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February 5, 2009

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Commentary: A eulogy for the Conshohocken Recorder

It was hard to stand by while an old friend died, but they said the damage was irreparable.

One hundred and forty years is a good haul by any standard (almost twice the average American life expectancy), so shouldn’t we be glad it lasted as long as it did?

Muted grief and nostalgia will be the emotional motif for many in the boroughs of Conshohocken and the townships of Plymouth and Whitemarsh, but for me indignation will be the dominant theme because I know the Recorder newspaper didn’t die of natural causes. It was starved to death.

The paper was already emaciated when I agreed to be its staff writer in December 2007.  The editor, George Larmour, was a one-man editorial and production staff. He compiled event listings and press releases, wrote editorials, managed freelance correspondents and columnists, edited articles, laid out the paper and every Tuesday drove from our Fayette Street basement office in Conshohocken to the News Gleaner facility on Gantry Road in the Northeast to beat the paper into saleable shape. (He wasn’t able to send the final product to the printer from his desk because the techies at Journal Register Co., the paper’s corporate owner, had failed to fix the paper’s FTP site after it went down.)

Did I mention that George was also the editor of the Plymouth Meeting and Lafayette Hill journals? Did I mention that he was the de facto staff writer for all three papers for almost eight months before I arrived?

Surely, George was relieved when JRC said he could hire me, but even with me on board the operation was too skeletal for us to effectively serve the communities we were supposed to serve.

We put out quality journalism at times, but more often than not the paper was full of feel-good fluff. There is a place for that in a community newspaper. Some might call it integral to a community newspaper. But it’s no substitute for the kind of journalism that is essential to a healthy democracy at any level, the kind of journalism that keeps citizens engaged and governments honest: namely, investigative journalism.

Because I was expected to write at least four articles each week in addition to taking most of the paper’s news photos and compiling the crime reports for Conshohocken, Whitemarsh and Plymouth, there was rarely enough time to monitor the expenditure of tax dollars, dissect local policies and ordinances or facilitate a public conversation about how to improve the community.

I refer to the paper singularly because there was no substantive difference between the three: same content, different names, yet the journals were free and the Recorder was paid circulation.

That was typical of the JRC model. In the ‘90s, the company was notorious for buying up suburban newspapers (at 10 times their value in some cases), slashing staff and bundling operations to attract advertisers who wanted to reach a broader audience without sacrificing too much capital. Advertisers and JRC executives were aggrandized while communities suffered the consequences. This was well-documented in a May 1999 American Journalism Review article, “The Selling of Small-Town America,” by former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mary Walton.

As Alan D. Mutter, a former San Francisco Chronicle editor, explained in his Reflections of a Newsosaur blog, on April 13, 2008, former JRC CEO Robert Jelenic was largely responsible for the combine-and-conquer strategy.

“Mr. Jelenic sought to boost his company’s stock by aggressively reducing expenses to increase earnings as much as possible, thus earning the reputation as the most zealous cost cutter in the newspaper industry,” Mutter wrote three days before JRC was delisted from the New York Stock Exchange.

The technology at the Recorder made this evident. My computer ran on Windows 98 and didn’t have a USB drive. George’s computer ran on Windows Millennium Edition. It had a USB drive, but it was painfully slow — just like the Internet connection — and it was prone to crash when I tried to upload pictures and edit them in Adobe Photoshop.

Jelenic retired in November 2007 after 20 years at the helm, saddling the company with $628.4 million in debt while taking away $6.3 million in salary, compensation and severance for that year. (I started my career with a generous $20,800 salary. I never asked George what he made, but I’m sure it was far less than he deserved.)

Jelenic died of cancer in December 2008 at the age of 58. JRC itself may not last much longer. Its top executives are selling off papers to avoid bankruptcy. Those that aren’t sold will fold. That was the fate of the Recorder and its clones.

It angers me that JRC was able to kill a community institution with impunity, but maybe it won’t be so bad. Maybe someone will resurrect it in a new form online and invite community members to participate in the creation of news.

It seems more likely that there will be a gaping void in Montgomery County. The Times Herald, another JRC publication, covers the Recorder’s terrain on a daily basis, but its news operation is also anemic and overstretched.

Even sleepy suburban communities deserve better than that.

Note: Journal Register Co. sources have not responded to repeated requests for comment.

 

 

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