The July layoff of almost half the New York Daily News editorial staff is unsurprising evidence that newspapers have been hit hard financially in recent years.
The Daily News debacle also suggests a review of this writer’s experiences at three different newspapers during the past 57 years for insight into the longer-term future of broadsheets that frequently provide the only real coverage of local news, especially in less populated metropolitan areas such as the Upstate New York Southern Tier.
My journalism career began in May 1962 in the Rochester, N.Y., Democrat and Chronicle city room as a green-as-grass cub reporter. With a few months of experience as a general assignment reporter, the city editor sent me to the battered old Rochester Public Safety Building to hone my reportorial skills on the police beat.
I chased fire trucks and police cars plus learned about tyrannical deadlines until Uncle Sam drafted me into the Army in August 1963. I returned to the shiny new Rochester Public Safety Building in 1965. That term lasted almost two years until I realized that other private sector employers paid more than traditionally stingy newspapers.
My second journalism tenure was as the owner of a weekly Vermont newspaper while working as an assistant administrator for the regional hospital. The paper expired within six months after my relocation to Miami.
The third began six years ago when, after retirement as a banker, I began reporting for The Spectator nee Evening Tribune about boards of education at area schools.
The Democrat and Chronicle experience also taught newspaper competition. The morning Democrat fought editorially with the afternoon Times-Union, which won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Attica prison riot in 1971 and earned a reputation as a crusading voice in those years.
But after 79 years, the Times-Union folded in 1997 as the Democrat and Chronicle daily circulation rose above 140,000, while the Times-Union circulation dipped below 45,000.
Daily News Editor-in-Chief Jim Rich accurately summarized the impact of the Daily News cuts: “If you hate democracy and think local governments should operate unchecked and in the dark, then chopping half the Daily News staff makes a good day for you.
“For a city of 8.6 million people, concerted local coverage is at a low point in a place where brash, pungent tabloids have long reflected New York’s manic pace and stark inequalities.”
As Rich wrote after half the Daily News was swept away, local newspapers break stories that matter deeply to their communities. “The case that now has to be made is ‘What would you lose if this coverage went away?’ When you talk about the best of local news, it’s not esoteric or conceptual — it’s things like there was a guy running a school gymnastic program in Indianapolis who was abusing children and a local newspaper uncovered the story.”
Or as Margaret Sullivan, Washington Post media columnist, cautioned “People who get their news only from Facebook or from cable TV are often deep in their own echo chambers. That’s why we need the local newspaper to give us common information — an agreed-upon set of facts to argue about.”
Reporter Erin Durkin had been at the Daily News 10 years before she lost her job, rising from intern to beat reporter in the now shuttered Brooklyn bureau before spending the past six years covering city hall in Manhattan.
She had watched the field of rival journalists in the City Hall press room thin out and the Daily News’s own politics team shrink from 14 reporters and editors to just two reporters. She has a keen sense of what is being lost when it comes to scrutiny of the city.
The Daily News move shrank the editorial team, which once numbered more than 250 according to former staffers, down to about 40 full-time employees.
Last year the financially troubled paper was purchased for $1 by the Chicago-based publishing company Tronc, formerly known as Tribune Media. The sale launched what has been an ongoing process of reorganization and consolidation, though none of the moves were so dramatic as the layoff.
Daily News circulation was around 200,000 daily and 250,000 on Sunday in 2017.
In 2011, the Hornell Tribune daily circulation was 7,562; on Sunday 10,800.
Comparison of the two newspapers‘ survivability, of course, is difficult without careful study of such standard accounting information as profit and loss plus population statistics.
Both publications have survived arguably because of draconian slashes of expenses while providing in-depth news about local sports, school boards, employers, government and business sales.
In summary, the formats of competing newspapers and electronic media give multi-page newspapers the advantage, this biased observer argues, even as newspapers struggle financially.
Columnist Al Bruce reports on education issues for The Spectator.