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Hundreds of journalists in New Jersey will be out of work come November:  The North Jersey Media Group, which Gannett bought in July, just announced that it will lay off 426 staffers. Approximately half will be retained in new roles.

This mass layoff couldn’t come at a worse time: New Jersey is already one of the most underserved states when it comes to local news coverage.

While exciting projects have emerged, including our own News Voices: New Jersey campaign, Gannett’s move will only deepen the state’s journalism crisis.

A national trend felt in the Garden State

Gannett’s announcement on Wednesday of a major restructuring shouldn’t come as a surprise. Gannett and other media companies in the state like NJ Advance Media have made severe reductions in their newsroom staff and undergone multiple attempts at restructuring over the past decade.

Many of the jobs on the chopping block at the North Jersey Media Group will come from its weekly community papers. The company currently publishes the Record of Bergen County, the Herald News of Passaic County and 50 community newspapers, plus digital properties including NorthJersey.com.

Gannett plans to cease publication of 40 percent of its North Jersey weeklies, retaining a reporting staff of just 50 people to cover community news across the chain.

Sandwiched between New York City and Philadelphia, which are major media markets, New Jersey has always relied on the good work of print reporters. Now there will be even fewer community journalists working for local publications — which will likely worsen the state’s fragile media ecosystem.

When Free Press launched the News Voices: New Jersey campaign over a year ago, we surveyed our members in New Jersey to find out how they felt about their local media.

The responses below show why local news coverage is so essential:

“New York City and/or Philadelphia-based news [outlets] seem to mostly tell stories of everything that's wrong with New Jersey and very little of what we’re doing right.”

“It’s difficult to make decisions about the local government when there’s little to no information about the candidates.”

“As with most states, the New Jersey statehouse corps has been significantly reduced and all reporters are overworked, lacking resources for investigative journalism.”

“Our community is ignored.”

The problem extends beyond New Jersey.

The annual survey from the American Society of News Editors has long been vital to understanding how changes in the industry have decimated local, regional and national media outlets alike. But just last week ASNE announced it could no longer reliably estimate the number of working journalists in newsrooms:

“The structure of modern newsrooms makes it impractical and error-prone to try to estimate the number of working journalists. As we have seen over the past few years, layoffs, buyouts and restructuring are a norm and not an isolated event in the news industry, so the ASNE result is based only on the newsrooms that replied to the survey.”

The announcement of the layoffs at the North Jersey Media Group mirrors what has played out nationally for some years. At their peak in 1990, daily newspapers employed 56,900 workers nationwide. By 2014, the most recent year we have data for, that figure had plunged to 32,900. We’ll soon be down to half the number of daily journalists who were working 25 years ago.

The need for local journalism

It’s important to make two distinctions.

One is that the “restructuring” decisions from corporate executives don’t reflect the commitment editors and journalists have to covering substantive issues. If anything, these decisions make the jobs of the remaining journalists even harder, since they’re left working with even fewer resources.

Second, the loss of journalism jobs doesn’t just hurt the industry. Our communities are harmed when there are fewer news outlets that cover important local issues and provide a voice for their audiences. There’s evidence that civic participation drops, corruption increases and lawmakers bring in less funding for communities when local news disappears.

Now more than ever, we need solutions to address the ever-growing crisis in journalism. We can’t rely on outdated revenue models, and it does a disservice to our communities when the success of a story is judged by the number of clicks it receives rather than the impact is has.

News Voices is committed to supporting journalists who are being asked to do more with less — and to connect those same journalists with residents who may not feel represented in the media.

We look forward to continuing our work with New Jersey’s media outlets, including our allies at Gannett and NJ Advance Media, to ensure that the diminished number of working journalists doesn’t lead to a decline in quality coverage.

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