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Mountain Home Magazine

The Last Reporter

Feb 28, 2020 01:09PM
by David O'Reilly


After he makes the coffee and feeds his hunting dogs Malibu, R.J., and Ivy, newspaper reporter Jeff Murray starts his workday around 7 a.m. Pen in hand, he flips on the TV, toggling between Elmira’s two local stations for word of overnight fires, crimes, or car crashes. Then he pops open his laptop and skims through his emails for anything he might need to “jump on” straight from home.

If nothing’s going on, he kisses his wife, Carol, goodbye and drives ten minutes to his newsroom, housed since 2015 in a one-story building on E. Church Street across from Elmira City Hall. Emblazoned across the office’s plate glass windows are the words STAR-GAZETTE. Since 1907, that’s been the name for news in this historic city.

In bygone days its sprawling newsroom in the old Baldwin Street headquarters never slept. But when Jeff, sixty-one, unlocks the rear door and steps inside around 8:15, it is he who flips the lights on each day to bring the paper to life.

He’s the only news reporter left at Elmira’s only daily newspaper.

“I’m the everything guy,” he says with a rueful smile as he sweeps a hand around the modern blue-and-gray newsroom. Twenty-eight empty desks gaze back. Once humming with reporters, editors, photographers, and advertising salespeople, the room is empty—save for the short, gray-haired “everything guy” in the rumpled red sweater.

This month marks Jeff’s twenty-fifth anniversary with the Star-Gazette, the very first newspaper in the giant Gannett chain. And nowadays it’s up to him to cover this city of 30,000 people while keeping an eye on the rest of Chemung County—and pleasing bosses he rarely sees.

“Yeah,” he admits. “It’s kinda lonely.”

His editors are in Binghamton and communicate with him via interoffice texts. The pages are laid out at Gannett facilities in New Jersey or Arizona, and the paper is printed in Rochester. “But I’m a gregarious, friendly guy,” he says. “I’m used to working in a newsroom with a couple of dozen people, with lots of noise and activity going on.” Gone are the pizzas on election nights, the holiday parties, the friendships. “I do miss that,” he admits.

Today the Star-Gazette has a daily print circulation of little more than 6,000, down from 17,000 a decade ago and 32,000 in 1997. Sunday circulation has tumbled, meanwhile, from 45,000 to 9,500. With so many people getting news, opinion, and entertainment for free online, plummeting readership has squeezed nearly every daily and weekly newspaper in the nation—sometimes fatally.

More than 2,000 newspapers have shuttered their doors since 2004 as the car dealerships, department stores, supermarkets, and jewelry shops whose advertising sustained them for more than a century began following readers to the Internet. There they can reach targeted audiences, mostly through Google search or Facebook: the “duopoly” that dominates online advertising. For nearly a century newspapers in the “golden age” of print journalism—Star-Gazette included—enjoyed a local monopoly, charged handsomely to advertise in their pages, and made millionaires of their owners.

Alas, those bygone profit margins of 20 and 30 percent are what paid for the army of reporters who profiled the new football coach at your kids’ high school, reviewed the community theater’s production of Guys and Dolls, described last night’s thrilling stickup at the gas station, sat through a crushingly dull late-night council meeting to explain the latest tax hike, and grilled your county executive on why the new water treatment plant was a million dollars over budget. All in one day.

“When I started in March, 1995, the total staff [at the Star-Gazette] was about 250,” Jeff recalls. “The office was on Baldwin Street and was huge. It took up a block and half. The press room was two stories, and we had the news, advertising, circulation, and human resources all in one building.

“In the news department we had at least ten reporters doing news in Elmira. Our bureau in Corning had two or three reporters, and we had another one in Wellsboro. We had part-time stringers all over the Twin Tiers, probably four or five editors, three full-time photographers and one part-time, and two graphic artists. (It’s a measure of the Star-Gazette’s influence that in 1968 it coined the now familiar term “Twin Tiers” to describe the border region of north-central Pennsylvania and south-central New York where it circulated.) We also had two opinion page editors, probably a half-dozen layout people, copy editors, five or six on the sports staff, and at least four in features. It was a full-service newsroom,” he says, and also the paper of record, regularly filling out weekday editions of thirty-two pages and Sunday editions of eighty pages or more.

But Jeff also remembers “very well” the day the paper began cutting news staff.

“It was 2005. Our editor came out and announced that the most recently hired reporter had to be let go. She was practically in tears, and we were all in shock. We said ‘No, no! We’ll give up this, we’ll give up that!’ We had no idea this was just the beginning.

“Then, a year later, a couple of more people were let go and we were all looking over our shoulders, wondering ‘Who’s next? Will it be me? What will I do?’”

Several cubicles around him still bear evidence of his coworkers’ abrupt departures. A calendar above one desk shows each day of 2017 crossed out with a red X—until February 11. The rest of the year is blank. At another sits an abandoned Canon Rebel SLR camera.

