of work. There are still some very fine editors and colleagues who will be around to help them.”

That’s true. But it’s unseemly for The Jersey Journal to turn an intern program set up to recruit college graduates into a replacement tool for journalists they want to push out the door.

At least that’s what I am going to tell my students. I’m sure that someday Steve Newhouse will see that, too.

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