Category Archives: Star-Ledger

Strange Bedfellows in the State House Press Corps

Of all the many changes taking place in New Jersey’s news organizations over the past 12 months, perhaps none carries more significance than the decision by The Star-Ledger and The Record to merge their State House bureaus.

Up until now, the layoffs, cutbacks and consolidations have taken place within the confines of individual news organizations. The merger of the Ledger/Record bureaus marks the first time that two of the state’s competing news entities will be combining forces.

The decision is not without some precedent. Continue reading

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Upcoming Events

The New Jersey Political Science Association will conduct its annual meeting on Friday, February 27, at the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers University.  I will be one several speakers on the panel discussing New Jersey’s 2009 campaign for Governor.

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My research essay on media coverage during the Vietnam War era has been accepted for presentation at an academic conference in New York City (March 14 at Marymount Manhattan College).

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I will be a panelist at the New Jersey Communication Association Conference (March 28 at Kean University), discussing personal privacy on the internet.

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On April 24, I will take part in “A Fiscal Crisis is a Terrible Thing to Waste,” the Annual Symposium of the State Chapters of the Association of Government Accountants and American Society for Public Administration. I will be on a panel that will discuss “How the Media Crisis Affects the Government Crisis.”

Is the Glass Half Empty or Half Full?

With an unprecedented number of layoffs and buyouts, 2008 was a devastating year for journalism in New Jersey.

Or was it?

It all depends on whether you are looking at the glass as half empty or half full.

From the half empty perspective, it was truly sad to witness the struggles the state’s newspapers confronted in order to survive.  Likewise, it was alarming to watch so many talented journalists depart the news industry in New Jersey. Continue reading

It’s Time to Get Serious About Comedy

By gaining concessions from two labor unions and buyouts from some 200 of its non-union employees, The Star-Ledger has managed to stay in business. Now, in the words of Ledger editor Jim Willse, it is time “to start making plans for the paper going forward.”

But with about a third of its newsroom staff gone, can the state’s largest newspaper continue to survive in an era in which the internet and 24-hour cable news threaten to make the print media extinct?

The dilemma is not unique to The Star-Ledger. Newspapers all across the nation are finding themselves with less resources and less personnel at a time when competition from internet news sites, blogs and other new media is increasing.

In New Jersey, Gannett has eliminated more than 50 jobs at its six New Jersey papers this year, while The Record is abandoning its longtime headquarters in Hackensack and making most of its reporters “mobile journalists” who will work outside of a traditional office. Meanwhile, The New York Times has drastically cut back its coverage of the Garden State, and retirements at New Jersey Network are changing the landscape of the state’s public television news operation.

How do you stop the bleeding? Comedy.

If you think that’s a joke, just consider the following:

Viewership is up for programs such as Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report.

Although these are comedy shows, they also provide information — albeit in a humorous manner — about the major news stories in the nation.

Young people — the same demographic group that rarely reads newspapers — are relying on these comedy programs as a source for news.

Need more proof? Take a closer look at the facts.

Ratings for Comedy

With a heavy focus on the 2008 presidential campaign, Saturday Night Live is off to its best start in years. Overall ratings are up 49 percent over last year. The September 13 premier, which began with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler portraying Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, had the highest ratings for any SNL show since December 12, 2002, when former Vice President Al Gore hosted the program.

SNL’s September 27 parody of Katie Couric’s interview with Sarah Palin has been viewed online 4.6 million times, attracting nearly four times as many page views as the actual interview. Is it any wonder why Saturday Night Live began a series of primetime election season specials last night?

Ratings for Traditional News

According to a Pew Research Center study, audiences for traditional news programs are dwindling. Between 1993 and 2002, viewership for nightly network news dropped by 46 percent. Network news magazines fell by 54 percent, local news by 26 percent.

The sharpest decline took place among 18 to 24-year-olds. Only 40 percent of the individuals in this age group reported watching any television news in the day before they took part in the survey. And they are reading newspapers even less. “Only nineteen per cent of Americans between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four claim even to look at a daily newspaper,” Eric Alterman wrote in The New Yorker earlier this year. “The average age of the American newspaper reader is fifty-five and rising.”

A more recent Pew Center study that focused on the four years between the 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns found that the percentages of 18 to 29-years olds who said they regularly learned something from network news decreased from 39 to 23 percent. Local news fared even worse, dropping from 42 to 29 percent.

Where People Go for News

With the audiences for traditional news outlets shrinking, where are people turning for news?

To comedy.

The 2002 Pew Center study found that 21 percent of those between 18 and 29 said they regularly learned about news and politics from comedy shows such as Saturday Night Live, while 13 percent cited late-night talk shows such as the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and the Late Show with David Letterman as their regular news sources.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was identified as a rising source of political information. (The Colbert Report had not yet debuted when the study was conducted.) During the 2004 U.S. presidential election, the Daily Show received more male viewers in the 18 to 34 year old age demographic than Nightline, Meet the Press, Hannity & Colmes and all of the evening news broadcasts.

Is Comedy A Valid News Source?

Earlier this year, the Project for Excellence in Journalism released a content analysis report suggesting that The Daily Show comes close to providing the complete daily news. Likewise , a 2006 Indiana University study compared the information in The Daily Show with prime time network news broadcasts and found little difference in substance.

