Ax falls at Ledger

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Happier times: In 2011, Pulitzer winner Amy Ellis Nutt, center, is congratulated by Star-Ledger editor Kevin Whitmer, right, and publisher Richard Vezza, left. (AP Photo/The Star-Ledger, Jennifer Brown)
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Employees of The Star-Ledger were left with more questions than answers following a meeting about a planned restructuring at their parent company.

In a confusing, jargon-filled press release that left staffers scratching their heads late yesterday afternoon, the Ledger's rank-and-file were informed of a decision to apparently merge some of the daily newspaper's operations with nj.com, the portal website that distributes the Ledger's journalism online in addition to generating its own original content.

One of the main takeaways: there will be layoffs.

In the press release, publisher Richard Vezza said that "some job loss is a reality." But the release also says that the plan is "to have a larger team of full-time reporters, columnists and photojournalists ... than exist now at NJ.com and The Star-Ledger," which will maintain an independent newsroom.

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The news was delivered in an abrupt 4 p.m. announcement about the creation of a new company called NJ Advance Media, which will consolidate content, advertising and marketing services. Immediately thereafter, Ledger editor-in-chief Kevin Whitmer addressed several-dozen reporters and editors in the paper's Newark, N.J. newsroom.

Whitmer said he will meet with staffers one-on-one next week to discuss what the reorganization means for each of them individually, a source who was present told Capital. When asked to describe the scope of the resultant layoffs, Whitmer said he could not do so, the source said.

The creation of NJ Advance Media caps months of newsroom speculation about the future of the Ledger, which is owned by the Newhouse family's Advance Publications. In addition to 10 Garden State newspapers and nj.com, Advance also owns publications including The Ann Arbor News, The Birmingham News and the Times-Picayune, which have endured radical and controversial changes over the past several years, including mass layoffs and reductions in print frequency.

Yesterday's announcement indicated that the "formation of the new company will not affect the newspapers’ publication frequencies or their availability on newsstands and via home delivery."

Instead, it will provide content, advertising and marketing services to nj.com and other Advance publications including the Ledger (New Jersey's largest and most prominent newspaper), The Times of Trenton and The South Jersey Times.

Insiders predict that some of the anticipated cuts will target jobs on the production, sales and operational sides, which are expected to be streamlined.

But the specter of newsroom layoffs looms large, and employees have been bracing for the worst since Vezza told staff in December that Advance was conducting a study to come up with ways to integrate operations throughout its Jersey stable.

Yesterday's announcement did not suggest that NJ Advance Media was being created as a cost-cutting measure. Still, there are concerns that well-paid, veteran staffers may be let go and replaced by newer journalists at lower pay grades.

While Ledger journalists have been anticipating a shakeup, the news caught some by surprise. There is suspicion that the announcement was rushed out because The Record, a North Jersey-based daily newspaper, was working on a story about layoffs at the Ledger.

Reached by phone, Whitmer declined to comment; he referred Capital to Vezza, who did not return a call.

As with newspapers the nation over, the Pulitzer-winning but money-losing Ledger has grappled with declines in print advertising and circulation. 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.

Last January, the Ledger weathered 34 layoffs, including 18 in the newsroom. As recently as September, Vezza has threatened to shut the paper down during contract negotiations with its trade unions.