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Front Page Blues

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Two weeks before Christmas, Kevin Noonan sat down at his home in Arden and began assembling his resume for the first time since 1977.

That’s the year he went to work for the Wilmington Morning News and Evening Journal as a part-time sports reporter. Back then, he would crank three sheets of copy paper separated by two sheets of carbon into a Smith-Corona manual typewriter, then tap out stories about high school football and basketball games. He quickly progressed into meatier assignments, first covering UD sports, then the Philadelphia 76ers. In 1980 he began a 25-year stint as Eagles beat writer. And in 2005 came his final promotion—sports columnist.

“I did a lot of local stuff [in the column], which I really liked doing,” he says. “It had much more of an impact than when I wrote about somebody like Donovan McNabb. I don’t think Donovan McNabb cared what I wrote about him, but when you wrote about a local kid, that went in somebody’s scrapbook.”

 Noonan speaks about his News Journal career in the past tense because it’s over. On December 2, he and 30 other employees—15 of them from the editorial department—were told their jobs had been eliminated by the paper, one of 85 dailies (including USA Today) owned by Gannett Co., Inc. Their severance package: one week of pay and benefits for each year of service, capped at 26 weeks.

Noonan is 55. He is not ready for retirement. He has a son in college and a daughter who will marry in June. By then, his severance pay will have ended. A newspaper lifer, he sees no place to apply his considerable skills.

The News Journal cutbacks are the most local manifestation of a national trend. In the past few months, the Tribune Co., publishers of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, filed for Chapter 11. The Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger laid off about 40 percent of its newsroom. The Christian Science Monitor announced it would print weekly instead of daily, and beginning this month, the Detroit Free Press—a Gannett property—and Detroit News will cut home delivery to three days a week.

A cratering economy, rising production costs and the Internet have created a perfect storm that threatens to sink the “dead tree” segment of the newspaper industry. Faced with the need to cut expenses, advertisers have reduced space buys. (Gannett’s third quarter 2008 report showed that advertising revenues for its publishing segment were $977.1 million, down from $1.19 billion in the third quarter of ’07.) Newsprint prices have skyrocketed during the past year. (The News Journal claims they jumped 26 percent.) And perhaps most significant, the Internet has become the go-to instant news source for many Americans, especially those under 30.
 

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Local layoffs were part of a nationwide effort by Gannett, the largest U.S. newspaper publisher, to reduce payroll by 10 percent. Less than a month after they were announced, News Journal executive editor David Ledford revealed in the December 29 edition that the paper itself would shrink. Citing “an extraordinarily difficult economy,” Ledford explained that the business section would merge into the A section and the Life section would become part of Local. Despite “the more compact format,” Ledford wrote, “I can assure you that we will continue to pour enormous energy and brainpower into every edition that rolls off the press.”

Ledford and JB Braun, News Journal director of market development, are putting the best face on the situation.

“We still have about 110 editorial employees, which I maintain is a sizable complement to cover a state like Delaware,” says Ledford, “and we are putting together our plans in the wake of these layoffs to make certain that we give this state the kind of credible reporting that it deserves. I am really optimistic that we are going to be able to do that. I’m not saying it will be easy, and [the layoffs were] painful. It did hurt. But we feel like we can move forward and give readers the kind of coverage they deserve.”

Braun says The News Journal, in its many forms, is reaching more people than ever. “Twelve years ago,” he says, “we had three products: the launch of delawareonline.com, the Sunday News Journal and the daily News Journal. At that time, it was about 68 percent adults [in New Castle County] reading The News Journal, the core product.” Today, Braun says, through a portfolio of digital and printed products, “we’re reaching an even bigger aggregate audience.”

He calls delawareonline.com, with its 1 million unique visitors per month, “the state’s most popular website for news and entertainment” and characterizes Delaware MomsLikeMe.com as “insanely popular.” Such online offerings are supplemented by nearly a dozen free non-daily niche publications, developed largely to satisfy advertisers. They include the weekly Spark, with a 31,000 press run aimed at young professionals, and Signature Brandywine, a bimonthly magazine that targets 25,000 affluent households in the Brandywine Valley. Others, mostly tabloids, include Delaware Woman, Delaware Moms, Your Health, Mid-Atlantic Nursing Quarterly and Delaware Pets.

“Our research shows we reach nine out of 10 adults in New Castle County with this variety of product combinations,” Braun says. With a weekday circulation of 110,483 (as of the end of 2007, the latest figures available), “Just the daily News Journal is being picked up and seen by 52 percent of the adults in New Castle County. I don’t think there’s a medium out there that wouldn’t trade that for their audience.”
 

