Who Controls the Connecticut Media?
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THE QUESTION of how to pay for news is so important because news is more than a business—a notion that is sometimes lamented, sometimes forgotten, as the industry convulses.
“I think one of the great advantages of family newspapers is they understand their institutional responsibility. They understand this is not just a business,” Kellogg says. “This is one of the only businesses that has its own Constitutional amendment. We have a responsibility—a public trust—that has to be maintained. Sometimes that comes at our own sacrifice. But that’s the bargain. That is the part that gets discouraging when the public doesn’t see that, or chooses to put on blinders.”
It’s that public trust that so many corporate news owners are accused of breaking in order to profit. “When the sale of public Tribune to Sam Zell took place, a number of top officials of Tribune made tens of millions of dollars,” Stern says. “To them, the company was all about money and, although I am sure they would not admit it, personal enrichment. To most of the journalists who lost their jobs as a result of the ill-advised sale, the newspaper was not only a weekly paycheck, but an institution that held a sacred public trust.”
The bigger question on the minds of many journalists is: Does anyone in the public care anymore?
Powell describes “a decline in civic virtue” that has hurt newspaper sales. He tracks this virtue via voter participation in Connecticut. Not just how many registered voters actually went to the polls—how many adult citizens went to the polls? The numbers are depressing, he says. Some 80 percent of the eligible population didn’t vote in local elections, according to Powell’s most recent count.
“It’s been declining at a 45 degree angle for 50 or 60 years,” he claims. “We can sell newspapers to people who are engaged in the community. We can not sell to people who don’t give a damn.”
ENTER EXPERIMENTS in nonprofit journalism—something that has been incubating in Connecticut since 2005 when Paul Bass launched the New Haven Independent. Other non-profit sites, Connecticut Mirror and the Connecticut Health Investigative Team, followed. The non-profits use grant funding to pay for reporters and other expenses. And they publish on the Internet, saving print costs.
“It’s a solution in some places,” says Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University, who wrote The Wired City, a book about the New Haven Independent and other nonprofit news ventures. “And certainly in New Haven it has been a great answer to the problem of how you pay for news. But you need certain factors in place.” Those factors include a driving force like Bass, a strong funding source like the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, and a perceived void in news coverage.
Connecticut also boasts two long-time newspaper trusts, which fund The Day of New London and The Norwalk Hour. “That’s a wonderful model for journalism and journalists,” says Croteau, who serves on The Day Trust board of directors. “It’s not particularly a wonderful model for people who want to clean up and make a profit and put it in their pockets.”
Croteau says The Day Trust has meant that the newspaper doesn’t have to worry about double-digit profits, like a corporate-owned paper would. “Our standard is, ‘What can we do to stay in business, keep our business healthy and sustain us?’ Not, ‘What can we do quickly to make sure we keep profits high,’” she says.
Yet, even The Day has faced its own economic troubles, with layoffs in 2008 and 2011, according to PaperCuts, a blog that tracks newspapers layoffs in the United States. The paper also outsources its printing, as several others have done to keep costs down.
As Kennedy outlines in his book, one of the biggest challenges facing journalism today is “finding ways to bolster civic engagements—that is, to get the public interested in local politics, community events and other issues from which a mobile, wired generation are disconnected.” The Wired City outlines an argument that online non-profit sites can help solve that problem by better connecting with readers.
“One of the things the Independent has done, they’ve actually been able to use comments in a productive way, that not just adds to the journalism, but creates a real sense of community around the news,” Kennedy says. “If you can’t do that, I don’t think there’s an awful lot of hope, because people are disengaged.
“You need to not only cover the news, but create a community of people who understand that it is important, and why it is important, and not just important, but that it is interesting,” he adds.
Hanley also mentions the need for news to be interesting. “Too often news has been defined as matters of state, government, along with some features. Now it needs to be a tapestry of subjects,” he says. “It doesn’t mean you’re putting the Kardashians on your front end. You’re recognizing that people do not live in a bubble of government speak. There are everyday things that can be interpreted as news if presented in a way that matches the expectation of a web reader. It has no memory of what the news used to be.”
SO IS THIS a defining moment in Connecticut journalism, or just another bit of endless journalism business news? If the Hartford Courant is sold, could the removal of Tribune’s past burden have a similar—or ideally, better—outcome as the New Britain Herald and Bristol Press? If Tribune decides to hold on to its print papers, can the corporate reorganization give it the freedom to adapt to the needed industry changes?
One thing that’s clear, is that the media industry today is one in which news outlets are constantly making and remaking themselves, as Schroeder has shown.
“I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss it as a dead entity,” says Hanley. A successful future will undoubtedly look different than the Courant’s past, he suggests. “There is a very robust future in news. It’s just undergoing a redefinition.”