SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Illinois’ capital-city newspaper, a 188-year-old institution tied intimately to Abraham Lincoln, is without a news chief after its editor resigned in hopes of sparing more layoffs, according to a staff writer.
Angie Muhs served notice of her resignation on Friday from The State Journal-Register in Springfield, owned by one of the nation’s largest publishers, GateHouse Media. When the newspaper’s general manager escorted Muhs from the building on Monday, the newsroom emptied as editorial employees accompanied her “as a show of respect and support,” staff writer Dean Olsen said.
Newspaper circulation in the US has declined every year for three decades, while advertising revenue has nosedived since 2006, according to the Pew Research Center. In the face of those economic challenges, many newsrooms have shrunk, through layoffs and attrition. This month’s sale of The Times-Picayune of New Orleans and its planned merger with The Advocate of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is the latest example of industry uncertainty.
According to Olsen, Muhs explained that her departure was in part “to save money on salaries in the hopes that GateHouse would not attempt more reductions in the newsroom.”
Others have interrupted careers for similar reasons. Shortly after GateHouse acquired The Standard-Times of New Bedford, Massachusetts, in December 2014, its editor stepped down to spare additional layoffs. The executive editor of the Gannett-owned El Paso Times bowed out in September 2017 after being ordered to cut newsroom staff.
Muhs, who arrived in Springfield in 2014 from Maine and became president of the Associated Press Media Editors late last year, declined to comment when contacted Tuesday. State Journal-Register general manager Eugene Jackson and GateHouse did not respond to requests for comment for this story. But GateHouse in the past has rejected the notion that its motivations are strictly financial and has pointed to measures it’s taken to keep news flowing at newspapers across the US.
“She was always advocating for good stories, not basing stories on the number of clicks (generated by readers) on the web, but what is good public service in the community and we appreciate all that she tried to do,” said Olsen, a long-time health writer for the paper and chairman of the Springfield unit of the United Media Guild. “It’s sad she felt she had to do this because GateHouse says its focus is local news. We’re waiting for them to show us how they’re going to fulfill that mission.”
In March, the newspaper’s sports editor was laid off. The veteran, award-winning photo editor was cut this month. Olsen said the newspaper had about 35 reporters when the union formed in 2012. Today, the newspaper has 15 editorial staffers, including part-timers and three managers, he said. The City Hall, crime and courts and education beats do not have reporters devoted to them full time, Olsen said.
Staking claim on its masthead to being “the oldest newspaper in Illinois,” the daily in this city of 115,000 about 200 miles (320 kilometers) southwest of Chicago traces its roots to 1831. The Sangamo Journal evolved into the Illinois State Journal, a Whig and later Republican Party mouthpiece that Abraham Lincoln once used to promote his political fortunes. He was in the Journal’s office in May 1860 when a telegram from Chicago arrived announcing his nomination for president.
Copley Press bought the Illinois State Journal in 1927 and the Democratic rival Illinois State Register in 1942 and operated them as morning and afternoon papers until merging them into The State Journal-Register in 1974. The paper was part of GateHouse’s $380 million purchase of Copley’s Midwest holdings in 2007.
The newspaper has a circulation of 18,191 on weekdays and 22,028 on Sundays, according to the March 2019 Alliance for Audited Media quarterly report. That was less than half its September 2010 circulation.
WMAY radio news and program director Jim Leach worked with Muhs repeatedly on joint projects such as political debates. He called her a “top-notch journalist” and “a very strong advocate for local journalism.”
“The people there (at the paper) do a tremendous job every day providing community coverage. But it takes people, it takes manpower, to give a community the insight it needs to understand what’s going on around it,” Leach said. “I’m afraid people won’t recognize that until it’s not as readily available to them.”
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