It's bad news. And it's bad for news.
The journalists of the Daily Record, Courier News and Home News Tribune learned this week about half of them will lose their jobs in the latest in a string of consolidations that goes back several years. The current workforce of 99 reporters, editors, photographers and other editorial staffers—the employees most responsible at those papers for keeping the communities in and around Morris, Somerset and Middlesex Counties informed—will shrink to just 53.
Fifty-three people to keep an eye on 85 municipalities (not counting the papers' border territories, outside of those three counties). Fifty-three people to keep an eye on crime, on government, on corruption, on heroism, on compassion, on danger and on wonder. Fifty-three people to document history as it's made for a community of 1.6 million residents.
No doubt they'll do their best; there are a lot of dedicated and talented people at those papers, all part of Gannett. But the task in front of them is daunting. And soon 46 of their close colleagues won't be around to help.
If I hadn't made the decision to leave the Daily Record for Patch a year ago, I'd be among those left in limbo—those who'll find out between now and Feb. 4 whether they'll get to continue doing the jobs they love, and which of their trusted colleagues might be by their sides. I've spoken to a number of my friends and peers at Gannett in the last several days—both for Patch's own report on the cuts, and to see how people I care about are faring.
They're scared, which is to be expected. Many are angry; no surprise there either. But more than that, they're disappointed.
They're disappointed because they know what it takes to cover communities the way they deserve to be covered—to hold public officials accountable, to celebrate the inspiring work of dedicated volunteers and good Samaritans, to spread critical news during emergencies, to educate the public with the information it needs to shape its future. And they know those 53 people will be forced to pick their battles more selectively. They rightfully believe what they do is important, and they're saddened their mission is compromised.
Those who remain will do heroic work—I have no doubt as to that—but they won't be able to fight on as many fronts. And that's more than just a disappointment. It's a horrible shame.
It would be dishonest not to acknowledge that on some levels, this is an opportunity for Patch. We cover news in many of the same communities as the Daily Record, Courier News and Home News Tribune. Of course, we want you coming to us for your news—and if you find you can't get satisfaction elsewhere, we certainly hope it means you turn to us more often.
But there's nothing good about a voice being silenced, or muffled, as is the case when a news organization loses so much talent and manpower. The community is best served by healthy competition, and by the opportunity to turn to multiple sources, each with its own strengths. The more people and organizations there are seeking truth, the more truth will come to light.
What's truly tragic, and frightening, is that this sort of thing is happening everywhere. Before my time with the Daily Record, I worked at newspapers that have since downsized significantly or disappeared entirely. I recently visited the offices of a small daily paper in Rhode Island where I'd been the managing editor for a year. The newsroom itself was abandoned; there weren't enough people left to fill it. The editorial staff of 17 had been whittled to four. The paper was a shell, with one or two original stories to report each day. It was heartbreaking.
When I spoke to a publisher overseeing the Gannett papers earlier this week, he didn't talk about the current consolidation in terms of cost savings. He talked in terms of greater efficiencies and smarter strategies, more intelligent ways for the papers to pool resources with one another and with the Monmouth County-based Asbury Park Press. It's true that sometimes you really can do more with less. But you can do a lot more with more, and every time a major cut is announced, some of that potential is lost.
It's easy to blame these sorts of losses on limited vision or greed—a colleague and friend of mine who lost her Daily Record job to layoffs in 2009 bemoaned the "slash-and-burn management style that Gannett has been showing of late" when we spoke this week—but if that's really what's in play, it's only a part of the story.
The truth is this: journalism is expensive. As a rule, most reporters and editors don't get paid pie-in-the-sky salaries—far from it—but it takes real money to maintain a staff of talented people big and diverse enough to provide consistent, quality, continuous coverage of any area or topic. Print publications have to contend with everything that goes into distribution–from the rising cost of ink to the rising cost of gas. Legacy business models built around print advertising just aren't cutting it anymore—though at most newspapers, that's still where most of the revenue remains. New business models tailored for the information age are still, to put it in digital terms, at the beta phase—some work but aren't wholly reliable, some don't work at all and most haven't been around long enough for anyone to know how they'll do in the long run.
In most cases, the money just isn't there anymore, and there aren't easy answers or sure-fire solutions. Those responsible for key decisions see few options other than to slow the bleeding, to buy time.
I wouldn't have joined Patch if I didn't think it was onto something, if I didn't think it had a real shot at making local journalism work in a way that's both sustainable and meaningful to readers. But we're a young organization with a lot to prove—to readers, to advertisers, to partners and to ourselves. The energy and talent here is inspiring; I believe we're up to it. But if I'm wrong, it's critical someone, somewhere figures this all out—because what we're trying to do, what the Gannett papers have done for years, and what our peers at countless news organizations in countless communities are doing is crucial to a healthy society.
One can only hope there's better news ahead.
Louis C. Hochman is a former associate news editor and associate digital editor for the Daily Record. He's now a regional editor for Patch, working with communities in and around Morris County–but speaks only for himself in this column, not for Patch overall. He wishes his friends at Gannett well.