December 1724, 1998
Welcome to the Machine
The controversial Journal Register Company, owner of 13 Philadelphia-area papers, is effectively staking a news-and-information ring around Center City. What does this mean for the regional newspaper biz?And what's in store for readers?
by Christopher McDougall
After paying dues in a one-horse Nevada town as a small paper's only reporter, Dan Robrish was thrilled to arrive at the Pulitzer-winning Pottstown Mercury until he heard who was coming to town. "HOLY FUCKING MOSES!" he exclaimed, and immediately began looking for another job.
At the end of an upbeat story about her newspaper's new Sunday edition, reporter Marsden Epworth of Connecticut's Torrington Register-Citizen mentioned there had been some problems with home delivery. She was immediately fired.
The unseen actor behind these three tales is the Journal Register Company (JRC), an aggressive young conglomerate based in Trenton and run by a mild-looking former accountant named Robert Jelenic. "Jelenic," at least, is the name on the masthead. But to scores of current and one-time JRC employees engaged in a furious, multi-state correspondence via the Internet, Jelenic has dozens of ear-scalding nicknames more customary to prison riots and rap music.
Even to calmer observersincluding journalism professors in New England, a citizens' group in Maine and Ralph Nader in Washington, DCJelenic is a powerful force whose pursuit of big profits threatens to sap the talent and strength from one of their hometown institutions.
What has he done to spread such concern and hostility from Portland, ME, to Pottstown, PA?
Robert Jelenic buys small newspapers.
And he's just come to a town near you.
This past July, Jelenic's Journal Register Company continued its advance through the Northeastern states by purchasing 10 Philadelphia-area papers, including the News of Delaware County, the Delaware County Daily Times, the Pottstown Mercury, the Main Line Times and a smattering of smaller weeklies and shoppers.
Besides adding a few more outposts to JRC's growing empire of 24 daily papers, the purchase effectively gives the company a news-and-information ring around Center City, since it already owns the Norristown Times-Herald and the Daily Local News in West Chester from prior sales, as well as its hometown paper, the Trentonian.
Already, JRC's big push into the region has created one big surprise: it's been almost trouble-free. In comparison to the horror stories that accompanied past JRC buyouts in New England, the Delaware Valley transition has been a hiccupno mass layoffs, few ruffles in staff morale and, except for one embarrassing exception, little meddling in news content.
Life, in fact, has actually improved in one regard, one Delco reporter says: Since JRC took over, they're now being paid overtime.
"Sure, they might try to fuck us, replace us with a bunch of college kids who are happy to get a couple hundred bucks and a few clips," speculates Delco union representative Adam Taylor, a tabasco-tongued political writer. "But there's been absolutely no sign of it so far. We've had no input from them at all, except 'You're doing a great job.'"
For months now, he and fellow Delco rep Joe Hart have been collecting JRC information, and they've developed a hunch: Because JRC went public last May, they figure, Jelenic now has to present shareholders with a gleaming reputation and can't afford a rebellious workforce.
"I think we're seeing a kinder, gentler JRC," says Taylor. "The old slash-and-burn tactics, if true, won't go over anymore."
But just wait, warn veterans of past JRC negotiations. David Baum, a Newspaper Guild rep currently negotiating a new contract for Norristown, believes dark clouds will start forming once the Delco and Pottstown contracts expire this coming spring. Maybe contractual obligations have protected those Philadelphia-area papers so far, but once those deals expire, wages could drop and their newsroom could be gutted.
"Wake up!" says Baum: The evidence is right under their noses. The bitter negotiations now going on in Norristown, he believes, are more than just tough trade talks. "I think they're using us to intimidate Delco and Pottstown,"says Baum. "They're letting them know right now they shouldn't expect too much."
Look at JRC's most recent offer to Norristown, says Bob Carville, the paper's top union delegate. He called it "downright insulting." Though JRC offered a 2.75 percent annual increase for the next five years, the package would still leave Norristown workers short of the salary and benefits they were earning before the company took over five years ago.
"It would still make us one of the poorest-paid papers of our size in the entire United States," says Carville. "The mid-level scales are lower than we had in 1982." Presently, a first-year reporter in Norristown makes $385 a week, compared to $591 in Delco and $526 in Pottstown. Further up the scale, the comparison only gets worse: for fourth-year reporters in Norristown, $445, compared to $786 in Delco and $707 in Pottstown. "We asked for a $40 a week raise the first year; they came back with $9," says Carville.
