Obviously the prevailing mood at the StarLedger these days is a bit grim, as many of the reporters and other workers who took the buyout earlier this year are leaving.

And Paul Mulshine is venting about it and against what is supposedly the new-new thing in reporting…bloggers.

Especially bloggers who refer to themselves as pundits.

Mulshine’s basic point is that there is such as thing as journalism that professionals do and at worst, they are people who will do things like sit through agonizingly dull political meetings and report on our behalf.

And on that he’s not wrong.

I am not a journalist and I never wanted to be. I don’t go to the meetings, but I will occasionally watch them on TV35 where I can surf away when it become too insufferable (which it almost always does). So there is merit in what he says.

Bloggers only do the local coverage when we feel nobody else does or it is done poorly. Look at the Hillsider or the Alternative Press. Think they got into that to make millions? They got into it because they thought local coverage was getting the shaft. And they didn’t start up since the StarLedger buyouts, they have been around a while.

Look at this mediocre blog. I rely on Leslie Murray more than most people (and we subscribe to the Cranford Chronicle, even).

I’m not going to start attending the meetings if she gets let go.

And I guess I should be thankful that I avoided the trap of calling myself the Cranford Pundint. (Read the article, you’ll understand.)

But Mulshine’s anger may be a bit displaced here. He’s blaming only bloggers for something that is not entirely our fault. Actually, very little our fault.

I agree that a free product is very often not as good as a paid product. But there are exceptions. (Such as the free magazine called NY Enterprise Report which is published by an acquaintance of mine.) But a lot of paid products are not meeting the needs of their customers. The StarLedger is one of them. That sort of melting differentiation between free and paid is screwing us up.

What do we need the StarLedger for when we read almost all the national stories on Yahoo News the previous day (from the Associated Press, of course), look at AutoTrader for cars, Monster.com for jobs, Craigslist.org for used furniture (as well as “casual encounters”), sports coverage of college and pro teams from ESPN, and weather forecasts from AccuWeather.com? All for free?

What’s left?

Editorials which are not very different from the other NJ dailies (actually, Mulshine is an exception to that), some local coverage, high school sports,  the comics and a Macy’s coupon?

A lot of newspapers are taking steps to make themselves even less relevant. Like the food section that canned it’s editor and now cuts and pastes recipes from cooking.com (my sister’s paper does that), or the editorial page that cuts and pastes items from the DailyKos (my brother’s area newspaper is guilty of that). If they are supplying even more content that we can get for free who will their customers be besides the elderly and computerphobic?

To top it off, the papers often have the gall to offend the heck out of us when reading what should be a basic, factual article by inserting needless opinions.  (I had an experience recently where I was reading what should have been an innocuous article about the Yankees by Dan Graziano. About a third of the way in it had a gratuitous political insult aimed at half the population. It didn’t belong and I was not the only person turned off by it judging from the list of angry comments.)

And in a way, the cheap TV camera has undermined the credibility of newspapers, where YouTube videos can highlight politicians inconsistencies, or video of a debate or meeting can lead the viewer to a vastly different conclusion than a reporter wants us to draw. That makes us more skeptical, or worse, loses us as we don’t believe what we read anymore.

There is no doubt that there are, or were, some top-quality journalists at the StarLedger. But for many of us Union County residents, we often didn’t see their work in our edition.

Newspapers, with their high fixed costs, bad union contracts and outdated business model may not survive in general. The question is can they move to a new model that can meet customer needs and let them be profitable? So far they are not.

Since almost all of them are going the “fire everybody and use cut and paste content” route and almost none are going the “go hyperlocal and become more involved in the daily lives of our readers” route, we probably won’t learn enough on whether the “go local” route would even work.

Clearly the StarLedger is going the “fire everybody” route.

But quality local journalism actually was doomed years ago with the first rounds of cuts in local reporting. That already paved the way to irrelevance.  By taking that step, the papers would never be able to look at hyperlocal reporting as an alternative strategy…many of the reporters with the local knowledge were already gone.

The bloggers are not the revolution. If we are it is because the newspapers are letting us win by forfeit.

Yes, Mr. Mulshine is right that the quality of local coverage would be higher when dissected by a professional journalist.  But too many professional journalists were focused on issues along with throngs of other professional journalists, so many issues relevant to us went uncovered, and bloggers started creeping into the void with mediocre (and sometimes completely clueless and wrong) coverage.

I understand Mr. Mulshine’s frustration. It stinks when you’re livelihood is in jeopardy because of the stupid decisions of others. A lot of GM employees feel the exact same way.

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