The Star-Ledger has long been the highest-circulating paper in New Jersey. At its peak, its newsroom held 350 professionals. It won three Pulitzers and many other journalism prizes.
Today, the newsroom staff is 156; shortly it will be down to 116. Some who stay will take pay cuts.
Even before this latest reduction, the effects of previous cuts were evident in the product. The current Star-Ledger Sunday edition contains about as much news as the daily paper did five or six years ago.
The Star-Ledger plans to join with other New Jersey papers to share reporting and back-office production in an effort to stay alive. We'll see how that goes.
What Is Being Lost
One thing not discussed often is the fact that a traditional newspaper is not a single product, but actually a bundle of products.
People bought newspapers for many different reasons -- local crime reports, sports columns, political columns, wedding announcements, obituaries, letters to the editor, Dear Abby, favorite comics, crossword puzzles, help-wanted ads, automobile ads, the Wednesday recipes and supermarket sections, movie reviews, department store sale announcements, and on and on.
One reason that I still like reading a newspaper is that occasionally I come upon an article or advertisement about something interesting that hadn't occurred to me before. This doesn't happen so often for people who get their news or product information on the internet -- they look for what they know they are seeking and miss those serendipitous discoveries.
Over time, the newspaper bundle of products is being disaggregated. Craigslist, Trulia and AutoTrader, among others, have siphoned off the classified advertising sections. Supermarkets and big-box stores now deliver ad sections through the mail or in big dumps on people's yards. Those who are interested in politics search out blogs that cater to their points of view and seldom encounter reasoning for the other side. Fashion blogs are ubiquitous. There are big sites like Drudge and CNN that offer national and world news, mostly in small bites. Celebrity reports and snark are everywhere. And there are blogs for boaters, fishermen, scrapbookers, any number of topics.
The report of the Star-Ledger's problems will come as no surprise to my readers. Around the country, papers are in big, big trouble. Nationwide circulation dropped from 63 million in 1973 to 44 million in 2011, and obviously has continued to decline since then.
Papers in Los Angeles, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Chicago all have gone through bankruptcy and made drastic cuts in reporting budgets, and even circulation areas. Several papers have stopped daily delivery and now offer print editions four days a week.
The most reliable subscribers for newspapers today are folks over the age of 65, a dying demographic.
Under the old model, print newspapers got 80 percent of their revenues from advertising and 20 percent from subscriptions and single-copy sales. Now both income sources are declining.
New Jersey has an underperforming government in many different ways. Many of our politicians have demonstrated poor judgment, and more than a few have committed outright fraud over the years. It would be nice to believe that our news media would keep watch over the public sector, but as newspapers decline, I find it hard to believe television and radio reporters or bloggers will be able to pick up the slack. Eventually, I believe, some new entities will emerge to keep citizens informed, but at this point I'm not sure what they will be.