More chilling yet for Delco and Pottstown, says Baum, are the veiled threats he's heard from JRC negotiators when he's pushed for a contract equal to Pottstown's.
"You might get parity, just not in the way you'd like," was the reply Baum says he got from David Ross, a lawyer representing JRC in the bargaining. "Really ominous, you know? And when I ask what that means, it's always, 'Let's just say they might not be making as much in the future.'" As Baum later put it in the Guild newsletter, "Ross implied that the people who may need to worry most are employees making more money at other newspapers. Heads up, Delco and Pottstown!"
Adds Carville, "When we mentioned how much Pottstown makes, [Norristown publisher] Bill Murray said, 'I wouldn't be too quick to jump on that ship!'"
"When I tried to pin him down, he played dumb," says Carville. "He says, 'Oh, I don't know ' They smile, like it's a secret joke with them."
If JRC does indeed plan pay-scale reductions at Pottstown and Delco this spring, Carville says the result would be "a media situation the likes of which the Delaware Valley has never seen before. A labor-management battle could soon be brewing simultaneously at three different local papers."
Asked about reports of what was said during the negotiations, company spokeswoman Diane Pardee said, "I can't comment on hearsay. I don't know what either side is saying, and you know how things get twisted." However, she strongly defended the wage offer, calling it "generous." She would not speculate about what could happen in Pottstown and Delco come spring. "We treat each paper individually, according to its revenue and merits," she said. "There is no cookie-cutter approach to contracts."
That's for sure, say Times-Herald vets. To them, it felt more like a butcher knife. They still talk about the day they call "Black Friday"an experience they say was shared by JRC newspapers throughout New England in the past decade.
The Company Line
C'mon inhave a beer," says Maureen Burk, cracking open the door of the small basement bar on the auto-mall outskirts of Norristown. "You're gonna hear some stories tonight." The smoky air, the underground room, the knots of people speaking in small passionate groups it's like a meeting of the French resistance.
So Far, So Good: Adam Taylor (left) and Joe Hart, political reporter and assistant city editor at the Delaware County Times.
photo: Sandor Welsh
Some still work at the paper; others haven't seen each other since the afternoon they were all lined up to hear their fate. Vincent Zinno, the feisty sportswriter who led the doomed wildcat strike, is catching up with Terry Brady, ex-editor; big Charlie Fennell, composing-room chief for 30 years, is hunkered at the bar with little Perry Schmehl, computer tech. Maureen Burk is soon huddling over old Times-Herald mementos with her sales cronies.
There's a lot of chat to catch up on, weddings and births and tough job hunts, but talk keeps returning with morbid fascination to the subject of JRC's local purchases.
"God help them," says Fennell, raising his beer in salute. Schmehl hoists a glass in silent solidarity.
For decades, the 200-year-old Times-Herald was the pet possession of the wealthy Strassburger family. It was passed down through the generations to Johann Andreas Peter Strassburger, the clan's mildly eccentric recluse.
Though he shrank from people, Strassburger apparently liked the public well enough to maintain their hometown paper. Pay was good, benefits were generousand when plant jobs disappeared over the years as Lee Tires moved south and nearby Alanwood Steel closed, the Times-Herald was there to capture Norristown's deterioration from bustling borough seat into crumbling town center supporting little more than a huge, baronial courthouse and suburbs such as Blue Bell.
Poverty, wealth; booming 'burbs and a struggling downtown; union pride, vanishing jobsNorristown had all the classic strife of a great news town. The paper was no great prizewinner: a database upgrade by the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publishers' Association makes a complete record currently unavailable, but even former editor Terry Brady recalls few reporting awards; in the last four years, under JRC's tenure, it has won two second places for spot news and a sports column. But the Times-Herald of the Strassburger era was professionally written, well-informed and kept its teeth in local issues and events.
"It was a good, sociable read," says former ad salesman Mark Murphy. "People got their financial and international news from the Inquirer in the morning, and their hometown stuff from the Times-Herald at the end of the day." Adds Brady, "If there was a meeting anywhere in the county that night, you could be sure to read about it the next day."
