Thursday, January 5, 2017

In New Jersey, only a few newspaper watchdogs are left

In a near-empty press row in the NJ State House, Joe Albright, 87, writes his weekly column for The Jersey Journal

David W. Chen reports for The New York Times:

TRENTON — When New Jersey lawmakers blocked a vote last month on a bill backed by Gov. Chris Christie that would have ended the requirement that legal notices be published in newspapers, it was a rare good news story for the state’s press corps.

Publishers said the bill, which would have let the notices move online, would have cost newspapers $20 million in revenue and perhaps hundreds of journalists’ jobs.

That was in addition to the cutbacks and layoffs that have left the industry feeling as if it were “running up a down escalator,” as Tom Moran, editorial page editor of The Star-Ledger, the state’s largest newspaper, put it.

The Star-Ledger, which almost halved its newsroom eight years ago, has mutated into a digital media company requiring most reporters to reach an ever-increasing quota of page views as part of their compensation.

The state’s second-largest paper, The Record, which focuses on its most populous county, Bergen, said it would lay off more than 400 people after it was purchased in July by the Gannett Company (although some were expected to be rehired if they reapplied for their jobs). And that was after it endured a 20 percent cut to the newsroom in 2008.

The Wall Street Journal, which built upon Bridgegate, a political scandal uncovered by The Record, now has one New Jersey beat reporter churning out shorter articles. And after operating bureaus in Trenton, Newark and Hackensack as recently as 10 years ago, The New York Times does not have a New Jersey beat reporter.

The declining fortunes of the state’s newspapers are part of a retrenchment in newspaper publishing across the country, but they have been acutely felt because of New Jersey newspapers’ role in holding powerful institutions and people accountable in a state that lacks a major independent television station.

The timing also could not be worse, given all the news in the past year related to Mr. Christie, terrorism, crumbling infrastructure and the sizable local presence of President-elect Donald J. Trump.

“If Bridgegate happened today, would someone have covered it?” said Richard A. Lee, an associate professor at St. Bonaventure University, who researched the New Jersey media in a 2013 dissertation. “Because it was really a local reporter doing old-fashioned investigative reporting.”

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