Note: The news in Los Angeles these days is about layoffs at the newspapers that make up the Southern California News Group, which is owned by Wall Street bankers organized as “Digital First Media.” This prompted me to write the following reflection on what happened when Digital First Media took over the Ohio newspaper at which I served for 35 years.
I spent most of my career at what we called a “medium sized” (40,000 circulation) daily in Ohio. We had stiff competition from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, along with another family owned paper in our home county (The Elyria, Chronicle-Telegram, which still seems remarkably alive and well) and smaller dailies in two neighboring counties.
Multiple newspapers landed every morning or afternoon on the doorsteps in the cities and filled orange, blue, white and red “tubes” attached to every mailbox post along the country roads. Our paper — The Morning Journal of Lorain, Ohio — was in the orange ones. (Believe it or not, there was a time when I helped run one of those early morning “motor routes,” for a family member had the delivery contract.)
The Morning Journal thrived in the late 80s and early 90s under a generous (and financially successful) publisher, Harry Horvitz, and a hard-driving editor, John G. Cole. We won national awards for a series called “When the Work Stops,” about job-killing changes in the steel, shipbuilding and auto industries, and for numerous explanatory journalism packages on topics such as Ritalin and Attention Deficit Disorder (“Generation Rx”), Heart Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, local race relations, the child protective system, and the quality of local public schools.
Then the Horvitz Newspapers were sold to the Journal Register Co. (which later became Digital First Media). By the late 1990s JRC was cutting payrolls by laying off editors, reporters and photographers. Not long after I retired in 2001 to become a college journalism teacher, the company eliminated it’s Lorain printing plant. Deadlines for sportswriters were moved up so readers had to look on line to find out who won under the Friday night lights. Just last year DFM sold the property and moved the remaining staff into a remodeled fast-food restaurant building.
Along the way, the paper stopped doing “blockbuster” journalism projects, and, more significantly, the early layoffs ended close-up coverage of the communities. Reporters stopped making daily rounds of police stations, city halls and school board offices. The newsroom was instructed to make morning-after calls to clerks of councils or boards to ask politely what had happened at the night meetings.
Slowly, it dawned on readers that their local newspaper no longer provided explanatory and “watchdog” journalism, and that they could just as well rely on web sites for classified listings of jobs, products and services and the scores of high school, college and professional sporting events. The readers stopped subscribing to Lorain’s printed newspaper, and the city doorsteps and country tubes are now empty.