All that changed after Strassburger died a childless bachelor in April 1993. The paper was inherited by distant cousins who ordered it sold, and the new owners were soon sending in the "stiff suits from Trenton," as Fennell put it.
Even so, few staffers were concerned. A neighboring paper, the West Chester Daily Local News, had been one of JRC's first purchases back in 1990 and hadn't seemed to suffer much. Its sports section remained respectable and its reporting won awards: last year, for instance, the Daily Local won a first prize for investigative reporting from the state publishers' association and three honorable mentions for columns and features.
Norristown's experience, however, would prove traumatic.
"They brought a new publisher in from another JRC paper, a guy named Tom Marschel," Fennell says, pronouncing the name as if trying to clean it off his teeth. "The first thing he does is put out an order: As of that moment, all contracts are void." All staffers were to consider themselves unemployed and should be prepared to re-interview that Friday for their jobs. To people who'd grown up in Norristown and spent their entire working lives at the paper, the announcement was a staggering blow.
Some hadn't interviewed for a new job in 20 years; others were desperate to remain, but bitterly offended by the re-application process. But maybe this was just a ritual, they told each other, new management's way of starting fresh. And in fact, Interview Day turned out to be little more than a chat with the publisher.
Then, come Monday, Maureen Burk arrived at the office to discover her co-workers standing in two lines, one leading to the conference room, the other to publisher Tom Marschel's office. One by one, they vanished behind the doors and then re-emerged, either weeping or deathly quiet, each with an envelope in hand.
"They had us lined up like cattle," says Fennell. "It was so degrading just so humiliating." Says Burk: "You couldn't help but think of Nazi death camps all of us lined up, waiting to hear our fate. It still makes me sick to think of it."
Burk, whom colleagues call a top salesperson, took her place in line. She eventually sat down before the publisher and was swiftly fired: "The whole time he was telling me, he was grinning like a madman." She'd later learn that Tom Marschel dealt with stress by cracking a nervous smile. To Burk, he seemed maniacal.
Fennell, composing-room chief for over 30 years, was fired. "Words failed me. I said, 'How can you do this? I'm 57 years old these are my last years before retirement."
A veteran accountant with 13 years seniority was fired. "Here's this lawyer wearing an Armani suit and a Rolex telling me I earn too much money. It was disgusting." (Because he has friends still working at the Times-Herald, the accountant asked not to be identified.)
Salesman Mark Murphy was kept on, but with a big cut in pay: "Marschel is telling me, 'Welcome to a professional newspaper corporation! We'll show you how a newspaper should be run!' Then I open the envelope and find out I have to support a wife and two kids on $200 less a week."
In all, 25 of 170 workers were laid off. Eight others would quit by the end of the first month. Schmehl was asked to take over the workload formerly shared by Fennell and Fennell's first assistant; besides the sickening feeling that he'd betrayed his mentor, the strain of handling a job meant for three forced him into a leave of absence after two weeks. He eventually quit. News editor Brian Steer, a 15-year veteran, quit after he was asked to identify union members during their one-day retaliatory strike.
"I carried out that order but was sickened because I felt I betrayed people who had worked hard for me," Steer told Editor & Publisher magazine in October 1993. He told E&P he'd been ordered to "put the fear of God" into remaining staffers, and spread the message that strikers would be "crushed."
They were. Caught off guard, hastily and inexpertly organized, the strike failed after JRC bused in replacement reporters and editors from its papers in New Jersey and Ohio. The scab-produced paper was enough to convince the strikers that the new parent company had no intention of backing down. "Get to work or get the hell out, basically," says Mark Murphy. "So anyone who could, left."
For those who remained, cutbacks were severe. As E&P reported, pay at the Times-Herald was cut by up to 10 percent, the library was discontinued and computer-support staff was cut from three workers to one. Health care suffered the most: co-pay went from $16 a month to $125; sick time, which could accrue to a maximum of 100 days, was chopped to a maximum of five. For catastrophic disability, half-pay for 13 weeks; after that, not a dime.
"If you got cancer, tough shityou could lose your house," says a current Norristown worker. One woman nearly did; diagnosed with a breast tumor, she was in the midst of chemotherapy when her pay was cut off. "She'd gone her entire career without taking a sick day, but had the bad luck to get sick when JRC was in charge," says the staffer. As soon as her cancer went into remission, the desperate woman hastened back to work.
