In an effort to save money, Dakota Media Group is getting rid of one of its greatest sources of value, Bob Mercer’s statehouse reporting. According to a report in its own Aberdeen paper this morning, Dakota Media Group laid off four staff at the Watertown Public Opinion and seven at the Aberdeen American News. The news staffer let go from the Aberdeen paper was Mercer, who works in Pierre covering state government.
AAN editor J.J. Perry says Mercer may not disappear from our paper pages, if other papers can save him:
He is based in Pierre, and his work is sold by our company to other news outlets in South Dakota. Those subscriptions helped offset some of the cost, but not enough.
Rather than an immediate layoff, the Capitol Bureau in Pierre will remain open through the end of September. That will give our member papers enough time to decide how to proceed with their coverage, including of our new governor and the legislative session that opens in January.
My deep hope is that one of the other subscriber newspapers can pick up the Capitol Bureau position, and we can subscribe or otherwise subsidize some version of what the American News has been able to provide for nearly 10 years [J.J. Perry, “Newspaper Layoffs Reflect Harsh Reality,” Aberdeen American News, 2018.07.12].
So the most veteran reporter on the Aberdeen paper’s payroll, the source of some of the most civically important news in our local paper and one of only two reporters stationed in Pierre to report full-time on the affairs of South Dakota government to hundreds of thousands of citizens, is too expensive for our belt-tightening paper to keep.
But we’ll still get full-page color pictures of the new football field at Northern and lengthy accounts of sporting events.
As professor and journalist emeritus David Newquist writes, when newspapers prioritize bean-counting over journalistic concerns, “the primary reason that the press receives First Amendment rights is dismissed.”
Far from tangentially, Perry mentions possible sources of the economic stresses that led to this terrible decision:
I have been writing about the impending newsprint tariffs that have already affected us. And, as the soft ag economy goes, so does local business.
These are our first layoffs since 2010 [Perry, 2018.07.12].
Dakota Media Group loses more than it gains by dropping Mercer’s reporting from its pages. To understand why, read his stuff, and review my extensive three-part podcast with Mercer from April 2017, when Mercer came to Aberdeen to receive the South Dakota Newspaper Association’s Distinguished Service Award.