Who Controls the Connecticut Media?
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UNDER TRIBUNE OWNERSHIP, the Courant has been down a bumpy road.
Tribune Co. acquired the paper in 2000 from Times Mirror Company, along with several other large dailies in the country, including the Los Angeles Times. Sam Zell, a real-estate investor, bought the company and took it private in 2007, resulting in about $12 billion in debt for the Tribune properties, which included more than 20 newspapers and about a dozen television stations. That’s when things began to unravel, according to Paul Stern, a former editor at the Courant for 24 years who took a buyout in 2008.
“The wheels didn’t start to fall off, really, until Sam Zell bought the place,” says Stern. “I think the real cost cutting started after Zell took over—when it was clear the company could not pay its debt to the banks that financed the take-over. That’s when the big cloud sort of moved over the company.”
In Stern’s time at the Courant, the newspaper won the Pulitzer Prize—twice. It published seven editions reporting on 81 towns. Some towns had two or three reporters to cover special topics such as education.
In January 2008, the newsroom had 245 employees, according to numbers published in the Courant. By March 2009, that number had dropped by 45 percent to 135 people. It was still making money on its own, but as Stern facetiously puts it: “We would ship off big boxes of money to Chicago” to help fund Tribune’s overall debt. Current staff numbers are hard to pin down. Hartford Courant editor Andrew Julien says he couldn’t comment on the specific staffing figures today.
“As most news organizations across the United States, we are smaller than we were 10 years ago,” he acknowledges. “What it’s forced us to do is to focus on what is our mission and what matters most to our readers.”
Despite smaller staff counts, the Courant continues to produce quality work—notably investigative pieces and detailed coverage of major state events such as the Newtown shooting, which earned the paper recognition as a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Yet, as is so often the case, the comparison is to the golden days of news reporting.
Those comparisons are counterproductive, says Julien, because the changes are industry-wide. The question now is: How does a newspaper adapt and continue to produce meaningful work?
One strategy employed by the Courant was its merger with Fox 61, also owned by Tribune. In 2009, they joined newsrooms in one building and started sharing content across the two platforms. In a story published in the Courant in March 2009, Tribune leaders described the move as a way to respond to the economic woes of the industry and to keep up with the changing times of journalism. The merger with TV “was probably done for a reason,” says Joe Strupp, a media analyst and former editor at Editor & Publisher magazine. “It was done to save money, or to make money.”
The move impressed some: It was a true 21st-century newsroom. But it angered others, who pointed out that it violated FCC regulations on media ownership.
“Tribune knew it was going to be violating the cross ownership rule,” says Chris Powell, the managing editor at the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. “Tribune figured—calculated —that it could buy its way out of the rule. It almost succeeded in convincing the FCC to repeal the ban in cross ownership.”
Now—again in response to economic concerns—the broadcast business will be separated from the print, at least as far as corporate structure goes. In July, Tribune split into two companies, one for its broadcast properties and one for the publishing side. National news analysts, like Ken Doctor, the author of Newsonomics, speculate the change might be a tax dodge, a way to postpone selling the papers or a way to drive up the price.
Others assume it’s a way to keep the broadcast operation while continuing a bid to sell the publishing side. “Synergies that were supposed to develop did not add much,” says Powell. “The financial analysis is companies seem to think newspapers are going down the toilet and don’t want anything to do with them.”
After the announcement, several big names emerged as potentially interested in buy one or all of the Tribune newspapers—although no one has specifically mentioned the Hartford Courant as a paper it wants to break out from the group. The Koch brothers, billionaires who have prominently supported conservative causes, announced in June they wanted to bid on the papers, then said in August they were not interested. Other big names include Aaron Kushner, Warren Buffett and Rupert Murdoch.
Tribune spokesman Gary Weitman wouldn’t say specifically whether the media hype about a potential sale has any credence. He would only refer to a July 2013 statement outlining the company separation, which says the change is “designed to maximize shareholder value” and “position the company for long-term growth.” The release is thick with PR talk, and avoids answering the most-asked questions about a potential sale.
“The separation is designed to allow each company to maximize its flexibility and competitiveness in a rapidly changing media environment,” Tribune’s CEO Peter Liguori is quoted as saying in the release.
Local media analysts continue to wonder how Tribune’s changes will impact the Courant. The understanding is that Tribune’s separation leaves all the real estate holdings with the broadcast side.
“All they are selling now is the newspapers, the good will,” says Maureen Croteau, chairman of the University of Connecticut journalism department, who used to work at the Hartford Courant. “They are not selling the bricks and mortar. It also destroys the price of the newspapers. There is a lot of value tied up in the real estate. It may make it less attractive to a buyer in the future.”
Rich Hanley, a journalism professor at Quinnipiac University echoes Croteau’s concerns. “It’s going to be difficult to sell the Courant separate from the TV station, only because the integration is so thorough, to unpack it would erode value,” he says.
For now, the two entities continue to operate together. And the staff is continuing on as it has before, Julien says.
“The way I see my job personally is to say to my staff, ‘Try not to worry too much about the things you cannot control,’” he says. “We can control every day what we do in this newsroom.”