JRC chief Robert Jelenic made light of the bitterness. "We got a very good franchise with a lot of good employees," he told E&P shortly after the strike. "It's unfortunate that the Guild for some reason wanted to agitate." He spoke warmly of his new acquisition, agreeing that the Times-Herald had been profitable. He made no response to Steer's allegations of terrorizing and union-crushing.
Five years later, JRC spokeswoman Pardee is even less apologetic. "The paper was garbage," she says. "It was a dying franchise, it was losing money and we completely turned it around."
"Turning it around," to judge by today's Times-Herald, meant turning it into a replica of JRC's other daily papers. It was switched from an afternoon to morning edition, a financial section was added, and news, which once averaged nine pages, now rarely averages more than four. Obituaries replaced national news on page two. State and national news, once pulled from the Associated Press, is now more likely to come from the cheaper Scripps-Howard wire service.
"All of their papers pretty much look the same," observes Marcel Dufresne, a University of Connecticut journalism professor who has kept his eye on JRC papers throughout New England for several years. When JRC buys a paper, he says, they add color and split the papers into four sections: news, business, sports and lifestyles.
Articles tend to revolve around personalities and galas, rather than issues, says Dufresne. "It's pillow-soft local news, kind of like the 1950s boilerplate when every Little League team had its picture in the papernot the kind of hard focus on issues and events which affect people's lives." he says. "Longtime readers tell me they feel cheated."
"I would say that in many cases, stories are what they think you like, rather than what you need to know," he adds. Brady, the Times-Herald editor fired during the takeover, gives an example: "When that FBI agent killed in a drug bust was buried [agent Charles Reed, 45, of Harleysville, Montgomery County, was killed in Philadelphia in March, 1996 when a drug sting went sour], most papers gave it full treatment. The Times-Herald ran a head shot under a four-column photo of a new supermarket."
Compare, for instance, a decade's worth of differences between two front pages. Oct. 3, 1988 features trends and events: "Killer Remains At Large"; "Space Shuttle Landing on Course"; "Admission Fees Looming in Zoo's Future"; "More Teens Working While Studying."
But Oct. 3, 1998, on the other hand, seems to reach obsessively for a name, any namea high-school boy, a failed political candidate, a local businessto hang its stories on: "Norristown Boy Meets Clinton"; "Ex-Congressional Candidate Among Clinton Protestors;" plus a story about moving King of Prussia's historic inn written almost in the style of an infomercial: "Inn Trinkets Offered In Fundraiser"(" for $17.76, plus shipping and handling, the King of Prussia holiday ornamenta solid brass and gold-plated replica of the Inn that celebrates the Home for the Inn campaign as well as the season ").
Front-page photos are remarkably predictable: football, car wrecks and crime scenes predominate. Checking last month's issues, you'll find car crashes on Nov. 17, 19, 23, 25 and 28, and crime scenes Nov. 8, 9, 10 and 11. And on every Monday of the month, a football action shot.
"It's definitely gotten worse since that new company took over," says construction worker Ron Moyer, who was in the library one day recently searching back issues for an article on Y2K. "It used to be a good little paper, like the Recorder in Conshohocken, with lots of local news. Now, it's a skinny little thing."
"We need more internal government news," complains Bernie Murray, owner of Conshohocken's Murray Dodge, a current advertiser in the Times-Herald. "And they got rid of one section on local [Conshohocken] news everybody liked'Under the Spreading Maple Tree,' on Thursdays. Everyone used to look forward to that."
Still, he's resigned to using the Times-Herald for advertising.
"I'd like to see the readership go up more, but it's the only paper we've got."
Circulation is indeed down since JRC took over. For the decade prior to the takeover, the circulation held steady at 29,500, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation. But since 1993, it has steadily declined to its current level, 22,500. JRC classifies the shift as a slight dip, while the union calls it a plummet.
As for the takeover, the Norristown workers still describe it in terms usually used for a natural disaster. "We saw our friends' whole lives devastated in two minutes," says one current employee. "A lot of us had worked there since high school and depended on that money to support our families and make house payments. Suddenly, after a lifetime of dedication, they had nothing."
