Gannett NJ cuts could hurt coverage of Rutgers athletics

Last week Gannett announced a restructuring that will see mass layoffs and a consolidation of its New Jersey properties. Specifically, the Courier-News (Somerset County), Daily Record (Morris County), and Home News Tribune (Middlesex County) will essentially fold into the larger Asbury Park Press (Monmouth/Ocean County). The papers' combined staff will drop from a total of 99 to 53. Current employees wishing to stay on will have to reapply for their jobs next week, with the final cuts set to be enacted on Feb. 4.

In one sense the news should not come as much of a surprise, as it's a continuation of industry trends over the past couple of years. New Jersey's three largest newspaper groups in Newhouse/Advance (parent of the Star-Ledger), Gannett, and the smaller North Jersey Media Group (parent of The Record) have all struggled economically to some extent in recent years. The Ledger is virtually indistinguishable now from its sister papers the Trenton Times (Mercer County) and Jersey Journal (Hudson), as are the Record/Herald News (Passaic), and a good deal of Gannett's offerings. One might have anticipated that Gannett would consolidate all of its operations in one location, as things seemed to be moving in that direction, but the sheer breadth and immediacy of the cuts is enough to still raise eyebrows.

Louis Hochman from the Morristown Patch has a good column articulating the direct negative impact that these cuts will have. Specifically I want to focus on how this move will impact future media coverage of Rutgers athletics. Gannett has done a terrific job covering local news and sports for years. I read their content because I literally cannot find a great deal of it anywhere else. If a good portion of that coverage is no longer available, what possible compelling reason remains for subscribers to keep reading these publications as opposed to switching to other prodcuts?

Rutgers University is a primary driving force in the cultural life of central New Jersey.  Having a foothold right in its backyard is an almost unmatched natural competitive advantage for the Gannett publications. Trying to hamper that inherent edge seems almost unfathomable, and yet here we are, likely to at least confront a slimmer and less-fulfilling product. History and context are clear however that nothing should be left to chance moving forward. The affected publications are deeply ingrained into their local communities, and their readers as fellow community members have a responsibility to speak up and defend their own.

It may not ultimately end up being successful, and could well be alarmist, but we cannot stand idly by without trying. A year and a half ago I was caught entirely off guard by the news that Aditi Kinkhabwala was losing her Rutgers beat for the Record. She landed on her feet, as befitting a talented writer, but others around the country have not been so fortunate. There's no doubt in my mind whatsoever that everyone responsible for putting together Gannett's Rutgers coverage are among the very finest in the journalism business. At the minimum, they deserve your consideration and regard in this matter.

This is a feeling almost analogous to two years ago, when I was almost apoplectic about how popular opinion was giving Kenny Britt enough credit. I was certain then that my opinion would become consensus once all of the parties involved did the proper legwork, and my convictions are just as strong now in this instance. If Gannett were to make the critical mistake of discarding its best personnel, do not be at all surprised by how far the displaced could rise professionally. That being said, their collective talents should not be seen as consent excusing butchery, but rather an invitation for pressure and cajoling. Does this organization really want to be in the position down the road of having willingly surrendered its greatest assets?

As the cuts are a business decision, our goal is to alter the equation, and make maintaining a rich and vibrant level of content the most attractive and viable option. We need to mobilize Gannett subscribers then, and draw more attention and publicity towards this end (if only to improve each writer's national profile if anything were to happen). For now, readers can help contribute in two main ways:

1. Tell your friends. Tell your family. Tell your co-workers. A simple "like" on Facebook or re-tweet could do wonders, not to mention raising the issue on any and all Rutgers-themed discussion forums. I'm surprised this is not a bigger deal as of yet considering the slow pace of the football offseason.

2. As far as contacting Gannett goes, I think the best course of action will be to do something this weekend as their management prepare for the upcoming staff interviews. I am still working out the details and will have more to say in the coming days. For now, please sign up for a mailing list by emailing imfromnj at gmail dot com. This course of action will be tricky in that clear articulation is no easy task, and there's a fine line in trying to persuade instead of going for the jugular.

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