Jersey Journal to close? Unions and publisher will meet Tuesday to continue talks

The Jersey Journal, Hudson County’s only daily newspaper, will either cut its staff in half or close the paper within 30 days, staff members were told Tuesday.

The heads of the newspaper’s three unions were called to a meeting Tuesday with Publisher Scott Ring and an attorney, Bruce Berry of Manhattan, said Hudson County Newspaper Guild Local 42 President and Journal staff writer Ron Leir.

The paper is owned by the S.I. Newhouse publishing family, who also own Conde Nast magazines, the Star-Ledger and Staten Island Advance newspapers, and the Parade Sunday newspaper insert.

Leir said that Berry told union representatives that because profits and circulation had been declining in the 135-year-old publication for many years, the company had decided to close it.

However, after prodding from the management at the paper, the company decided that it could keep the paper open if half the staff in each department was cut, Leir said. Newspaper Guild members who were laid off would get, in addition to their standard two weeks of severance pay for every year they’d worked, six months of individual health insurance, Leir said.

Leir said that representatives of the three unions – the Local 42 Guild, which includes reporters, photographers and editors; a guild for business and classified staff; and one for drivers – will meet with the attorneys again this coming Tuesday.

If the unions and the owners do not reach an agreement within 30 days, the paper will fold.

This would leave Jersey City, the second largest city in the state, without a daily newspaper.

The area is also covered regularly by the Hudson Reporter newspaper group, which publishes weeklies in Jersey City, Hoboken, West New York, Union City, Guttenberg, Secaucus, North Bergen and Weehawken.

Leir said that Berry did not say anything about rumors that have persisted for years that the Newhouse family would expand the Newark Star-Ledger into Hudson County. Leir said he had heard the rumors, but does not know if there is truth to them.

Steve Newhouse, a member of the Newhouse family and the paper’s titular editor-in-chief, said Friday that the family intends to keep the Journal open.

"We’re not talking about anything other than negotiating with the unions to find a way to keep the newspaper going," Newhouse said. "That’s our hope and that’s our expectation. We expect to keep publishing and we expect to work it out."

When asked what would happen if an agreement is not worked out in 30 days, Newhouse said, "I wouldn’t care to speculate. We intend to reach an agreement within 30 days."

Leir said that circulation at the paper was in excess of 100,000 15 years ago, but is now down to 40,000. He said that the county’s changing demographics, including an increase of immigrants who do not speak English as their first language, were one reason. He also cited competition from dailies in New York and New Jersey and from the local weeklies.

However, the Journal did have competition on the daily side for many years. In 1991, it bought out its chief competitor, the Hudson Dispatch, also of Jersey City. The Journal now publishes a "Hudson Dispatch" edition in northern Hudson County in addition to its regular Jersey City and Bayonne editions.

Leir, who hopes to celebrate his 30th anniversary with the paper on Feb. 21, said that if the Journal stays open, it does not plan to close any of its editions or stop publication of its weekly supplements, including a Spanish-language weekly. He said that instead, the space for news in each edition would be smaller.

"It would further disrupt the coverage that people deserve in the Hudson County area," Leir said. "How do you put out a product with half of the available people you have now? It’s hard enough to do it with the existing complement we have."

Leir noted that Hudson County is a "hotbed of news" and deserves its own daily. "I think it would be a terrible slight to our readers [to cut coverage]," he said. "We’re the only daily in the area. Cable TV gives a nod and a wink to the area but certainly doesn’t afford extensive coverage. It would be a shame that any newspaper would be absent from the area."

Newhouse would not discuss any changes in news coverage in the paper, saying they were still talking with the unions.

Stan Eason, the communications director for Jersey City Mayor Glenn Cunningham, who was hired away from the Journal by Cunningham last year, said the demise of the newspaper would make it harder for politicians to reach out to the public.

"We’re going to have to turn our office into a communications bonanza," Eason said. "It’s going to be hard to make up, no matter what you do."

For the last several years, the Journal has increased its use of stringers and nine-month "interns" to cover town meetings. The interns are given no benefits and are let go before they would be contractually bound to join the union.

The Hudson County Newspaper Guild union members, of whom there are 35, have been working on a held-over contract from June 10 of 2000, which they have been in the process of negotiating.

Leir said, "I’m hopeful that we can reach an agreement either to keep the paper afloat or secure the best possible terms for our members."

Leir said that under the terms offered by Newhouse, 17 of the 35 writers and photographers would be let go, and the layoffs would not be done in terms of seniority.

Leir said that in order to get the six-month health insurance package, departing Guild members would have to sign an agreement stating they would never sue the Jersey Journal.

Newhouse and attorney Bruce Berry of New York declined to comment on those negotiations.

An article in the New York Post Thursday estimated that the paper loses $4 to $5 million per year. – Caren Lissner


© 2000, Newspaper Media Group