The Hartford Courant Celebrates 250th Anniversary: Witness to History

 

On March 7, 1998, Connecticut was stunned by a horrific workplace slaughter when a disgruntled employee murdered four senior staff before taking his own life at the Connecticut Lottery Headquarters in Newington.

In response, the staff of the Hartford Courant jumped into the thick it—just as they have done for every major breaking news story in the state’s history. The newsroom was a hive of activity, collecting facts, making phone calls and trying to piece together what happened for an anxious and confused public. Many of the reporters knew the victims—particularly Lottery President Otho Brown and former New Britain Mayor Linda A. Blogoslawski Mlynarczyk, who served as the lottery’s chief financial officer—which made covering the story particularly difficult.  

“They were somewhat more than sources,” former Courant columnist Susan Campbell, who was part of that staff, says of the relationships between the reporters and the victims. “But those people who knew the dead were right in there with the rest of us making phone calls, driving to the Lottery, writing on deadline. It was the height of professionalism.”

“That was an example of [the management] very soundly deploying reporters,” says staff writer Josh Kovner, who was one of 13 assigned to cover the story. “I did one of the victim stories. You go to the street and round up as much as you can to try to convey the loss.”

The day after the shooting the Hartford Courant published 13 stories, 13 photographs, two diagrams, two chronologies and three informational boxes.

“That story was covered on a lot of different levels,” recalls Kovner. “[Someone covering] gambling issues in Connecticut was right on it…the police and breaking news element was covered and then there was the depth of feature writing, the victim profiles. There were a lot of angles and a lot of strong photography.”

Click here for a timeline of the Hartford Courant's history.
 

For the effort, the Hartford Courant received a Pulitzer Prize in the breaking news category in 1999—the second in the newspaper’s history. (Staff writers Robert S. Capers and Eric Lipton won a Pulitzer in the explanatory journalism category for their coverage of the flaws in the Hubble Space Telescope in 1992.) Then publisher Marty Petty said at the time that winning for breaking news was an honor because it recognized the coordination and cooperation of the entire staff.

Yet another tragic shooting, this one in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School, again pulled the Courant’s staff together to produce a round of impressive and impactful journalism. They hit the ground running with the story that would shape not just Connecticut’s history, but that of the entire nation as media outlets from around the country touched down to cover the aftermath.

Two reporters, Kovner and Alaine Griffin, remained entrenched in the story for a year, uncovering layers long after the national media had moved on. They focused on the relationship between shooter Adam Lanza and his mother Nancy. They produced a series of articles and teamed up with PBS Frontline for a documentary titled, “Raising Adam Lanza.”

“Sandy Hook was off the charts. It just kept getting worse—minute by minute, hour by hour,” recalls Kovner.

The pair was nominated for a Pulitzer in 2013 for their work surrounding the shooting in the breaking news category; they won several Society of Professional Journalists awards.

“We’re the storytellers of Connecticut,” current Editor Andrew Julien says in his sunlit office adjacent to the newspaper’s sprawling newsroom in the historic office at 285 Broad Street. “What’s kept us going is generation after generation coming into the fold looking for information—and we’ve provided that.”
 

 

This year the Hartford Courant celebrates its 250th anniversary. Since Thomas Green founded the Connecticut Courant (then a weekly publication) on October 29, 1764, the paper has been continuously published. The Hartford Courant is literally “older than the nation”—as the newspaper’s tagline announces; the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, 12 years after the paper went into production. It has been around to document the ups and downs of not just Connecticut (granted statehood in 1788) but the entire country.

Throughout this anniversary year, the paper has been digging through the archives to remind the public of all the stories its staff has had the privilege to cover. Each month the paper is publishing a special section centered on a particular topic. In January, it was weather, followed by arts and popular culture in February, sports in March, notorious crimes and criminals in April, war in May and race and equality in June. The remainder of the year will see topics including our communities, Hartford’s history and innovation and invention.

The Courant has also committed to reliving history through its “This Day in History” blog. There are links to images of the actual print stories so everyone can see what the paper looked like at the time. Stories featured so far this year include: the passage of the Stamp Act on March 22, 1765; the introduction of the first electric vehicle on May 13, 1897; author Mark Twain’s passing on April 21, 1910; the Whalers final game in Hartford on April 13, 1997; and Connecticut’s legalization of civil unions on April 20, 2005.

The Courant has covered every presidency in U.S. history from the election of George Washington in 1789 through the reelection of Barack Obama in 2012.

“I don’t know if people know how remarkable [250 years] is,” says Richard Hanley, associate professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University. “This is an 18th-century company. At that time there was no such thing as a mass market, no such thing as investigative reporting. This started out in an era that was closer to ancient Greece than contemporary American culture and it has survived 250 years based on strength of reporting and utility value to Connecticut and New England residents over so many generations.”

