It seems like billionaire Star-Ledger owners are holding a bake sale

By David Wildstein, April 09 2020

New Jersey Globe

 

I’m rooting for the Star-Ledger to survive.

The newspaper has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.  As a middle schooler, I had a paper route and delivered the Star-Ledger seven days a week.  As a teenager in the 1970s, I was a Star-Ledger correspondent and got paid $5-a-game for covering high school sports.

In its prime, the Star-Ledger was a truly outstanding newspaper.  I often waited at the 7-11 after midnight for the Sunday edition to be delivered reading David Wald’s column of New Jersey politics or Bob Braun talking about education wouldn’t be delayed.  The editorial page during the Mort Pye era was consequential.

Over the last few years, I’ve become a critic of the newspaper – for good reason, in my opinion.

The Star-Ledger reporting staff is a fraction of what it once was, print circulation is down more than 70%, and frankly, the quality of their work has been disappointing.  Beat reporting – I remember Star-Ledger newsrooms at the Essex County Hall of Records and Newark City Hall – have disappeared.

It’s not that their staff isn’t talented – many of them are – but the newspaper hasn’t quite figured out who they want to be at a time when people can get their news without them.

They act as though they are still the Star-Ledger of the past.

So, I call them out from time to time. That’s fair. Somebody must.

I still recognize the importance of vibrant local newspapers, but I can’t help but view the recent appeal for voluntary $10 monthly contributions that has run much of the last two days as the top story on the NJ.com homepage as disingenuous.

The Star-Ledger is hardly a non-profit group trying to survive in incredibly difficult times with only altruistic motives. They are still a business — part of a conglomerate, actually — and still need to make money.

Its owner, Advance Publications, is the 47th largest privately-held company in the United States.  Conde Nast, the Discovery Channel, Reddit, and dozens of daily newspapers across the nation are just part of their portfolio.  Forbes estimates Advance’s annual revenue to be $6.25 billion.

The Newhouse family, which owns Advance, now has their local staff begging for help, like billionaires holding a bake sale.

Last week, Advance’s Cleveland Plain Dealer announced the layoffs of 18 of their remaining 32 reporters.  Seven years ago, the newspaper had an editorial staff of 168.

But it’s not like the billionaires are struggling.

Two weeks ago, Advance announced an all-cash deal to buy the Beijing-based Ironman group for $730 million.

That means the Star-Ledger’s owners have decided that they would rather put their money into a global triathlon and mass participation sports marketing company than into a New Jersey newspaper.

One week before that, Advance announced a $200 million investment in Scopely, a “fast-growing mobile games space” that allows you to play Wheel of Fortune on your smart phone.

It’s not like the billionaires who own the Star-Ledger can’t afford to fund it.  They just choose not to.  And that’s their right.  They are a for-profit business and they get to decide how they spend their money.

That leaves Kevin Whitmer, NJ Advance Media’s senior vice president for content, expansion and development, to beg New Jerseyans to help the Star-Ledger survive the abandonment and indifference of owners whose interests appear to lie elsewhere.

I feel badly for Kevin. Putting a banner atop the NJ.com website that says “We’re here when you need us most.  Now we need your help,” has got to be a little demeaning, albeit uncharacteristically forthcoming about their business.

News gathering is expensive and like any business, they deserve to get paid for what they do.  To their credit, the Star-Ledger hasn’t put news stories behind a paywall like other competitors.  The request for subscribers is voluntary — at this time, at least.

That hasn’t stopped the newspaper from fiercely protecting other sources of revenue.

In 2017, the Star-Ledger and others went into panic mode when Gov. Chris Christie and legislators threatened to scrap a state law that required legal notices to be printed in the newspaper.  Christie claimed the Star-Ledger brought in almost $17 million in annual revenue from those ads.

The Star-Ledger got a bit desperate and used their power to save their public subsidies.  Their editorial page editor, Tom Moran, essentially became an unregistered lobbyist – in my opinion — writing columns trashing the plan.

It worked. Christie and the legislature backed off.

Three years later, the Star-Ledger is still profiting from the legal ads.  They haven’t reduced their prices, even though the legal ads are reaching a print circulation that’s around 70% less than it used to be.  Who does that?

My point is this: lots of small businesses in New Jersey are hurting, and most of them don’t have billionaire owners of Advance there to help them out. There are probably some who needs my $120-a-year more than the Newhouse family.

There’s a side of me that says the it’s time to let go.  After all, life went on after the Newark Evening News went out of business.

It’s not my fault that Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters like Josh Margolin and Jeff Whelan were never really replaced.  And it’s not their fault that I can find out baseball scores or look at batting averages without waiting for their newspaper to be delivered in the morning.  Star-Ledger executives either don’t realize just how far of course they have veered and where the stand, or they can’t figure out how to move forward and figure out their lane.

I’m not convinced that signing up subscribers at $10-per-month is going to solve their long-term financial problems, but I am certain New Jersey would be worse off if the Star-Ledger folded.

I just wish they’d be a little more honest with readers like me about their mission and what their future looks like.  It would be nice if they disclosed financial arrangements that pay reporters for clicks – that might explain a lot – but they’re a privately-held company and they don’t have to if they don’t want to.

I’d prefer if their owners stepped up, but it doesn’t look like that will happen.

I’m not happy that need me to help fund their bailout, but despite my list of grievances as their customer, valid as I believe they are, for now I’m sticking with the Star-Ledger and with eight other New Jersey newspapers I subscribe to in support of local journalism.

 

David Wildstein, the editor of the New Jersey Globe, delivered newspapers and worked as a sports correspondent for the Star-Ledger in the 1970s.

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