Who Controls the Connecticut Media?
(page 3 of 5)
THE HARTFORD COURANT and Schroeder’s papers have more in common than immediately meets the eye—most notably, the cutbacks that so often come with a debt-burdened corporate owner.
The New Britain Herald and Bristol Press were owned by the Journal Register Company (JRC) before Schroeder stepped in.
The changes that happened to JRC since it sold the Bristol Press and the New Britain Herald highlight how complicated the behind-the-scenes ownership changes at newspapers can be. The company has gone through bankruptcy twice; once in February 2009 and again in September 2012. In between, it joined with MediaNews Group—which operates more than 50 dailies across the country—under an umbrella group called Digital First Media. The company’s Connecticut properties include Connecticut Magazine, the New Haven Register, the Middletown Press and the Register Citizen of Torrington.
The first time the company went through bankruptcy, JRC’s debt was $692 million, according to the New York Times. When JRC got out of bankruptcy, it still had $225 million in debt, according to a fact sheet distributed to employees. By 2012, the company still had $160 million in debt and what company executives termed “a legacy (media) cost structure” that required the second bankruptcy filing. (After the second filing, Alden Global Capital, the New York-based hedge fund that owned JRC, sold the company to an Alden subsidiary, which has re-named it 21st Century Media.)
Even before bankruptcy, there were cuts across the chain. Printing the Herald and Press was outsourced to another JRC paper, as was the customer service desk. News staff was laid off incrementally.
“JRC was uniquely aggressive about making cuts,” says Steve Collins, a reporter for the Bristol Press, who started there in 1994. “It was a business to them. Covering news, truthfully, was always sort of an afterthought to the company.”
In the time between 1994 when Collins started, and 2008, when the end was near, he claims the two papers lost half their staff through cuts. “It was difficult, even a little painful, to see all the cutbacks that had occurred,” he says. “It seemed like a trajectory that was headed straight down.”
JRC is now trying to move forward with a new “digital first” mentality. “JRC is aggressively shedding its print legacy and moving into its digital space,” Hanley says. “And it’s not looking back. It’s going the full way forward. They have a long way to go, and they’re moving in that direction.”
Schroeder says his first priority as the Bristol Press and New Britain Herald owner was to build a connection with the readers. He moved the customer service office back to New Britain from New Haven. The paper continued to be published off site.
“Everybody told me the worst thing they knew about the paper was customer service,” he says. He also tried other ways to reach out to the community. For example, three years ago the New Britain Herald started publishing a weekly Polish language edition to serve the large Polish population in the city.
The two papers started publishing local editorials, instead of the regional content that had been published from the Journal Register Company chain. Schroeder’s papers even started running a full-page editorial on the front page each January 1, laying out goals and expectations for the coming year.
“We started out with building the newspaper back up, putting out a product people feel comfortable with, that they can respect even if they don’t agree. And one that was professional in quality,” says Schroeder.
You could argue that Schroeder has merely kept the status quo, that his purchase saved two dying papers, but did little to improve them. The staffs are roughly the same. The circulation—at about 11,000 between the two papers—is less than the almost 18,000 in 2008, according to figures from a 2008 Forbes article.
“We’re nowhere near the levels of back in the heyday,” acknowledges Collins. “But on the other hand, we have stopped the bleeding to some degree anyway. And local news means something, which wasn’t the case before.”
There is one other key difference—the papers are no longer lugging around corporate debt. In fact, the newspapers are actually making some money. Schroeder wouldn’t say exactly how much, but admits it was “lower than 5 percent” profit-margin range. “It’s not the old days where you are going to have people making a good buck as a business running a newspaper in New Britain and Bristol,” Schroeder says. “But there’s enough money there to pay for it, and for me to run it. So why not?”