Paper Jam

Shrinking pages, dwindling circulation, furloughed employees: how Gannett is reshaping the way it covers the county.



PHOTO courtesy of the Journal News

The newsroom at the Journal News,  which has had to implement a slew of cost-saving measures.

During the 1945 New York City newspaper strike, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia took to the airwaves and read the comic strips to the children of the city over WNYC Radio. It’s a delightful story that may soon have no meaning as a new generation of children may ask, “What’s a newspaper?”

A combination of new technology and a bad economy are forcing even the most conservatively run newspapers to become mere ghosts of their former selves. Such a newspaper is the Journal News, which clings to life, despite—or perhaps because of—cost-saving measures and consolidations that go back more than a decade and that have greatly changed what had been Westchester’s local papers.

The decline of the paper, owned by Gannett, the largest newspaper publisher in the U.S., is the local manifestation of a national phenomenon: news-papers are becoming smaller in content, size, scope, and influence. The tidal wave that’s rolling over the presses is drowning not just small local papers but big-city newspapers in places such as Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Fort Worth, Miami, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Seattle, where grand old mainstays of the daily news tradition are for sale, changing format drastically, or in danger of going out of business entirely.

How did newspapers in general, and the Journal News in particular, fall on such hard times? A look back is essential to understanding it all, and the Journal News is a typical example in many ways.

Two decades ago, The Gannett Westchester Rockland Newspapers was a chain of numerous local papers in Westchester, Rockland, and Putnam Counties. Then, in 1998, 12 of the papers were consolidated into one regional daily newspaper called the Journal News. The change came at a time, though, when people were beginning to get much of their national and international news from the Internet. The one area of coverage that the World Wide Web could not provide—local news—was cut back in the local paper as a result of the consolidation.

This did not go unnoticed. Says Eastchester resident Kathy Dempsey, “I started seeing changes over the last several years. There used to be little blurbs, town by town, stuff about New Rochelle, Yonkers, Pelham. I loved it.” Lingering over the paper nowadays isn’t possible, she says. “I can fly through the paper in ten minutes. I really only read it now for the puzzles and obits.” The “local paper” wasn’t so local anymore.

Despite the consolidation, the rise of technology and the fall of the economy have forced layoffs, two weeklong furloughs for Gannett employees, and other cost-cutting measures at the once-bustling building at One Gannett Drive in Harrison. The reduction is literal—and visible, too: the Journal News used to have pages that were 25 inches wide; that was reduced to 24 and, most recently, to 22 inches.

Along with size, something else is shrinking: circulation. Journal News President and Publisher Michael J. Fisch says morning net paid circulation declined 28 percent between 1997 and 2007. The latest figures, from April 1, 2007 through March 31, 2008, show an average morning circulation of 122,529 in Westchester, Putnam, and Rockland Counties.

Fisch, who has been at the Journal News since September, 2007, had the same titles at the Honolulu Advertiser. Presiding over hard times, Fisch has cut costs, reduced the staff by nearly 22 percent since 2005 (from 1,021 then to 797 in 2008), and says he may have to cut further.

“If the economy continues to erode, we will continue to adjust the size of staffing in all areas,” he said in a recent interview, “but perhaps first in operations and distribution, which don’t impact content.” He readily concedes what readers have noticed: content has been shrinking, too. “We reduced the size of the business section, eliminating daily stock listings, and we reduced the size of the television guide, partially because digital on-air guides are more prevalent today. We’ve trimmed some content related to national and international news, and we’re focused more on local content.”

Due in part to the consolidation of a decade ago and in part to the cutbacks—it is impossible to tell to what extent each is to blame—the Journal News no longer provides the nearly microscopic local coverage of individual towns and villages that longtime readers remember and miss. “You go to a Greenburgh Town Board meeting,” says Greenburgh resident Jack O’Neill, 63, a retired engineer. “Important issues are being discussed, but there’s no coverage in the newspaper at all.” This was not always the case. “Basically, the stories are an inch deep,” O’Neill says. “There should be more substance.”

In an effort to fill the void and to compete with other media, in recent years the Journal News has launched a website called LoHud.com, which serves the lower Hudson Valley, along with a series of local lifestyle magazines and the Express Group of weekly newspapers. InTown Westchester Magazine and Putnam Magazine have been suspended, pending a more favorable economy, according to Fisch, and the number of Rockland Magazine issues published has been reduced. One venture—the March 2007 launch of a two-hour in depth daily newscast called Newscenter Now, in conjunction with WRNN-TV—wasn’t a financial success. The idea was to have reporters shoot television video and be television reporters, too. “The cross platform is a multi-media one,” Fisch says. “Our journalists are photographers and videographers; our writers are designers. In that context, WRNN-TV helped in covering stories.” And while it increased the learning curve, Newscenter Now was dropped in late September 2008.

Shrinking advertising dollars are, in important ways, the alpha and omega of the financial crisis all newspapers face. The Journal News is no exception. Says Fisch: “Most of our advertisers, whether auto dealers, realtors, retailers, and so on, are feeling a significant impact in the current economic climate. As a result, our advertising has declined.” Advertising, he says, represents about 80 percent of the paper’s general revenue.

