Let's be honest -- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been able to skate his way through much of his semi-charmed life (now there's an image for you). He got a huge and arguably unwarranted promotion in 2001 to become U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, a "target-rich environment" of corrupt pols -- perfect for a prosecutor looking to make a name for himself and then get elevated to governor, maybe even president.
But I don't need to tell you that the first three months of 2014 have not been kind to Chris Christie, or his super-sized ambition. Beginning in early January with news linking a former top aide to the George Washington Bridge traffic/political retribution scheme, Christie has seen a media feeding frenzy of reporters zeroing in on new, recent scandals -- especially misusing Superstorm Sandy relief money and treating Port Authority tolls as a political piggybank -- and dredging up a lot of old stories from the past, some of which even suggest he may be a "male chauvinist pig"!
But today Christie got maybe the best news of his life...and it has nothing to do with the new breakfast menu at Taco Bell.
The Newhouses brought the ax down yet again on the Star-Ledger today, slashing 167 jobs, including 40 in the paper's newsroom.
That's just the latest blow to a paper which had 350 journalists in 2008 and which now has an anemic 116. It's a catastrophe for news coverage in a notoriously corrupt state, though at least some of Advance Publications's Jersey reporting has been centralized at NJ.com. Some of these papers are getting to the point where there's nothing left to save.
You can see the Star-Ledger's structural problems easily, as well as the mismanagement that has exacerbated them. The paper had 750 employees, but just 20 percent of them were journalists. It had journalists overlapping beats at the paper and NJ.com. and was headed for a $19 million loss in 2014 (perhaps more than its entire newsroom cost).
Unlike many other newspapers owned by the Newhouse family -- most famously the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the Birmingham News (where I worked, in a past life) -- there is no plan to reduce publication of the company's newspapers in New Jersey from seven days a week to three...for now. But that's certainly the direction that things are going -- and there is, and will be, a direct correlation between the number of local journalists working in New Jersey and the number of corrupt misdeeds that are exposed in the political swamp known far and wide as "the Soprano State."
It's true that New Jersey -- thanks to its sprawl and its odd geography between NYC and Philly -- is blessed to be covered by multiple news orgs and by some great reporters who helped break the Christie saga wide open, including Shawn Boburg and John Cichowski of the Bergen Record and (Philly-area native!) Ted Mann of the Wall Street Journal and former homeboy Matt Katz.. But if you've turned on the cable news and heard a damning story about Chris Christie lately, there's also a good chance that the Star-Ledger and NJ.com had something to do with making that story public.
The same Star-Ledger that just got whacked with a baseball bat today.
To give you some idea...it was journalists from the Star-Ledger/NJ.com who informed the public how much of their tax dollars was going for Christie's self-promotional town halls, who revealed when Christie (as U.S. attorney) steered a lucrative $52 million gig to the law form of his former boss John Ashcroft, who broke the stories that Christie had made a personal loan of $46,000 to his top aide Michele Brown and that he hadn't been ticketed for striking a motorcyclist (after telling the cop who he was), who wrote about the governor's petty retribution against a GOP lawmaker who dared to criticize him, and first reported that Sandy relief money built a senior citizens complex in a city where the Democratic mayor endorsed Christie (but which didn't suffer much storm damage).
And that's just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Make no mistake -- the Star-Ledger will continue to cover Chris Christie, and its reporters will continue to break important stories. But with fewer of them on the beat, Christie -- and all the other corrupt politicians of the Garden State -- will be able to keep more of their secrets from the public than ever before. That's not rocket science -- it's basic math.
Local civic journalism is on life support -- even as big money is starting to flow to glitzy national sites like Vox, FiveThirtyEight, and First Look Media. The point of this post isn't to weep about that, or to go off on 1,000-word speculation riff on what could save it. Because at the end of that riff, I would still say what I'm about to say now: What can save local journalism?...probably nothing. But I do think if there's any hope, it begins by remaining clear-eyed and by informing people about what we're starting to lose as it goes.
That's why this may be one of the best days of Chris Christie's life, as he schemes about how to put all the negative headlines behind him and re-package his White House dreams. The governor and his crew up in Trenton were probably dancing a jig when they heard about the layoffs at the Star-Ledger. That's because scandals that could have wrecked his political career are now going to become what Donald Rumsfeld would call "unknown unknowns."