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Our State Newspapers Are on the Brink

By Richard Vezza

New Jersey newspapers face a crisis that threatens the existence of some and substantial job losses at others. This crisis isn’t caused by the Internet, but from a state statute that effectively overturns the 189-year-old practice of using independent contractors to deliver papers, a practice used by almost all newspapers in the country including New Jersey.

The first newspaper independent contractor was used in 1833 in New York. Most independent delivery people in New Jersey work 2-4 hours per day in the mornings and then have the flexibility to seek other work or take time for themselves and/or their families and loved ones. They set their own hours, are not supervised, and they may (and often do) hire others to perform their work. Their only obligation is to deliver the work product for which the company has contracted. 

Newspapers must find the most efficient and economical way to deliver their print publications if they are to survive and preserve jobs. To that end, most of the State’s daily and some weekly newspapers use two companies to deliver their papers, one for home delivery and one for store delivery. These companies use independent delivery people. If these companies weren’t able to use independent contractors, their costs would increase dramatically. The increased cost would be passed on to the newspapers. We’ve estimated the increased cost to be between 86% to 128%, a crushing financial blow.  

Newspapers will deal with this increase in a number of ways—increasing the subscription cost to readers and through layoffs, a lot of layoffs. There isn’t much in a newspaper’s bottom line these days to take it out of. Some won’t be able to handle an increase no matter how many people they lay off and will have to decide if they can afford to stay in business. NJPA believes we will see the closure of several dailies and some weeklies. 

New York and California faced the same situation with their newspapers and their laws pertaining to independent contractors.  Both recognized the importance of newspapers in keeping their residents informed, and both passed laws allowing newspaper delivery people to continue as independent contractors, California for five years while it figures out a solution and New York making them independent contractors permanently.  

Governor Murphy, Senate President Scutari and Assembly Speaker Coughlin need to do the same. They need to pass and sign into law a bill allowing newspaper delivery people to remain independent contractors. Only Governor Murphy can get the ball rolling. He needs to signal that he would sign a such a Bill.  

It is critical that these government leaders act to preserve the flow of information to the public, save jobs and, most importantly, maintain government transparency. What good are all the state laws enacted over the past 20 years making government more transparent if the flow of government information to residents is restricted or eliminated? 

 Newspapers need the support of the unions also. Good newspaper union jobs are at stake, and we hope they’ll work to save those jobs. 

Opponents of such a Bill will answer that people get their news from the Internet. Strictly speaking that’s not entirely true when it comes to local and state news in our state. Newspaper web sites are the only ones to offer robust coverage of local and state news because they have enough reporters to cover local and state news. Get on the Internet and check it out for yourself. If newspapers are forced to lay off people, these sites will be impacted as well. There are other local news sites, but they carry few stories, lacking the people to really cover the news.  

Newspapers empower citizens and help them make informed decisions. They are the only business written into the U.S. Constitution. There’s a reason for that. It has to do with the relationship between those who govern and those who are governed. 

Richard Vezza is the Government Affairs Chairman for the New Jersey Press Association. He retired in 2020 as the Editor and Publisher of The Star Ledger.  

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