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Dave Astor

Dave Astor

Posted: November 30, 2010 12:15 PM

Here's the tale of a newspaper that lost a reader after publishing the net worth of a man so filthy rich he needs a shoe stretcher for his wallet.

I began subscribing to The Star-Ledger in 1993 -- the year President Clinton took office, the Toronto Blue Jays won another World Series, and Justin Bieber was thankfully still singing in utero rather than anywhere we could hear him.

The Newark, N.J.-based newspaper wasn't bad as mainstream dailies go, and it didn't cost much. So I was reasonably content to continue subscribing well into the new millennium -- which, depending on your perspective, started in 2000, in 2001, or at Century 21.

Then, in late 2008, The Star-Ledger wrested buyouts from a whopping 151 of its 330 newsroom staffers while pleading poverty as the cause of this draconian cost-cutting. At the same time, the paper reduced its number of pages and canceled roughly 25% of its daily comic strips. I was particularly enraged that it dropped the daily version of "Prince Valiant," even though that Sunday-only comic has no daily version so there was nothing for me to be enraged about.

The shrunken newspaper also began relying too much on wire copy, and was marred by more typos as well as other errors. Then The Star-Ledger really plunged in the knife with a price hike -- leaving stabbed subscribers with less money to pay doctors to extract the stiletto. Ouchies.

I thought of canceling The Star-Ledger then, but couldn't quite bring myself to do it. Even though I figured the owners were still making a pretty profit, I knew that many newspapers were struggling because of the rotten economy and the migration of readers from print to online (with a mid-migration stop at the New Jersey Turnpike's Vince Lombardi Service Area).

But the last straw came this September. In a story about Forbes magazine's latest list of the richest Americans, The Star-Ledger also named New Jersey's wealthiest. On the "Joisey" roster was Donald Newhouse, co-owner of Advance Publications, parent company of The Star-Ledger. This Donald (not "The Donald") was worth $5.4 billion, up from $4 billion in 2009. Yet the insanely rich co-owner had allowed scores of not-rich S-L newsroom people to lose their jobs. Let them eat severance.

And despite Advance man Newhouse increasing his wealth by $1.4 billion in one year, his Star Ledger didn't hire back many people. As a matter of fact, the paper is looking to shrink staff even more. For instance, blogs such as Tornoe's Cartoon News and The Daily Cartoonist reported this week that S-L editorial cartoonist Drew Sheneman was taking a buyout -- further reducing the number of staff cartoonists in the U.S. to, about, minus 10.

Unfortunately, I had already paid in "advance" to get The Star-Ledger delivered into November, so I didn't cancel until then. Meanwhile, I still subscribe to a daily (The New York Times) and my hometown weekly (New Jersey's Montclair Times) because those print papers haven't been slashed like The Star-Ledger. Plus, I still love to read print publications along with online stuff. Different slices of a freshly baked media pie, you might say, though my laptop doesn't do well in the oven.

Finally, I realize The Star-Ledger is always looking for a Jersey angle in its stories, but publishing Newhouse's net worth wasn't the smartest thing the paper ever did. Perhaps there are so few S-L staffers left that no one noticed how bad it looked to cite a $5.4 billion corporate fortune in a diminished newspaper.