The volume of advertising began to decline dramatically three years ago, he says. The contraction in the retail sector has meant the loss of big advertisers such as Fortunoff, Circuit City, and Linens ’n Things. “When you lose a large advertiser, you can lose two to three million dollars in revenue rapidly,” Fisch explains. “It takes a lot of small advertisers to replace that loss. It impacts us and the community and, ultimately, can mean that we lose participation in the community.”

It is a circle that has become a spiral. Loss of advertising necessitates reductions in the newspaper, which reduces circulation and that, in turn, reduces the rates that can be charged to advertisers. The economies of scale that made consolidation of the local dailies attractive become liabilities when large regional advertisers disappear. Small, local businesses may be eager to advertise in small, local papers, but are less willing to pay to have their message delivered to distant homes where few, if any, potential customers reside. Westchester also happens to be in a section of the country where operating costs and real estate taxes are much higher than, say, the Midwest or the South. That is one reason the Journal News has farmed out jobs to workers in other states—even in other countries. “Portions of our customer-service center are owned and operated out of Louisville, Kentucky,” Fisch says. “Some of our accounting functions are consolidated in Binghamton. Portions of our advertising production are done overnight from India.”

Understandably, this angers those who used to hold those jobs locally.

“My job and about a dozen other jobs in my department were outsourced to India,” says one former employee who was laid off last year. A former Journal News photographer says it was a tense place to work, recalling, “I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t terrified of losing a job at any time. It was a regular topic of discussion when people were out of the building.” The photojournalist, who now freelances, maintains the emphasis on local coverage isn’t really authentic. “A lot of lip service is paid to the idea of it being this sickening local, local, local tag line. It’s a joke, corporate speak. The reality of the printed product doesn’t reflect that. It’s less local news.”

“Morale simply collapsed,” said a writer shortly before resigning. “There were dozens of people in the parking lot holding boxes of stuff from their desks, just hugging one another. It was surreal. Now some of those people are thinking about making total career changes.”

Maybe some laid-off newspaper journalists will reinvent themselves as web reporters. And, while the Internet has greatly reduced the bottom line of many media conglomerates, there is an important distinction, says former CNN correspondent Ralph J. Begleiter, now at the University of Delaware. “News stories originate with reporters. Most news reports on the web are written by employees of either broadcast or print news organizations. If they can’t stay afloat, then there will be no reporters to produce news stories, and the web will be filled with opinion, some of it informed and most of it uninformed.”

“The big threat from the Internet is the fact that people can get their news for free,” says David McKay Wilson, who, after more than two decades as a Journal News reporter, left in 2007 to freelance for the New York Times and university magazines around the country. “Communities suffer when there are fewer people gathering the news. Democracies suffer. People don’t know what’s going on.”

But reporters and photographers and editors need to eat.

“In times of crisis, you have to change,” Fisch says. He notes that while net paid circulation has declined, the paper’s audience has increased 7 percent over the last three years, due to the weeklies and other outlets such as LoHud.com, and Metromix, a local, youth-oriented entertainment guide, and affiliations with CareerBuilder.com, Cars.com, and Homefinder.com, sites that deal with advertisements traditionally handled by the paper’s classified advertising department. Fisch says the combined hits generate more than 12 million page views a month, and there’s been a 14-percent increase in time spent on the site this past year.

The Journal News may be on better financial footing than many other papers, in part because of its parent company. Gannett, based in McLean, Virginia, publishes 85 daily newspapers, including USA Today, and owns more than 850 non-daily publications, and 23 television stations. It is generally regarded as a fiscally conservative company that was careful not to overextend itself, especially at a time when some of its competitors purchased a lot of newspapers and incurred a lot of debt. Gannett management has been more disciplined in acquisition strategies. “Gannett remains by far the most profitable big newspaper publisher, even if those profits are way down,” says New York Times media reporter Richard Pérez-Peña. “They have always been a lean operation, very disciplined about controlling costs, and carrying very little debt for their size.”

Some don’t see Gannett’s strength as a virtue, though. “Gannett is too conservative,” says Jim Hopkins of San Francisco, a Gannett editor and reporter for 20 years who left in January of 2008 and is now running a Gannett-related blog. “Management too often is afraid to take the very risks necessary to innovate—to find new products, hire talented individuals, spend money on new ventures. Without that risk-taking, the company can’t prosper.” Is survival contingent upon whether a company can change to remain not just solvent but competitive with new media?

“Much of the very best content news organizations are putting on the web is multi-media and interactive,” Begleiter notes. “Excellent examples of this are the interactive county-by-county maps of the U.S. depicting election results, exit polls, and most recently, economic crisis data such as unemployment.” Whether such efforts make money, though, remains to be seen.

Fisch says he thinks that, over the next 10 to 15 years, we will continue to see changes in what a newspaper looks and feels like. “It will not be as thick and heavy and, as we move forward in this new digital era, more of our content will be digital.”

All that’s certain is that the newspaper as we have come to know it will change. Whether it is something that Fiorello LaGuardia would have recognized is something else. The Journal News, though, is likely to stick around in some form. It’s not on life support or even in critical condition, says Fisch. “It’s more like a middle-aged patient with a little hardening of the arteries who, with medication, still has a lot of life to live.”

Lynda J. Moore is CEO of Cinetaur Productions, LLC, a multi-media company and a retired ABC News Radio Correspondent. A Navy brat, she has lived in nearly a dozen states and U.S. territories, including Midway Island and Kodiak, AK. She has been a resident of Westchester County for 18 years.

 

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