“I’d like to think I’m irreplaceable,” Jeff jokes about his last-man-standing status, but there’s a whiff of anxiety behind the smile. Star-Gazette employees were never unionized, he says, and seniority guarantees no job protection. “Somehow I just kept dodging the bullet. I don’t know why.”

His colleagues have a good idea. “Jeff always took on lots of assignments and never complained,” explains George Osgood, who retired in 2008 after thirty-two years as the paper’s Tioga County reporter based in Wellsboro. “He’s workmanlike, objective, he covers the bases. He has the respect of everyone he works with.”

The Star-Gazette’s doors stay locked these days. The rare visitor must stand in bushes and rap on the front windows to be let in. “We used to have a receptionist,” Jeff says. Still, he is not entirely alone here. At 11 a.m. most mornings, Gannett’s regional print planner, Keith Kraska, enters through the rear door, says “good morning” as he passes by, and sits at his desk in silence. At 3:30 p.m. the paper’s longtime sportswriter, Andre Legare, arrives, says hi, and hunkers down at his desk. Their relations are not hostile, says Jeff. “We just have different jobs.”

Since its first appearance in March of 1995, the name Jeff Murray has appeared in the Star-Gazette 14,855 times by last count, either as a byline or in invitations to readers to contact him. Mere productivity doesn’t define him, however. In 2016 the New York State Associated Press Association awarded him first prize in enterprise reporting for his account of the 2006 death of trooper Andrew Sperr, shot and killed by a bank robber. “An incredibly moving article that kept me glued to the computer screen with tears in my eyes,” wrote one judge. “Excellent writing and coverage.”

The last reporter works for a huge corporation—the Gannett Company publishes 260 daily newspapers in the U.S., including USA Today, and more than 300 weeklies, making it the nation’s largest news publisher by circulation. These are turbulent times, however, for Gannett. In November, Rochester-based GateHouse Media acquired the struggling chain for $1.4 billion and changed its own name to Gannett—an iconic name in the industry ever since a teetotaling young newspaperman, Frank E. Gannett, acquired the Elmira Star in 1907 and merged it with the Elmira Gazette. Two cents and eight pages long, the new Star-Gazette was the first newspaper in the giant chain.

His longtime chief operating officer became Frank Tripp, a young reporter at the Gazette when Gannett bought it. (Tripp once interviewed Mark Twain, the city’s most famous resident.) In 1917 he was made the paper’s head of advertising, bought 25 percent interest in the burgeoning Gannett chain in 1922, and succeeded Gannett as chairman upon his death in 1957. (Tripp promptly reversed Gannett’s chain-wide ban on ads for alcohol.)

Tripp’s grandson, Ted Marks, remembers a red telephone in his grandfather’s Elmira home that rang when lifted at Gannett’s headquarters in Rochester. “A voice on the other end would say ‘Good morning, Mr. Tripp. This is Rochester.’” Now seventy-eight and owner of Atwater Estate Vineyards on Seneca Lake, Ted doesn’t read the Star-Gazette anymore because “there’s no news” of the Finger Lakes. But two decades ago, while president of Corning’s Chamber of Commerce, he found Jeff to be “a wonderful reporter.”

“Honest and trustworthy,” he says. “That’s very important.”

Mike Reed, the GateHouse CEO who now heads Gannett, grew up in Elmira and delivered the Star-Gazette as a boy. What that augurs for it or any other paper in the chain is uncertain, however. Under his leadership GateHouse had “shrunk newsrooms while pursuing shareholder value, in part by consolidating operations in regional hubs and merging newspapers,” The New York Times wrote of the merger. With the CEO now predicting he can effect cost savings of $300 million or more, “job cuts, in newsrooms and other areas, are likely,” the Times predicted.

Gannett did not respond to a request from Mountain Home to interview Mike Reed, but the merger’s aftershocks may already be trembling the lonely newsroom on E. Church Street.

On a recent Tuesday, Jeff has plans to cover a press conference at Elmira College announcing a student fundraiser, and has invited a writer from Mountain Home to join him. This will be an opportunity, they both suppose, to see him working his beat.

But the veteran newsman is in for a surprise. At 9:30 a.m. a tan rectangle appears on his computer screen. It’s a memo from Matt Weinstein in Binghamton, his immediate editor.

Skip the Elmira College announcement and work on enterprise stories, videos, etc., Weinstein writes. Need to focus on subscriber-only content rather than press conferences and news releases.

Jeff is stunned. He’s already scaled back on stories like business briefs and road closings that seemed important to the community but weren’t getting much readership—even an outdoor column he’d loved to do. But press conferences have long been a staple of community news coverage. “This kind of throws off my day,” he says.

He writes back to say he’d planned this day around the news conference.

Not trying to be difficult but we need to go in the direction corporate wants us to go, Weinstein replies, then assures Jeff that his feature on a local shoe store, Panosian’s, celebrating its 100th anniversary that ran this morning is just the kind of story that “corporate” is looking for. Story already hit our goals for premium views, writes Weinstein. That excellent makes people way above very happy.

