When I started as editor — one of a two-man news staff — of the Cape May (N.J.) County Herald in December 1982, the newspaper’s half-dozen other employees seemed a little nervous. Finally one of them asked me if this meant they would soon be jobless. My reputation had preceded me. Twelve months earlier, the Philadelphia Bulletin, where I was a reporter, ended publication. After failing to achieve everyone’s goal — usually this meant a job offer from The Philadelphia Inquirer — I went to the editorial page staff of the Buffalo (N.Y.) Courier-Express. Six months later, it closed its doors.
The Herald, a free distribution, tabloid-sized weekly newspaper, then averaged 20 pages. We worked in a two-room hovel just south of the bridge going over the canal into Cape May. If someone wanted to use the bathroom, I had to get up from my desk and let them by. Since then, there have been several physical moves as the staff and newspaper have expanded; the Herald offices are now in a modern office building in Rio Grande, New Jersey, and the company is in the process of buying a building next door that will double the square footage.
The paper is still tabloid size, still free, and still a weekly community newspaper, running as many as 100 pages with 35-40 percent news. Rows of journalism awards, for editorial and advertising, line the walls. The newspaper is available Wednesday morning at several hundred locations. Among the busiest is the Herald building where, we say without hyperbole, people stand in the rain or snow to wait for it. Well, some people.
If I had gotten the call from The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1982, I would have run to it. And undoubtedly been laid off long ago. For as former Inquirer reporter Huntly Collins wrote in Nieman Reports last summer, there have been "successive waves of buyouts" during which "scores of other reporters and editors" have left the Inky. So when Nieman Reports was recruiting stories about "shrinking newspaper/newsrooms," where people are trying to do more with less, I thought of what could have been and was delighted to instead be able to report on what is.
Nothing is shrinking at the Herald, which is doing more with more. Last year the paper hired an additional reporter, a community news editor (and two part-time assistants), a real estate editor (and one assistant). Growth is similar in other departments. We joke about how almost every day maintenance people seem to be assembling another desk.
The Value of Local News
The Herald apparently is doing something right. All local news? Or is it that nothing can compare or compete with a community newspaper? Actually, we have "competition" from a daily newspaper, local TV station, a few radio stations that rip and read, and four or five weeklies. Many communities have their own Web sites, as do all of our media competitors. None of this has slowed the Herald’s growth. Advertising — display and classified — is up and with it our news hole.
Our news coverage is heavy into local government. I, along with five other reporters, report on all facets of county government, as well as keeping an eye on the just-opened local community college, and by going to about 40 meetings each month, we bring news of local interest from 13 of the 16 towns in this county. The paper also carries a healthy mix of features from reporting about successful lung transplants to a story about a three-legged dog euthanized because no one would adopt him. We make no effort to cover local sports, though we do run some columns on various topics, including one written by a 13-year-old who follows NASCAR.
The paper publishes a strong editorial page that includes a "From the Publisher" and a column I write. Op-ed pieces can take up to three pages and include occasional columns by staffers and regular columns by contributors who include a high-school sophomore and a college freshman. We publish about 250 letters each year.
Perhaps our most widely read feature is something we call "Spout Off," a column that publishes anonymous call-in, write-in, e-mail opinions on almost every subject. This column receives hundreds of submissions a week and maybe a third of them survive our selection process. On our Web site, this column is interactive, with little attempt made by us to edit them.
RELATED WEB LINK
Cape May County Herald Owner-publisher Art Hall embraces the Internet as an opportunity, not a threat, and has had developed an all-new Web site with all sorts of interactive opportunities. Several summer publications — this is a tourism county — are being merged into an all-new weekend edition. This paper designed the software for its own classified management system that has enjoyed phenomenal success and is being pitched to other newspapers.
As the new kid on the block, the Internet is getting a lot of attention at the Herald. But it is seen as one element of an integrated approach, in which news and information "best conveyed in print" will be in the newspaper, and what will go on the Web are "the things that are best communicated that way," as the publisher wrote recently.
As a lifelong print guy, I note with satisfaction that this newspaper recently replaced the three trucks that were used to deliver the paper. Each replacement was larger, to accommodate the anticipated increase in circulation.
Joe Zelnik, a 1970 Nieman Fellow, is editor of the Cape May (N.J.) County Herald.