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The economy and reduced revenues have also compelled some of the state’s other papers to reduce payrolls. Community News Publications, with five weeklies that reach 60,000 in northern New Castle County, underwent a reorganization after being purchased by Gatehouse Media in February last year. Four positions were eliminated, including executive editor, and two people—the special sections editor/director of marketing and a staff writer—were let go.

Editor Andrea Miller says the reorganization freed funds to hire more freelancers. “That has given us a chance to have more voices in the community represented in the papers,” she says, “and I think reporters write best when they’re writing about things they’re invested in.”

The result, she says, is a marked increase in the variety and number of stories. “I’ve got more content than I know what to do with, and I’m always trying to shoehorn it into the paper.”

Like most newspapers, Community News has paid more attention to its website. Publisher Jason Brimmer says Gatehouse’s resources have enabled the company to add video, audio and slide shows to the site.

Delaware State News editor Andy West says staff members are “multi-tasking” in an effort to maintain quality coverage while cutting costs.Andy WestAt the Delaware State News in Dover, managing editor Andy West says payroll has been reduced through attrition. As a result, some editorial employees are multi-tasking.

“For example,” says West, “we have fewer design people on staff now, and our copy editors use new computer programs that allow us to simply incorporate that into their daily tasks. Also, our reporters take their own photos, and we readily accept submitted photos from the public.”

“Community” is a key word in the operating philosophy of Dover’s daily, which has a circulation of 17,000 Monday through Saturday and 24,000 on Sunday. “We’re a paper of, by and for our community,” says West. “That means we readily accept and publish news that comes to us. Our website, which had 3.5 million page views during 2008, is meant to be a community site first and foremost, rather than the newspaper’s site.
 

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“The number of users or ‘posters’ on the site continues to grow. We’ve made constant adjustments to make it useful to our viewers, but try to focus more on content than design. We do have a growing number of e-subscribers now, and that’s an excellent area of opportunity for us. We realize the local delivery only reaches a portion of our potential audience, and the electronic subscription opens up exciting options for people who live upstate or out of state who want to see the entire print product.”

Underlying newspaper cutbacks in the state and throughout the country is the question of whether printed newspapers can survive much longer. In terms of information sources, they’ve become the Model T in a garage full of muscle cars.

The unquestioned alpha male among the state’s news media, The News Journal is the key to having a well-informed populace, says Ralph Begleiter, a former CNN correspondent, now a professor of communication and distinguished journalist in residence at the University of Delaware.

 “The state of Delaware is already in an information bind,” says Begleiter. “Delawareans get a fairly small amount of information about public affairs because there is not a wide array of information sources available. This is trite, but people need information to make their political and economic decisions, [like] what kind of officials should they be electing, to whom should they address their complaints? The News Journal is the preeminent news organization in the state, so cutbacks there, I think almost by definition, are going to hurt the people of the state.”

Begleiter notes The News Journal’s effort to attract young adults through Spark, introduced five years ago. While it may be successful in that mission, he says, the tabloid entertainment weekly doesn’t fulfill the need for meaningful information.

“If you look at Spark and what it contains, you’ll see those political and economic subjects aren’t covered,” he says. “So I don’t know how useful that demographic is going to be if all we’re going to do is target people who are looking for entertainment information and music information and which bar to go to this week and which party to attend. I understand the value of that information, but it’s not going to help people make the kinds of important economic and political decisions they have to make in a time of economic downturn.”

Area broadcast media aren’t the answer either, says Begleiter.

“We have two all-news stations (WDEL and WILM), and both of them you can barely hear in a good part of the state. I live in Newark, and Delawareans have joked about Newark being a radio-free zone for a long time. Even if you concede—which I do not—that these are news stations, look at the size of their staffs. How many reporters do they have out there? And how much of the information that they broadcast is actually coming from The News Journal? And that’s not a criticism. I used to work for an all-news station, and we relied a lot on what newspaper journalists produced in order to inform our public. But if the newspaper journalists aren’t producing it, then it’s not going to be on the radio either.”
 

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As for WHYY-TV’s “Delaware Tonight” half-hour news broadcast weekdays on Channel 12, Begleiter says it too suffers from a staffing shortage. What’s more, “While Channel 12 is licensed in Wilmington, it’s owned by a Philadelphia company.

All of which is why, he says, “I’m glad to be a subscriber to The News Journal. We need the physical print paper to support the journalists who are out there finding out the news. As a subscriber, I know that my money is supporting Jeff Montgomery and his work as a journalist, and Beth Miller and all those people that we like to read because their stuff is good. Who’s paying their salary? It’s not me clicking on delawareonline.com.”

While News Journal management insists the paper won’t miss a beat—or a story—as a result of the layoffs, many observers disagree.

