Star-Ledger fears Picayune's fate

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Star-Ledger. (Star-Ledger.)
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The publisher of The Star-Ledger, New Jersey's largest newspaper, has been meeting with employees in a bid to calm nerves.

The place has been on edge following a recent announcement that parent company Advance Publications, owners of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, is looking to consolidate its Garden State newspapers and web operation, and staffers have been bracing for a "worst-case scenario," as one source told Capital.

Ledger publisher Richard Vezza convened a series of Q & A's with employees following a Dec. 5 story by Ledger reporter Ted Sherman. In the article, Vezza announced that Advance was conducting a study to come up with ways to integrate operations across its 10 Jersey newspapers and their affiliated web portal. In addition to the Newark-based Ledger, those outlets include three other dailies (the Jersey Journal, Times of Trenton and South Jersey Times); seven weeklies; and the bucket site nj.com.

The news seemed to raise the specter of a mass culling like the ones that have claimed hundreds of jobs at Advance papers across the country, including the The Ann Arbor News, The Birmingham News and the Times-Picayune. But there are darker fears: Advance has also reduced the print frequency of those papers and others in Michigan, Alabama and, most controversially, Louisiana, where New Orleans residents waged a campaign to "save" the daily Times-Picayune. (Advance subsequently created a separate tabloid that hits newsstands on the days when the Picayune does not.)

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One of the takeaways of the meetings with Vezza, which wrapped up on Wednesday, is that Advance Publications is aiming to nail down a strategy for the Ledger and its sister titles more quickly than employees may have expected, according to sources with knowledge of what was discussed.

Employees were told the company was hopeful it might have a plan in place as soon as January, though attendees were not given a firm timetable. Nor were questions about future staff reductions addressed with certainty, a person who was present for one of the meetings told Capital.

The consolidation talk has chilled an already anxious newsroom. The Ledger, whose editorial staff has dwindled to fewer than 200, has been no stranger to buyouts and attrition in recent years. And the paper is bruised from the 34 layoffs (18 of them in the newsroom) that it weathered in January.

The Pulitzer-winning broadsheet is seen as the crown jewel of Advance Publications' Jersey empire. But it still loses money as a result of the same forces wreaking havoc throughout the industry: declines in print advertising and circulation that have prompted the Ledger and other papers to shore up their digital strategies. For the six-month period that ended on September 30, total average weekday editions were down to 285,249 from 311,904 during the same period a year earlier, according to the Alliance for Audited Media.

Making matters worse, the relationship between Vezza and the paper’s trade unions has been tempestuous at times. The publisher has more than once threatened to shut the Ledger down during contract negotiations, with the most recent bout of brinksmanship bubbling up in September.

"Morale there is so bad. Everybody is just waiting for the day when the Newhouses do with the Star-Ledger what they've done with the New Orleans and Michigan papers," a source close to the newsroom told Capital, referring to the Newhouse media dynasty, which also owns the venerable magazine publisher Conde Nast. "Any worst-case scenario is probably the one they're ready to believe."

While Vezza reiterated to employees in recent days that changes in publication frequency and home delivery are not on the table, some staffers suspect that further newspaper mergers might be. (The South Jersey Times was created a little over a year ago when three regional papers became one.)

Most likely is the elimination of behind-the-scenes redundancies both on the sales and newsroom sides. Some of the company's newsrooms have already been subjected to such streamlining—the Ledger, for instance, helps the Times of Trenton with copy-editing, according to an insider. There's also speculation that newspaper journalists may become more closely linked with nj.com, which serves as a central web hub but also has its own reporting and editing staff independent of the individual newsrooms.

Physical space is another thing to consider. The Ledger's Newark headquarters have been on the market since the summer and the sale process is said to be moving along.

Vezza did not respond to numerous calls and emails seeking comment Wednesday evening.

But one Ledger veteran helped put the situation in context: "There was open talk in the newsroom as far back as 10 years ago that the Newhouse family ought to consolidate certain invisible functions. It was really an anachronism having so many papers in such close proximity to one another, and they ran into really high overhead costs by keeping them all separate."

The source added of the Newhouses, "When they go public and say they're thinking about something, that's code for saying they already know what they're going to do."