Catching up with the locals

The biggest underreported story in Queens media news of the last few weeks is sale of the Times Newsweekly/Ridgewood Times to Schneps Communications. With offices in Bayside, Victoria Schneps-Yunis and Joshua Schneps are the co-publishers of the Queens Courier, the Courier-Sun, newspapers in Brooklyn, magazines and more.

The sale of the Times Newsweekly to the Schneps media group is only the latest in a series of changes in the Queens media market, which, like elsewhere, has seen the consolidation of independently produced local newspapers into regional chains and “media groups.”

Last July, the Community Newspaper Group (CNG) was purchased from the News Corporation by Les Goodstein, a News Corp. executive who in 2006 helped engineer the purchase of the Brooklyn-based Courier-Life and Queens-based TimesLedger newspaper groups.

The New York Times, which reported on the 2006 sale, noted at the time that the acquisition included 28 publications, including 16 weekly newspapers from Queens, and cost $16 million. Reporting of the News Corp.'s sale of CNG last summer listed the number of publications involved at 11.

Goodstein’s purchase of CNG from its News Corp. parent compliments Jennifer Goodstein's purchase of NYC Community Media in 2012 which included The Villager and Gay City News, among others.

For the Times Newsweekly/Ridgewood Times, the sale marked the end of an era. After 107 years as an independent, small town newspaper serving western Queens and northeast Brooklyn, the Newsweekly is now part of a larger regional network largely fueled by advertising dollars.

These dollars still exist for community and local weeklies or the Goodstein and Schneps families would not be eager to expand during a time of such intense disruption and change within the industry.

What’s going to happen to the Times Newsweekly/Ridgewood Times? Will it maintain its small town charm? Maureen Walthers, who has owned the Times Newsweekly/Ridgewood Times since 1986, serving as editor and publisher since then, will stay on during a transition.

Even while all indications suggest the new owners and publishers of the Ridgewood newspaper do not want to change what has made The Times Newsweekly/Ridgewood Times successful, there will be some changes and editorial pressures are inevitable given the new organizational structure.

A cipher for a beloved bygone era, the weekly TV schedule that runs in the Newsweekly remains, but for how long? A glorious relic from a time when print newspapers were among the only sources for that information, the TV listings also eat up column inches and presumably satisfy the wants of an aging demographic.

As Arlene Morgan, former associate Dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, is quoted as saying at the end of the 2006 article, “Neighborhood advertising is a big draw, it’s more important than content, and it’s going to help their bottom line overall.” She's referring to the fact that community papers with local advertising are not losing money for their corporate parents.

More than a month since the sale of The Times Newsweekly there have been changes. The paper has shrunk from 15 inches tall to 12 and from 12 inches wide to 10, conforming with The Courier, Courier-Sun and other newspapers in the Schneps group. And while there is nothing wrong with the new format, I was a fan of the old larger one, which felt—amidst the squat compact tabloids that dominate the newsstands—like a small version of an old-style broadsheet newspaper. But the trend is otherwise in American newspapers, and for obvious reasons. So I'll let it go.

But if I have a complaint with the newspapers published by Schneps Communications, it is that they are advertising-driven, as opposed to advertising-supported. I get it: they're running a business—apparently a lucrative one—but does that mean the content is an after thought, that it's arbitrary? Of course not.

Looking at the new Times Newsweekly print product, it’s clear that the regional advertising muscle of the Schneps team has infused the older paper with more color and beefier-seeming advertising blocks, even while the Ridgewood focus remains and many of the features of the paper continue. The design is updated and more contemporary, even if I prefer the outdated mostly black and white look. I hope there is still room for the many articles I became accustomed to seeing since I became a subscriber only a couple of weeks before the sale.

If it is true, as Arlene Morgan suggested, that local advertising is "more important than content" in a community newspaper, then what is the role of content? I cannot imagine any of the local writers, editors or publishers in Queens would say this is true, even if most of them would agree it is true—if the goal is to make a profit.

However, I noticed that the March 17 issue of the Courier-Sun (and likely the Courier, though I did not see it myself) contained a pull-out Home section consisting of multiple pages of advertising and some content in the form of home-repair oriented articles, most of which are of genuine general interest. Nothing wrong with this, nor with the fact that the articles and the pictures are published "courtesy of BPT," or Brandpoint, a content marketing firm. The filler acquired from BPT was used to provide "content" to accompany the marketing effort, in this case the advertising.

It is easy to grumble about advertising-driven journalism, especially when a product of corporate monoculture. But locally, the neighborhood-level relevance of local content promotes the effectiveness of advertising, and why I think it is a mistake to run canned, non-local content in a newspaper that is trying to sell ads, the value of which to advertisers is that they will reach the target consumers.

It is my belief, and a presumption underwriting both my analysis and the Queens Free Press Project, that it is the local interest that distinguishes the community newspaper from the bundled grocery circulars that get thrown at our house every week. I see the ads because I actually read the papers—heck, I go pick them up or pay to have them delivered—but the "free" ads-only circulars go straight from my stoop into the recycling.

The publishers of those circulars would do well to restructure their publications to deliver local news and information and evergreen content of local interest. For example, imagine: a collection of "school reports" written by area school children, publication of which would serve as a kind of community recognition award; a photo gallery of homeless animals; or a series of oral histories of seniors taken and transcribed by high school students. Throw that at a house and you can assume it will be taken inside.

From a business perspective, it makes sense to centralize some functions of operating a newspaper, consolidate to avoid redundancy. However, it remains to be seen what will happen at the editorial level of the Times Newsweekly.

In a move that made great sense, especially after the previous Courier editor, Tom Topousis, left to write speeches for Governor Cuomo, Times Newsweekly editor-in-chief Robert Pozarycki was named editor-in-chief of The Courier and Courier Sun, thus promoting from within a respected journalist with a proven track record at one of the last best local independent newspapers. He remains editor-in-chief at The Times Newsweekly, though the Maspeth resident commutes to work in Bayside instead of Ridgewood.

Like Pozarycki, the names of those writers with regular bylines in the Times Newsweekly/Ridgewood Times now appear in the other papers of the Schneps group as Courier reporters now also appear in the Newsweekly. This is great for them, of course, and such an expanded network of reporters can cover more with greater depth and breadth and with less duplication. Having four or five reporters at the same press conference is great, but the danger is that we will get the same story four or five times. That there are differences in the telling of any story becomes a source of great relief, but I worry about all the other stories that are not told.

Like Astoria, Long Island City, and really much of Queens, the  Ridgewood/Bushwick area is growing and changing in ways that require the vigilance of local writers: new arrivals bring their concerns and then there are the concerns of those displaced by them; a flurry of capital, investment, building and businesses, all need oversight by local reporters who serve the public in this regard; neighborhood meetings, a hallmark of the local weeklies, become contentious contact zones between various stakeholders, city agencies, private interests and more.

All of these needs for local coverage require that we have stable news organizations delivering to the people what they need to know. Oddly, I think this becomes more possible under some forms of consolidation, but only if there are not layoffs of reporters as these same corporate groups seek to squeeze more profit out of the local.

Hopefully this change in ownership will continue to lead to opportunities, such as for those writers found in the pages of the newspapers involved, and not a diminishing of the capacity to carry the local interests so vital in community newspapers.

In any event, this is my first thought on this, which took far longer to write than it did to think. I'll return to this, especially as I get feedback, responses, and corrections to my points. Future installments in this series will address the websites of local news organizations after such a consolidation, some innovations such as podcasting, and other insights into Queens media.

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