The day before the Chicago-based tronc announced it was laying off 50% of the Daily News’ editorial staff, Harry Siegel – a columnist there and a host of FAQ NYC – wrote in the paper: “The news business at its best is basically the grocery business. If you put in work and do things right, you can usually grind out a small return.”
One person who has grinded out more than a small return on the grocery business is John Catsimatidis, a billionaire who just three years ago considered buying the paper before real-estate developer and longtime owner Mort Zuckerman ended up selling it to tronc for $1 and a reported $100 million and change in operation and pension liabilities
“Between all the debits and credits, I probably would have had to write a check for $50 million,” for the paper, Catsimatidis said in an interview Monday afternoon about what could have been. “We were going to merge it with another paper and it would have made sense for everybody.”
Would that have averted layoffs? “Absolutely correct,” he said.
What’s certain is that For Catsimatidis – whose net worth is estimated by Bloomberg.com to be just under $3.95 billion – $50 million or so is pocket change. While his portfolio includes lucrative energy and real estate holdings, he began building his fortune in the grocery business — where he worked after dropping out of college.
“That’s how we survived in the supermarket business so long,” he said of the plan to merge the News with another regional paper that he wouldn’t name while speaking on the record. “We kept buying out the competition.”
It’s true. In 1986, Catsimatidis’ Red Apple bought Gristedes Brothers super markets. (Check out this story about it, written by Eric Schmitt, before he started covering national security and terrorism). In the early 1990s, that new group bought a bunch of supermarkets from another company, called Sloans.
But, to hear him tell it now, Catsimatidis isn’t interested in the physical paper anymore. “If they concentrate on digital news, they could survive.” He is also not happy with what they’ve done with, arguably, their most valuable piece of real estate. “I think that those wild front pages that they came up with in the last six months has de-legitimized … the Daily News,” he said. “They were just nuts.”
It’s been a rough 21st century so far for the newspaper business, even before various hedge fund and investment firms start buying papers to effectively use for parts. (FAQ NYC, backed by a grant from Civil, is one of several newsrooms with such grants trying to use the blockchain to build new, sustainable models of journalism that don’t depend on the foolishness of advertisers or the benevolence of plutocrats).
While the appetite for news has stayed up, the economics of it have collapsed, in large part due to social networks profiting from newsrooms content without helping to pay for it and also from hedge funds loading previously healthy publications up with unsustainable loads of debt. That’s all a long way from the grocery business.
Between January 2001 and September 2016, newspaper publishes in America lost “half of their employment,” according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics.
In March 1990, there were 456,700 jobs at newspapers in the U.S. By March 2016, that figure dropped to 183,200.
During that same period, internet publishing and broadcast jumped from 29,200 jobs to 197,800 jobs. But that gain of 168,600 internet jobs doesn’t make up for the 273,500 jobs lost at U.S. newspapers.
In New York City, newspapers lost 32.5% of their jobs between 2001 and 2016, according to figures analyzed by the New York City Independent Budget Office, in response to an FAQ inquiry.
In 2000, there were 10,882 jobs at newspapers here — which includes reporters, editors, human resources, janitors and anybody else at the company. By 2016, that figure was down to 7,362, a drop of 3,520 jobs.
Magazines and periodicals here were hurt harder. In 2000, they had 32,302 jobs. By 2016, that figure dropped to 18,824, a loss of 13,478 jobs, or 41.72 percent.
But there has been some growth. News syndications added nearly 2,000 jobs between 2000 and 2016. And internet publishing and broadcasting — whose stats were collected starting in 2007 – went from 4,679 that year, to 28,508 in 2016. Obviously, not all internet publishing and broadcasting jobs are comparable to traditional newspaper jobs. Just check this recent story from Reply All, featuring an interview with the head of Taboola — one of the companies that puts those clickbait looking stories at the bottom of news articles. The company has an office in Manhattan, and 1,000 employees (not all in New York).
Overall, news publishing in New York City is a shrinking business. If you don’t count internet publishing — there used to be 44,947 jobs in the industry in 2000; by 2016, it dropped to 29,792 jobs, a loss of 15,155 jobs, or 33.72%.
If you ad internet publishing, New York City has seen modest growth, from 47,181 jobs in 2007 to 58,300 jobs in 2016, an addition of 11,119 jobs, or 19.02%.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics doesn’t have an exact figure for the number of journalists in New York City, but they do have a count for “reporters and correspondents” in the “New York-White Plains-Wayne, NY-NJ Metropolitan” area. In 2008, there were 3,050 reporters and correspondents there. By 2014, that number dropped to 2,770.
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