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There yesterday, gone today: 117-year-old New Jersey daily folds without notice to readers; competitor buys subscriber list; adds name to zoned edition masthead.

There yesterday, gone today

117-year-old New Jersey daily folds without notice to readers; competitor buys subscriber list; adds name to zoned edition masthead

The Hudson Dispatch, a scrappy, six-day broadsheet known for aggressive local reporting, fell silent April 6 without a word to readers.

Based in Union City, N.J., the Dispatch let its obituary appear in its chief competitor, the Jersey City-based Jersey Journal, which had bought the Dispatch name and subscriber list.

The owners of the 117-year-old Dispatch cited decreasing revenues and increasing costs. Dispatch circulation declined from nearly 72,000 in the 1960s to about 31,000.

The Journal, based in Jersey City and owned by the Newhouse family, paid an undisclosed amount -- published reports ranged from $8 million to $12 million -- to North Jersey Newspapers Co., a partnership of Garden State Newspapers and Goodson Newspapers and controlled by William Dean Singleton.

The Journal said that the U.S. Justice Department had raised no objection to the deal.

On Friday afternoon April 5, Dispatch publisher Richard Vezza praised employees for performing with courage and integrity and informed them they had published their last paper. The newspaper's final edition gave readers no indication that it would be the last published.

By the end of the day, file cabinets and desks were empty and garbage bags lined the sidewalk outside the newspaper's closed offices.

A report which rumored that the shutdown was near had appeared earlier in the week in The Record, which circulates in adjoining Bergen County. However, another article in the Record the day after the shutdown said people were calling up to place announcements the same day the paper was closing down.

Some store owners who carried the Dispatch were unaware why they had not received their Saturday copies to sell.

"We have had marginal profits or losses for a number of years and, quite frankly, there were no signs of a turnaround in the forseable future," Vezza said in a statement.

Nearly 90 employees were laid off and paid a minimum of 60 days' severance pay. Another 17 were transferred to other papers and 15 press operators were kept on to print the parent company's non-daily papers.

Acquired in 1986, the Dispatch was the third paper to cease publishing out of six Singleton acquired in the mid-1980s. The News in Paterson and the Herald-News in Passaic merged in 1987, and The Advance in Dover ceased publishing.

The deal left the Newhouse-owned Journal, whose circulation has slipped from 67,000 a decade ago to 53,000, the only daily published in Hudson County, a densely populated urban area across the Hudson River from New York. It is known for hardball machine politics.

"There's always potential for abuse and unholy alliances between journalists and local government in one-newspaper towns," said Richard Seltzer, an assistant city attorney in Hoboken. "The Dispatch presented many stories not covered by the Journal and definitely had a different perspective on local issues. We no longer have these contrasting views."

However, Journal editor Steven Newhouse said the paper takes its new responsibility seriously.

"We are keeping in mind our responsibility of doing an honest job without our main local competitor," he said. "Unless we do a good job, we won't get the readers we have an opportunity to reach."

NJNC said it would use proceeds from the sale of the Dispatch's assets at its remaining North Jersey dailies, including the Daily Journal in Elizabeth and 13 weeklies and semi-weeklies with combined circulation of 820,000. The Dispatch's press was to be moved to another site to print the weeklies and its property was to be sold.

NJNC retained Ahora, a weekly Spanish-language tabloid inserted in the Dispatch, as a stand-alone weekly to be sold on newsstands and racks for 25 [cents].

NJNC president and chief executive officer N.S. Hayden, who recently joined the Singleton organization, declined to comment on why the paper had been closed without notice.

Hayden also denied rumors that the 31,000-circulation Daily Journal -- neighbor of another Newhouse property, its flagship the Star-Ledger in Newark -- would be next to close. He called NJNC "healthy."

Singleton did not return phone messages left at his office at the Houston Post.

Employees expressed bitterness over the closing.

One staffer who asked not to be named said he believed the paper was marginally profitable but was being sold to pay off debts at other newspapers owned by Singleton's companies.

"Everybody acts like this was inevitable and it wasn't," said New York Newsday columnist and former Dispatch reporter Jim Dwyer, who had been told a potential buyer had inquired about the Dispatch but could not get a reply.

"It appears that this is another victim of greed of the 1980s -- of over-leveraged expansion of a chain --and I think this paper died to stave off the growing debt problems that this ownership has at other properties," Dwyer said. "The fact is the Dispatch died because it was a viable newspaper -- not because it was a doomed one. It died because it was worth something to someone else dead."

NJNC's Hayden dismissed such talk as "speculation."

Other workers complained of the indignity of being sold to their archrival and of reading about their demise several days earlier in another newspaper.

"I guess we'll have to settle for the Jersey Journal," said Vera Busnelli, the Dispatch's librarian for 30 years. "What other local paper can I buy? I'll have to settle."

The Dispatch became a training school for New York City newspapers, all of which employ Dispatch alumni, as does E&P. Its alumni remain proud of the crusading tradition of a high workload and low pay in an area teeming with politics, corruption, murder and other mayhem.

"I am still extracting shrapnel from my body but it was a great learning experience and it's a shame young editors and reporters are not going to get the chance to practice their craft," said former Dispatch managing editor David Smith, who is now New York Times assistant metro editor.

"I feel like having worked at the Dispatch in the era I did is probably the best credential I have," Dwyer said.

"As wrenching as it is to close any newspaper and as distasteful as it is to have people lose their jobs, this move was important for the long-term strength and stability of North Jersey Newspapers Co.," said Hayden in a statement. "We view this decision as a positive move for the more than 1,000 other employees of the company. The elimination of the Dispatch and the proceeds from the sale will allow us to concentrate our efforts on the significant opportunities in our primary area."

The Journal used the Dispatch name and logo to create a new edition with both papers' nameplate atop Page One. Zoned for news and advertising, it will circulate in the former Dispatch stronghold in northern Hudson County.

The Journal began by printing an extra 25,000 copies and delivering the Dispatch-Journal to former Dispatch subscribers. It also offered discounts for new subscribers.

The addition gives the Journal three zoned editions that piggyback on deceased competitors. The others are the former Bayonne Times and Jersey Observer.

The Journal hired four of the Dispatch's sports staff -- including sports editor Ron Zeitlinger, and columnists Ed Ford, Mike Spina and Steve Harris -- and three local news staffers, including former city editor Mike Finnegan.

The Journal temporarily hired five circulation district managers and nearly all of the Dispatch's 100 carriers.

PHOTO : After buying the Hudson Dispatch's subscriber list, the competing Jersey Journal, the next day, began distributing a zoned edition which carries both the Dispatch and Journal mastheads.
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Title Annotation:Hudson Dispatch; Jersey Journal
Author:Garneau, George
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Date:Apr 13, 1991
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