Deep cuts were necessary, Jelenic would later tell E&P, because the Times-Herald was "totally overstaffed." Five years later, Jelenic would receive $885,000 in salary with a $10.5 million bonus. The former head of advertising, meanwhile, now fills pills for Merck Pharmaceutical. Computer tech Perry Schmehl is out of newspapers and working for Berks Visiting Nurses. Maureen Burk just settled her wrongful-termination suit. Charlie Fennell is a locksmith.
"That's what happens when Wall Street bankers take over your life," Fennell says, staring into the fading bubbles of his beer.
The Price Is Right
July 1, 1990: The S & L scandal was exploding; investment bankers were changing from swashbucklers into job-hunters; and Ralph Ingersoll Jr., king of a mini-media empire, was about to be sent into exile.
None of these desperation measures could help Ingersoll. By paying reckless amounts of money to start a soon-doomed paper in St. Louis and putting his faith in the gospel of high-risk bonds, he was left millions of dollars in debt to investment house E.M. Warburg Pincus. It looked as if the newspaper chain he had inherited from his father, media visionary Ralph Ingersoll Sr., was about to collapse.
The senior Ingersoll had joined Henry Luce in the 1930s to create Life, the most influential magazine of its time, and helped run Fortune magazine. In 1959, Ingersoll formed a partnership with TV game-show magnate Mark Goodson, the creator of What's My Line? and The Price is Right, who got into the news game at age 70 because he wanted to be remembered for more than launching Bob Barker. It was a simple deal: Goodson supplied the cash, Ingersoll provided the newspaper know-how.
For years, the Ingersoll-Goodson team was a jackpot success. Even after Ralph Jr. replaced his father in 1975, the company continued to thrive. "For some time in the early '80s I was actually the highest paid newspaper executive in North America," Ingersoll boasts to Nicholas Coleridge in 1993's Paper Tigers.
But disaster struck in the late 1980s. Eager to build an empire of his own and break free of Goodson's checkbook, Ingersoll hitched his wagon to Michael Milken, the junk-bond prophet. Soon, Ingersoll was spending mega amounts of leveraged money.
When the recession hit, he was finished. Unable to cover the interest on his $250 million debt, he defaulted to Warburg Pincus and accepted a position overseas managing a small chain of British papers.
That's when Robert Jelenic got the break of a lifetime.
Once an accountant, Jelenic had served briefly as publisher of Ingersoll's short-lived St. Louis Sun before Warburg Pincus gave him a chance to clean up his boss' mess. His solution was simple: As more newspapers failed, the survivors would take control of more and more advertising. By expanding the company, rather than shrinking it, he could create monopolies while making the papers more cost-efficient (reducing staff size, publishing the same stories in several publications, printing several papers at a single plant).
And because these papers make money from advertising, not news, such changes in the newsroom would have little immediate effect on profits.
"It's no magic formula," explains John Porter, a union rep in Portland, ME, who led a movement that repelled a JRC purchase this past summer. "A certain bedrock amount of advertising is always guaranteed. Auto dealers with weekly deals, real estate brokers with homes on the market, help wanted adsall of them are captive to daily local advertising.
"All you have to do to make a killing is eliminate the competition, raise the ad rates and cut your staff," he says. "Presto! You're a millionaire."
No doubt about it, JRC is a money-making machine. Check out these numbers: Revenues for the third quarter of 1998 increased 27.4 percent to a record $114 million, led by a 25.8 percent increase in advertising revenues at the company's newspapers, to $83.3 million.
Meanwhile, as the company was counting its profits, labor negotiations were getting underway in Norristown and Rhode Island.
Mr. Jelenic has a statement and a question for you," the managing editor of Rhode Island's The Call told Scott Cole, a longtime sportswriter and union organizer.
"'If you want a war, you've got one,'" the editor continued. "Now, here's the question, and I have to report your answer: 'If you don't like the way things are run around here, why don't you get the hell out?'"
It's not every day the CEO of your company openly declares war, but workers at The Call can't say it was surprising. According to a complaint filed in early October with the National Labor Relations Board, Jelenic's challenge was the latest attempt to "intimidate and harass" the paper's circulation department, an attack which had already caused a 40 percent staff turnover. As for the newsroom, "We're right down to the marrow," a source at The Call says. "There's no one left to lay off and still put out a paper."
Complaints about Jelenic's management style are nothing new. "You don't ever, ever want to work for them," says the editor of a Connecticut paper who quit not long after JRC took over. After laying off 14 reporters in one day, the news and sports editors were left to put out the entire Sunday paper themselves.
