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Tom Meagher

News nerd.

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The ups and downs of the younger, faster, busier newsroom

Things have been pretty hectic over the last year. The Local News Service is fully staffed and running at full steam. Over the summer, we had a baby. Between the two, I’ve had my hands full.

Earlier this week, I was invited to speak on a panel to address the faculty at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. It gave me the opportunity to reflect on LNS’ first 10 months of operation and what I’ve learned. Here’s a draft of my scripted remarks:

What’s changing, and what isn’t, in newsrooms today?

Let me start first with a little bit of background, because I get a lot of questions about what the Local News Service is and how it’s related to the Star-Ledger.

In 2008, the Star-Ledger lost about 45 percent of its staff through a massive buyout. Its parent company, Advance Publications, decided to set up a separate company to provide local news. This was not unprecedented. For years, the Ledger’s high school sports and obituaries have been done by an outside outfit.

LNS was launched last year to create a new cost structure and to fill the local pages of the Star-Ledger and its website, NJ.com.

We have a newsroom of 15 reporters and 3 photographers covering municipal, local and breaking news in the six core counties of the Star-Ledger’s coverage area. Three experienced editors, including myself and Rick Everett (retired Star-Ledger managing editor), offer direction, context and guidance.

We have an additional nine or 10 staffers who produce 26 listing calendars a week as well as community news items, Scouting and schools news and a history column.

Our purpose is to produce more content for print and online with fewer, less experienced journalists. At the same time, we want to maintain the same quality and standards that readers expect of the state’s biggest newspaper. And we’ve done just that. Our photographers and reporters produce a ton of copy. We have helped bolster the Ledger’s zoned county sections, and on occasion, we’ve contributed stories to the features, business and sports sections. And while our primary objective is local news, we’ve also snagged 27 front page stories and probably twice as many Jersey section cover pieces since we went live in March.

Along the way, I’ve observed a few things:

The competition is changing. Our old enemies have become our new friends as we join to fight new enemies. We now compete online with dozens of hyperlocal websites (PatchBaristanet, Maplewood Online, The Local, etc) as well as our old print foes from the Gannett papers. At the same time, the Ledger has largely buried the hatchet with its old rival the Bergen Record, and they now share most stories and have a combined statehouse bureau in Trenton.

Everything is faster. When we get a breaking news tip, we want to get it confirmed and get a short version of the story online immediately, if not sooner. The pace is picking up.

Our news gatherers are young. Only one of the 15 we hired was over 30. This has resulted in the loss of some institutional memory. In many cases, the veterans who had been in the Ledger’s county bureaus for decades are gone. Some are now working as spokesmen for various state and local agencies and private companies. But they have been replaced, by and large, by ambitious and energetic reporters who know little to nothing about New Jersey and its stories. It has been a challenge for us to fill those gaps while our reporters cover, in some cases, 10 or more towns.

Although our reporters are sophisticated Web consumers and are comfortable with blogging, Facebook, shooting photos and even producing videos, there is no replacement for basic reporting skills. The most important thing I need from a new reporter is the ability to ask questions and chase a story. It does me no good if you can make a sound slide or build a web page if you can’t find a story, ask questions and get it right. I’ve also noticed that as great as it is, Google has almost grown too popular. I have a reporter who rather than check the Star-Ledger’s own, comprehensive online archives when looking for old clips, she will instead just Google it and see what hits come up from NJ.com. She doesn’t even go to her own website to look for stories.

All this turmoil and change has been a very tough transition for readers. Our sources, particularly our favorite gadflies and midlevel local bureaucrats, have found this very confusing. They had been used to, in many cases, dealing with the same reporters for a decade or more. They knew who to call when there was news. Now they don’t know who covers what. We have gone to great lengths to get our name out there. We’ve sent our reporters to as many meetings and events as we can in our towns to schmooze residents and officials and explain we’re a new operation and get our faces out there.

All of this is, however, exciting. We have a great time doing what we do. Our reporters, because they haven’t been poisoned by the malaise that afflicts many news organizations, really enjoy their jobs. We have fun going into work every day and chasing the news. We get excited when one of our people gets a front page story.

In many ways, even as business models evolve, the work we do as journalists every day hasn’t changed all that much. We have better tools to work with in some cases, and we’ve got to do more, faster, but at the end of the day, it’s journalism. I couldn’t be happier.