Al Mascitti, a talk show host on WDEL, spent 25 years as a reporter and columnist for the paper and frequently criticizes his former employer. “I think it is inevitable that it’s going to hurt their coverage,” he says. “I don’t see how it cannot hurt the coverage, unless they’re going to claim these people didn’t do anything, which is prima fascia absurd.”

“This isn’t Dave Ledford’s fault,” Mascitti is quick to add. “David Ledford is the most old-fashioned newsman they’ve had in that job for quite a while. It’s the industry.”

John Taylor, a longtime News Journal editor, now executive director of the Delaware Public Policy Institute, is one of those who sees a bleak future for the industry.

“Printed versions of newspapers are mortally wounded,” he says. “It’s a matter of time. I’ve heard top newspaper executives say that for the past 10 years. But to their credit, Gannett has been out front in digital. The big problem is figuring out how to make money online. The News Journal is making some money online, but not the kind of profits you make with the print version.”

Indeed, through delawareonline.com’s videos, slide shows and still photos, The News Journal has become a multi-media information and entertainment center. Says Ledford, “We’ve got a foot squarely planted in the world of print while at once navigating toward the future with digital delivery of news and information. We have to innovate while producing our daily products—our newspapers, our magazines, our niche products.
 

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“The issue is that we are still struggling with a very old business model, that we have not figured out a road to the future quite yet on how to support what we do. That’s really what’s at issue, the business model. It’s tough. But it’s no tougher for The News Journal than for people at DuPont or Bank of America or a car dealer down the street.”

Ledford and Braun are betting their audience will eventually be persuaded to pay for instant information from a trusted source, whether that information is delivered to a home computer, a laptop or, more likely, some version of the smartphone.

“There is a voracious appetite out there for verifiable, vetted content,” says Ledford. “And the people on my staff understand this. It is important to get it right, and to get it first in as many cases as is humanly possible. You earn your credibility day in and day out. This is not a question about the heart and soul of journalism. The heart and soul of journalism is alive and well.”

Regardless of the medium, he says, his staff will produce a quality product.

“We are journalists, and we are going to put together the report that we deliver to the citizens of Delaware with as much heart and soul as we possibly can. And we are not going to back off from our watchdog role. That is a critical piece of the bedrock we stand on. We still have bureaus in Sussex and Kent, and we’re going to keep them strong. We are going to stay true to sports and local community coverage.

“The biggest strength we’ve got is our people. They really care about storytelling, about news, about really chronicling at the community level and what’s going on all over the state.”

Morale, Ledford admits, may have taken a hit because of the layoffs. “When you lose old friends that you have worked with for a long time, it hurts. But I think people on the staff understand that it’s a business decision and we did what we had to do.”

The Wilmington News Journal is a venerable institution that can trace its history to 1875. It has produced icons like Bill Frank and Ralph Moyed on the news side, while the sports department prospered under the likes of the legendary Al Cartwright and Hal Bodley, a longtime USA Today baseball columnist now with mlb.com. Sports Illustrated’s Gary Smith, perhaps the finest magazine writer in America, learned at the knee of Matt Zabitka, another local legend.

Noonan, a Delaware native, knew and admired the paper’s legacy when he started there.

“It sounds corny,” he says, “but I was really proud to work with those people, people who were good at what they did and cared about what they did. That’s the one thing you can say about that place: They have great newspaper people. And they know [the layoffs are] a sign of the times, and maybe there’s even a little survival guilt. They realize they darn well could be next. There’s no guarantee that this is the end.”
 

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Like many veteran newsmen, he finds aspects of the Internet trend off-putting. Bloggers, for one, are anathema to him.

“It’s throwing stuff against the wall,” he says. “Marketing-wise, I wish we had done more of emphasizing the fact that not only do we have professional journalists who have the sources and know-how to write, but also we’re bound by a set of ethics that you don’t have on many websites or with bloggers. And we also have demanding editors.”

The posts that appear at the end of many online News Journal stories also offend him. “We’ve given the readers a can of spray paint, and they can spray graffiti. Half the time they actually bicker with each other: ‘You’re an idiot,’ ‘No, you’re the moron.’”

Noonan is asked if he, as part of the collateral damage of The News Journal’s march into the future, is bitter about being laid off.

“How can you not be?” he replies “You spent 30-some years there and you work your way up and reach a certain level. It’s not [bitterness] against anybody as much as the situation itself. It’s a business we love and grew up in, and it’s so sad to see the industry failing.”

Then, recalling Thomas Jefferson’s famous quote about newspapers—“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter”—Noonan says, “It’s funny how the government is bailing out all these other industries. Our industry is protected by the Constitution, but nobody seems to know what to do or how to save it.”

He pauses, and then the old columnist in him finds an apt metaphor to sum up this crisis: “It’s going down in a sea of blogs.”  

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