"He simply could not give a shit about quality or staff morale," said the editor, who asked not to be identified because, with its constant expansion, "you can never tell when JRC may become your boss again."
The Columbia Journalism Review, one of the nation's premier media watchdogs, has thrice pricked JRC papers in its "Darts and Laurels" section for behavior which, says Review editor Gloria Cooper, "seems to indicate a strong tendency toward self-promotion":
1998: Two JRC papers were ordered to run Page One stories about JRC's stock offering. Included was "how-to" information for potential buyers.
1994: A copy editor was suspended from one JRC paper for including a buyer-beware story in an advertising supplement for auto dealers.
1994: Reporter Marsden Epworth was fired from the Torrington (CT) Register-Citizen for mentioning delivery problems in an otherwise upbeat story about its first Sunday edition. According to the Review, publisher Geoffrey Moser told the fired reporter, "You can't write anything that embarrasses the Journal Register Company." Editor Elizabeth Healey quit in protest, as did editor Dolores Laschever after Moser killed a negative letter to the editor.
The March 20 incident soon became national news. Both Epworth and JRC spokeswoman Diane Pardee appeared with Bryant Gumbel on The Today Show to explain what the hell was going on in Torrington. "Pardee kept repeating, 'We've just taken over, and we're trying to improve things,'" Healey recalls, who has since moved on to another newspaper.
But a year after JRC's arrival, Connecticut Magazine dubbed the Register-Citizen "Worst Newspaper of the Year," writing: "What was once a decent, trusted community newspaper is now nothing more than a dopey moneymaker for its New Jersey-based corporate parent."
Ralph Nader watched in dismay as the Torrington Register-Citizen slashed news staff from 18 reporters down to three and dropped nearly all coverage of Winsted, his Connecticut hometown, after JRC took over in 1993. Last year, he complains, the paper was largely silent as one of the town's two hospitals was threatened with closing. "How does a community make informed choices once the information well dries up?" Nader asked during a phone interview from his Washington, DC, office.
That's why, when JRC started eyeing a family-owned newspaper group in Maine, readers and staffers alike mobilized to fight them off. "We'd heard through the union what they were like," says Mike Roland, a Portland bread baker. "So we formed a 'Save Our Local Paper' committee to look into the allegations."
They brought Maureen Burk up to describe what happened in Norristown ("She scared me," says Roland), and commissioned a study by Boston's ICA Group, which advises unions and employees facing corporate takeover. Using evidence from unions, former JRC employees and E&P articles, the ICA report ranked a buyout by JRC among "Worst Case Scenarios." It specifically cited the Norristown takeover as evidence of a company that "does not put quality first and regards the newspapers exclusively as financial assets."
"This wasn't the kind of company we wanted determining the fate of our local paper and our neighbors who work there," says Roland, the baker. In the end, the citizens' committee got its wishthe owners of the Seattle Times, whose family's roots are in Maine, were selected as the paper's new owners.
"As much charm as there was twenty five years ago, there was a hell of a lot of arbitrary decision-making going on," says Wilson, president of the family-owned Concord (NH) Monitor. If the owners were conservative, so, oftentimes, was the paper; if they had a beef with a neighbor, the neighbor's ads weren't run. And while family owners might have tighter community ties, they could also be domineering, hard to replace, and far too cozy with local moneymen.
That's why a professional corporation can give a podunk paper new class and energy. By recruiting higher-paid writers, installing snazzy graphics and schooling workers in up-to-date editing and circulation techniques, a top chain can make a sagging paper a better read and a more profitable business.
Take the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. After the New York Times Company bought the Democrat in the mid-'80s, the ICA reports, "Reporters feel that the paper has changed for the better the paper enjoys continued autonomy and staffing has increased most new hires tend to be well qualified and come from larger papers." In short: "The paper has gotten better since being bought by a chain."
Likewise with the New Haven Register. While under family ownership in 1973, the Register was lambasted in a survey of New England daily newspapers for poor news analysis, poor arts coverage and overall "shabby appearance." Also, "the paper's Republican heritage seemed to influence what stories were placed on the front page," wrote Alex Berenson ( now a highly regarded senior writer for TheStreet.com financial news website) in his 1994 Yale graduate study, "How Junk Bonds Have Hurt (And Helped) New Haven's Only Daily Newspaper."