(“Premium views” are stories only paying subscribers can read on a website. It’s a way papers entice non-paying readers to subscribe.)

Jeff writes thanks, that he understands. His feature story on the Panosian founders—who met a century ago in Elmira after fleeing the Armenian genocide and opened a shoe store—is just the kind of tale readers enjoy. But the city has a lot of news that needs his attention, and he gazes at the messages in silence. “This is a major adjustment,” he says, and compresses his lips for a moment. “That last line about ‘people way above’ tells you this is not just coming from Binghamton,” he says, “but McLean,” Gannett’s corporate headquarters in McLean, Virginia.

Later that morning he pays a return visit to the enormous shoe store, which boasts an inventory of 9,000 shoes, and runs into another quirk of newspapers struggling in the digital age. Owner Dave Panosian is a major advertiser of the newspaper—“their readers are my customers”—but “I didn’t see it yet,” he says of the article, “but some people called to say it’s really good.” Jeff explains that it’s appearing only online for now, as a premium view, but will appear in print later.

“So you have to be a subscriber to see it?” Dave asks.

“Well,” Jeff says with a laugh, “they have to be able to pay my princely salary.”

A young reporter from WENY-TV, a local station, is there with a video camera to do his own story. “I’m a big Jeff Murray advocate,” he says, adding that he looks to Jeff for story ideas. They chat as Dave waits on a customer. Jeff confides in the TV reporter, Brandon Menard, that his editors just waved him off press conferences in favor of unique content.

“They’re really changing day-to-day focus. They just want breaking news and enterprise,” he tells him. “Nothing in between.”

“Wow,” says Brandon, twenty-five. “That’s frustrating. That sucks.”

It’s now about noon. Jeff says he’s heading back to the office. “So long, buddy,” Brandon says. “I hope they let you do more.” He then starts taping his own interview with Dave Panosian, who points out a stuffed moose head on a rear wall wearing a black eyepatch. “We had it at our former store on S. Main Street,” he says, “and in the ’72 flood the water went all the way to the second floor and washed him out into the street.” Family members found him buried in debris and missing an eye. They cleaned him up and gave him the eye patch.

It’s a poignant reminder of the vital role the Star-Gazette has played in the life of the city for more than one hundred years. Reporters and photographers covered the great storm of June 22, 1972, reporting that “more than half of Elmira’s 46,000 residents had been evacuated as the Chemung River poured into the city,” even as the storm damaged or ruined the presses and newsroom. Star-Gazette writers have spent decades chronicling the deadly aftermath of now legendary Hurricane Agnes. The city’s tax base suffered, unemployment rose, and crime and drugs moved in.

The city is enjoying a “resurgence,” as evidenced by the recent decision of Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine to create a campus in the city. “We still get a bad rap,” Mayor Dan Mandell says in an interview at his City Hall office. “There’s still this perception of high crime, that we’re a dangerous city. But that couldn’t be further from the truth” when compared, he says, to some neighboring cities.

But the Star-Gazette’s radically reduced coverage of government can be “frustrating,” says the mayor, now in his second term. “They don’t cover things like the ribbon cutting we did at the Cultural Center. And Jeff’s not available after hours any more to cover our council meetings. But I understand that. He still gives us coverage, and he’s doing yeoman’s work every time I see him.”

Jeff is modest about his work—work that he loves. “I can’t say I’ve changed people lives or the way government does things,” he says. Yes, there are the solid investigative pieces, like his expose some years ago of mismanagement at a publicly owned flight museum that led to big changes. “But I think the stories I like doing best are the human interest stories, where people share something personal and I spin it into a good narrative.” He never wanted to do anything else but be a news reporter, he says.

“Jeff’s the perfect example of a community reporter. He can do anything,” says Kevin Hogan, the paper’s executive editor. Kevin, who also oversees the Ithaca Journal from the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, where he is editor, defends Gannett’s scaling back of news staff as unavoidable. But he notes that its newspapers and their websites contain abundant, well-reported regional news generated by the chain’s statewide network of papers and bureaus.

Back in the newsroom, Jeff is tapping out a story he’s assembled—from a news release and a phone call—about an abandoned homeless camp that authorities discovered on the banks of the Chemung River, with 300 pounds of debris left behind—“It’s all I’ve got for today”—and ships it to Binghamton at 3:08 p.m. “OK, that’s done,” he says before getting on the phone to set up an interview, photo, and video—he’ll do them all himself—at a local animal shelter.

Kevin says boots-on-the-ground reporters like Jeff Murray are crucial to community papers like the Star-Gazette. “He knows the [Elmira] community and they know him. He can jump in and cover a trial, or turn out a great human interest or enterprise story, or write about fishing and hunting, which is right up his alley,” says Kevin.

“It doesn’t get any more valuable than that.”