The findings are supported by audience studies. In late 2004, the National Annenberg Election Survey at the University of Pennsylvania ran a study of American television viewers and found that viewers of The Daily Show were more educated, followed the news more regularly and were more politically knowledgeable than the general public.

The study also showed that Daily Show viewers had more accurate knowledge of the issues in the 2004 presidential election than most others, including individuals who relied on network news shows and newspapers for information.

Conclusion

Can comedy save the New Jersey media?

Perhaps not by itself, but as publishers, editors and news directors chart a course for the future, they can learn a lesson or two from the comedy programs that young people are turning to for news. To reach today’s younger audiences, media organizations need to reexamine the manner in which the news is gathered and reported. With more and more options competing for our attention, the news needs not only to be important, but also entertaining.

As Geoffrey Baym wrote in Political Communication, “The Daily Show represents an important experiment in journalism, one that contains much significance for the ongoing redefinition of news… Lying just beneath or perhaps imbricated within the laughter is a quite serious demand for fact, accountability, and reason in political discourse.”

And aren’t facts, accountability and reason the very things we hope to gain when we open a newspaper, turn on a television newscast or log onto an internet news site?

(Listen to a Hall Institute Podcast on this topic.)

References

Alterman, A. (2008, March 31). Out of Print. The New Yorker.

Baym, G. (2005) The Daily Show: Discursive Integration and the Reinvention of Political Journalism. Political Communication, No. 22, pp. 259–276.

Carter, B. (2008, September 30). Palin Effect on Ratings Only Modest for CBS, New York Times.

Chambers, S. (2008, October 8). Star-Ledger truck drivers ratify labor agreement. The Star-Ledger.

Fox, J., Koloen, G., and Sahin, V. (2007, June). No joke: a comparison of substance in The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and broadcast network television coverage of the 2004 presidential election campaign. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media.

Gough, P. (2008, October 6). Politics and Palin lure viewers to SNL.

Journalism, satire or just laughs? (2008, May 8) Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Koblin, J. (2008, August 12). Welcome to New Jersey, Media Wasteland. New York Observer.

News Audiences Increasingly Politicized. (2004, June 8). Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Public Knowledge of Current Affairs Little Changed by News and Information Revolutions. (2007, April 15), Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

The Record shifting staff from centralized office. (2008, July 2). The Record.

Does the End Justify the Means?

Postings on PolitickertNJ about a Bergen Record reporter and whether he improperly removed public documents from the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection raise an interesting journalism ethical question.

Regardless of what the circumstances of this particular case (and the reporter claims he mistakenly mixed them in with his own materials and returned them immediately), just when does the end justify the means?

For example, the Star-Ledger and nj.com are boasting about an exclusive video of a man confessing a murder to State and Hunterdon County law enforcement officials. The news story says the video was “obtained exclusively by The Star-Ledger,” but does not mention how the newspaper obtained it.

The confession appears to be an official video recorded by the law enforcement authorities. It is compelling and newsworthy, but should the Ledger be allowed to say it “obtained” it without any further disclosure? If the circumstances were reversed, would the newspaper allow a public official to get by with a similarly worded answer?

Missing from the ‘Rat’ Story

Today’s Star-Ledger and Trenton Times include a story about a court case involving a giant inflatable rat that labor unions use in protests against anti-union activities The article notes that a union official was issued a summons and fined for using the rat at a protest in Lawrence Township, which has a law banning the use of inflatable signs. A state appellate court upheld the decision and the case now has been appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

The news story correctly identifies the union official as Wayne DeAngelo, assistant business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 269 in Lawrence Township. But no where does it mention that DeAngelo is a state Assemblyman.

While his role as an elected official may no bearing on this particular story, it would have been a nice piece of information to include in the article, especially in the Trenton Times version since DeAngelo’s Legislative District is in the heart of the newspaper’s circulation area.

Summertime Blues

The months of July and August are traditionally slow times for news. Although New Jersey has had a few significant stories break this summer (such as child pornography allegations involving a state legislator), for the most part it has been a slow time for news in the Garden State.

Ironically, it has been New Jersey news organizations themselves that have emerged as the subject matter of several news accounts this summer. Collectively, these developments could very well change the face of journalism in New Jersey.

At the start of July, The (Bergen) Record announced plans to have most of its reporters working as “mobile journalists” before the end of the year and to leave its longtime Hackensack office in the next two to three years.

Later in the month, two major figures at NJN News — anchor Kent Manahan and Director of News and Public Affairs William Jobes announced they were retiring. Senior Political Correspondent Michael Aron will take over Jobes’ job on an interim basis. No word yet on the anchor position.

And before July was over came word that Newhouse News Service, the Washington, D.C. bureau for Advance Publications (which includes The Star-Ledger) will close on Nov. 7.

This was followed a few days later by an announcement from the owners of The Star-Ledger that they are seeking buyouts from 200 of its non-union employees by October 1 – or they will put the state’s largest newspaper up for sale. A similar scenario is taking place at The Trenton Times, which like the Ledger is owned by Advance Publications.

One final item. This won’t have the impact of the other developments, but two Bergen Record reporters also made it into the news this summer. The New York Post on July 17 reported that billionaire Manhattan hotelier Patrick Denihan tried to chase the two reporters off a public beach near his house in Bay Head, N.J.