But once the Goodson-Ingersoll team took over in 1986, the Register blossomed. It soon started turning out a kind of journalism its readers had never seen before: prize-winning investigations, sensitive studies on AIDS and racism, useable economic news. Diversifying the newsroomlong overdue in racially mixed New Havenbecame a priority.
It didn't last.
When JRC took control of the New Haven Register in 1990, "the bloodletting began in earnest," Berenson reported. Nineteen workers were fired in a single day; after the editor refused to fire anyone else, he was canned himself. When Jelenic appeared a few days later, ex-staffers told Berenson, he said if the diminished crew couldn't put out the paper, he had reporters in Ohio who could.
"He talked about the Trentonian as quality journalism," former staffer Kim Hirsh told Berenson. The Trentonian, JRC's hometown paper, "is a sensationalistic daily with all the zest of a circus poster," says Robert Comstock, a Rutgers/ New Brunswick journalism professor whose first response to a mere mention of the paper was several minutes of laughter. "It's perverse fun," he added, "but probably only dangerous if readers think they're actually getting all the information they need."
A recent issue of the Trentonion ran this front-page headline:"JERSEY DRIVERS ARE @#+%&! MAD! New Poll Shows Road Rage Rampant On N.J. Highways; 70 Percent Say They've Been Flipped The Bird At Least Once!" On page six, the date is given as "Tusday, September 29" and features a half-page photo of "Susan Sturla, a Bartender and Part-Time Model" bursting her bikini seams. The Philadelphia Daily News, even in its moments of greatest economic desperation, still managed to keep cartoon curses and "The Bird" off its cover, and the bikini girls pretty much in check.
"Everyone realized this was going to be a disaster," Hirsh said.
All's Well ?
After bracing for their own disasters, Delco and Pottstown workers are now wondering what all the fuss was about.
"After all we'd heard about this company, I fully expected the worst," says Pottstown reporter Donna Heron. "I must say things are fine so far." News editor Nancy March just assigned a three-part series on domestic violence the staff is quite proud of, she says, and overall, "I've had no change in my workload."
So what's going on? One difference is that the new acquisitions were stock, not asset purchases, meaning JRC is bound by the old contracts. In an asset purchase, contracts are void and the company has free rein to do as it likes. "I gotta admit, we were all relieved to hear it was a stock purchase," Delco's Adam Taylor says.
But one former Pottstown reporter points to weaknesses he sees developing in the Mercury's news coverage. Dan Robrish, who left voluntarily for a job with the Associated Press, saw his three-county beat taken over by part-time stringers who only attend meetings and press conferences. What they're missing, Robrish says, is critical behind-the-scenes action. "What's important is what happens in the hallways and behind office doors," says Robrish. "Meetings are just window dressing. You'll never know what deals have really been made."
There's also some question about the extent of local autonomy. When Delco Times publisher Frank Gothie was asked for comment, he said all statements had to come from corporate headquarters. He later called back with comments almost identical to ones made previously by Pardee: "We're going to have a renewed focus on local news and sports," Gothie offered. But didn't the Times always focus on local news and sports? "Yes, but now we'll be doing more." Why? Is there more local news? "No, it will just be more intense."
Then, there was the Mysteriously Duplicating Earnings Report: after the company's record quarterly earnings were announced last month, a story with a Trenton dateline but no reporter's name appeared in all of JRC's Philadelphia-area papers. Pardee concedes that the story was, in fact, written at company headquarters, and local editors "were not encouraged to make any changes."
"What's your point?" she asked testily. "It's common corporate practice to send out press releases on earnings reports." Of course, not all companies are sending their own releases, packaged with "no-edit" instructions, to their own newspapers.
Adam Taylor and Joe Hart, Delco's top two union reps, are watching and listeningand waiting for contract talks this spring. They've heard the recent history: Jelenic's alleged declaration of war in Rhode Island, the 1998 Review dart, the bruising talks now going on in Norristown.
Still, they've got no beef so far with JRC. "But if they try to gut us," Taylor warns, "I'll become the biggest prick with a bullhorn you've ever seen."
Editor's Note: The Philadelphia-area newspapers owned by the Journal Register Company are in competition with City Paper's parent company, Montgomery Newspapers, which owns 16 weeklies in the Philadelphia suburbs.