Gannett’s push into New Jersey saps local coverage

When Gannett bought North Jersey Media Group last year, devotees of the family-owned company’s newspapers worried how a national media giant would tread on their local media turf. Draconian staff cuts soon followed at The Record in Bergen County, as well as its sister weeklies dotting the northern part of the Garden State. A new study suggests that the latter group’s coverage may already be losing some local flavor as a result.

Content analysis of four of the weeklies now owned by Gannett found they included fewer and less substantive news articles about their respective communities after the sale, in addition to an increase in pieces shared across newspapers. Researchers from the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, which is in northern New Jersey, also observed a shift in attention from local board meetings toward crime.

“Any time a community sees such a loss in the number (and experience level) of reporters and editors covering its news, and a corresponding change in available content, it is fair to say the consequences are negative,” the report said.

Of course, the New Jersey papers are just beginning to adapt to Gannett’s local-to-national strategy. And the Montclair State University study is a small sample—four weeklies over one-month spans, spaced a year apart, before and after the sale. Still, the results aren’t altogether surprising given the depth of staff cuts in the interim.

Long owned by the Borg family, North Jersey Media Group was sold to the USA Today owner last July. Within months, Gannett cut roughly half the media group’s total staff and consolidated many of its roughly 50 weekly newspapers. At the flagship Record, which led reporting on the Bridgegate scandal, almost 50 additional newsroom layoffs—a large chunk of the remaining staff—are set to take effect next week.

The acquisition provided Gannett a greater footprint in the fragmented New Jersey media market, including opportunities to centralize statewide production facilities. It’s yet another piece added to the nationally focused USA Today Network, in which the chain’s 109 local properties pool reporting and editing resources and share content across news organizations.

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Outcry at the changes has been fierce in northern New Jersey, particularly so in Montclair, whose weekly Montclair Times was included in the recent content analysis by Montclair State University. In the wake of staff cuts and layout changes at the paper last year, a local tech executive dug into his savings, teamed up with laid-off journalists, and started a competing newspaper.

The new weekly, Montclair Local, put out its first issue last week. Six of its seven staffers formerly worked at North Jersey Media Group titles.

“We think we can be a lot more embedded within the community than Gannett,” Editor Kevin Meacham, who was laid off from the Montclair Times last year, tells CJR. “We think that will add a lot of depth to our coverage and draw out stories that might get overlooked by a larger conglomerate….There’s a 140-year tradition of great local newspapers in Montclair, so I think people really do appreciate what we’re trying to do.”

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.