So what has kept the Courant at the forefront of Connecticut journalism for more than two centuries when so many other papers have folded under the changing times and dwindling advertising revenues? Joseph Nunes, a former staff writer who is working on a history of the Courant for publication this year, believes it can be attributed to several factors including an emphasis on local news, a loyal readership and a newspaper monopoly during much of the 1970s and 1980s.  

The paper survived the Revolutionary War and other early obstacles by the fortune of its location, ideally situated between New York City and Boston. The British were too busy shutting down papers in both of those neighboring cities to make a serious effort to close the Courant.

“The Courant was providing all news for [events like] the Boston Massacre, the Battles of Lexington and Concord,” says Nunes.

The paper flourished during this time in what some call its “first Golden Age.” It had the largest circulation of any paper in the colonies. There were hardships, between its paper factory burning down and the printing press being worn to the point that some letters were difficult to distinguish, and the publication did struggle for a stretch.

It was a fortuitous alignment with the Republican Party in 1867 corresponding with a merger between the Courant and The Hartford Evening Press that would guide the Courant’s editorial policy and solidify a loyal readership for the next century. The paper established itself as a mouthpiece for conservative values, which contributed to the state’s nickname, the Land of Steady Habits.

Prior to its merger with the Courant, the Evening Press was a serious competitor. The Courant delivered its papers in the morning while the Evening Press provided a later edition. The Hartford Times, which operated from 1826 through 1976, had a parallel trajectory to the Courant, forming in opposition to the paper’s conservative values. The two remained close rivals for a century, until the Times folded in the 1970s after having been purchased by the New Haven Register, which had hoped to turn its fortunes around.

After the Times went under, the Courant had a monopoly on the newspaper industry in Connecticut, raking in large advertising profits that would pave the way for the high times of the 1980s. Having a series of respected competitors was crucial to building the Courant’s success, says Nunes. It’s just as important today as ever because, as Julien says, “it pushes everyone to be better.”

The Courant’s editorial policy shifted away from being openly Republican to a more nonpartisan middle ground in 1926 when former owner Charles Hopkins Clark died and Maurice Sherman took over. The editorial page also became more liberal at that time. The Courant has remained committed to bipartisan reporting ever since—an important quality of its coverage of Connecticut.

But the true backbone of the newspaper’s coverage has always been its focus on the towns, starting as far back as the 1890s when Clark began a modernization and expansion initiative that included the launch of the state desk and a town news system.

“By 1914, the Courant was running three pages a day of town news, but because of budget cuts during the lean years, that had gone down to less than a page a day by 1947,” says Nunes.
 

 

That town news system was strengthened in the late 1940s when new publisher J.R. Reitemeyer recognized the potential of suburban sprawl moving out from the cities. A bureau system stationed reporters around the state to provide a hyper-localized brand of news that readers came to expect from the Courant. It was the beginning of a 50-year upward trajectory for the newspaper—referred to by some as its “second Golden Age.”

The Courant’s town coverage significantly decreased in the early 1980s when a new editorial staff under the Times Mirror Company, nicknamed “the Beach Boys” (because many of its management hailed from the West Coast), shifted resources to state news. The change triggered a drop in circulation, which demonstrated how important town coverage was to the readers.

In interviews for his book, Nunes spoke with former State Editor G. Claude Albert, who headed the state desk in the 1970s. Of the bureau system, Albert said: “The State Desk was critical in drawing readers to the paper, both for its local coverage and because it was the home of its best journalism. It was a tremendous advantage to have so many people in so many places in Connecticut.”

But none of the paper’s changes and adjustments would have mattered without a loyal readership, which is something the paper has had from the very beginning. With its trusted name, the Courant has to balance becoming a tradition with being a newspaper.

The challenge today is to keep that crop of loyal readers through the technological changes that are shaping the industry—the advent of social media and continued emphasis on digital storytelling—while attracting new readers to the publication.

“Twenty years ago everyone got the paper. Now people are accessing the information a dozen different ways,” says Julien. “That’s the job.”

“The Courant is 250 years old,” says Hanley. “It’s based on a 250-year-old technology—information disseminated via a printing press and hand delivered many times. In the second decade of the 21st century, [that would be] akin to taking an old deer trail instead of highway.”

Also on trend with the rest of the industry, the Courant’s staff has been steadily shrinking for the last decade. While Julien declined to comment on current staff levels, reports by the New Haven Independent in 2009 indicate that the staff had shrunk to 135 employees, an estimated half of what it was two years prior.

“[At one point] they had some 300 reporters, which is astonishing when looked at through today’s environment,” says Hanley. “They had one of the best staffs in the United States, bar none. It’s still good. They still have a great investigative team and are still putting resources into investigative journalism.”

“We look at this as one media company,” Hartford Courant Publisher Nancy Meyer says of the print and digital sides of the business. She took over the position last November after working at the Courant for eight years, with time spent at Gannett and Hearst papers before that. “[Our task is] understanding who our audience is today and where is that audience going? Ensuring we’re investing in where the audience is going.”

Increasingly, that audience is moving online—to mobile sites and other electronic platforms. The task of newspapers now is to provide information in a way that aligns with those trends. For the Courant, that means putting resources behind video, audio and photography to enhance the digital experience, and encouraging reporters to use social media to promote their stories and get information out faster.

Kovner, who has worked at the Hartford Courant for almost 20 years, has seen the shift in news consumption. Readers still expect in-depth stories and they want them immediately, he says. With the popularity of social media, the speed with which information is disseminated takes priority, but the Courant continues to put resources into investigative reporting to provide the deeper look audiences desire.

“[Print and digital] provides a wider entry point for readers to get news,” says Kovner. “It gives the writer more opportunity to satisfy.”

Julien says that he’s excited about the “new ways to tell our stories to the readers.”

Meyer is quick to add “That doesn’t mean we’re going to leave our print audience off to the side.” She says that the company is trying to figure out how best to utilize resources so that readers get a full editorial experience regardless of whether they read the print edition or check in on their phones.

“Sometimes there is more expansive coverage online with video and audio, but at this point both are important,” she says. “It is how you tell that story.”
 

 

Another challenge for the institution that built its empire on localized news is how to provide that same coverage with fewer reporters and more competition. Despite the shrinking staff, Julien says the Courant has made a concerted effort in the last two to three years to expand its local coverage through integrating print and digital content. “We have put more pages in the B section and more resources into community coverage,” he says.

A large piece of that puzzle was the acquisition of Reminder Media Inc. in April. The Vernon-based company publishes 15 free weekly newspapers throughout north and central Connecticut. The sale included four annual community directories, a monthly publication on properties for sale and the weekly Reminder AutoMarket. The hope is that this deal, the financial details of which were not disclosed, will allow the Courant to expand its local coverage into those areas of the state.

While every newspaper in the country is experiencing these industry changes, the Courant is maneuvering them in the face of an imminent corporate shift. Since 2000, the Courant has been owned by the Chicago-based Tribune Company. In January, the Hartford Business Journal reported that Tribune Co. will be spinning off the Hartford-based paper and seven other daily newspapers into a “separate, stand-alone publishing division that has lost subscribers and revenue steadily for the past five years.”

This shift will separate the Courant from the Fox Connecticut television station that shares its newsroom. Tribune Co. will retain ownership of the Courant’s offices on Broad Street and the paper will be forced to pay rent for the space it occupies. It’s a situation all of the Tribune newspapers will be faced with, in addition to a large amount of debt. The Hartford Business Journal reported that the total rent for all eight newspapers will be approximately $35 million annually, according to a SEC filing.

According to an email from Meyer that was originally intended for interoffice communication but was published on a public Hartford Courant alumni blog, there are already moves in the works surrounding the configuration of the newsroom. The email indicated that over the next several months the publishing and broadcast branches of the business will be consolidated onto different floors—broadcast on the third floor and publishing on the first floor. Despite the separation, the two sides will continue to work together, though the management is “developing a timeline to sunset the CT1 Media brand,” which encompasses both sides of the business.

Both Julien and Meyer declined to comment further on any of the changes awaiting the Courant and other Tribune papers. The situation seems potentially bleak—change always has the possibility to be problematic, but the management at the Courant is choosing to remain positive.

“We’re still a trusted brand,” says Julien. “People are rooting for us.”

In speaking generally about the industry, Julien says that while times are tough now, they are better than they were in 2008 and 2009 when there was an industry-wide reduction of nearly 25 percent. It was during that time that the Courant reportedly laid off half its staff.

“We’re not in free fall right now,” says Julien. “We hope that people embrace the opportunity to change. Our job is to make sure we’re on the stories people care about, reaching and telling them what they need to know to get through the day.”  

That has always been the strength of the Courant because, as Julien mentioned previously, they’re the storytellers of Connecticut.

“We are picked up every day because of the strong journalism,” says Meyer, acknowledging what those currently at the company, those who have departed and others in the industry have said has been keeping the Hartford Courant afloat for two-and-a-half centuries. “Two-hundred-and-fifty years ago, or 50 or 100 years from now, the brand stands because we provide good, sound, evocative content for the people of Connecticut.”

 

The Hartford Courant Celebrates 250th Anniversary: Witness to History

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