Here are the comments I made at the beginning of Tunxis Community College’s third Forum on the News Media. They both introduce the guest speakers and offer some reflections of my own about the topic, “Rescuing Newspapers in Troubled Times.” I hope they’re useful to anyone who happens to read them.
This is third year of Tunxis Community College’s annual Forum on the News Media. The forum had its inception in a grant provided through the college’s Strategic Initiatives Fund and, for the past two years, has been funded as part of the Humanities Department budget. The purpose of the forum, briefly, is to bring Tunxis faculty and staff together with persons who work in newsgathering to discuss issues of importance to the news media—and thus, ultimately, to society in general.
Past forums have dealt, in Year 1, with the potential of the ongoing revolution in technology to change the ways we think about news and, in Year 2, the continuing trend toward consolidation of traditional newsgathering organizations into fewer and fewer corporate hands.
Previous participants have included Keith Burris and Lee Giguere of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Ct., Shawn Beals of UConn’s distinguished student newspaper, The Connecticut Daily Campus, Robert Weisman of The Boston Globe and Joseph H. Zerbey of The Blade in Toledo, Ohio. They’ve been joined by several of our Tunxis colleagues—Steve Ersinghaus, Rachel Hyland, Patrice Hamilton, and John Timmons.
This year’s topic for discussion is local and specific in its focus: “Rescuing Newspapers in Troubled Times.” Our guests are two distinguished journalists—Michael Schroeder, who is publisher of The Bristol Press and New Britain Herald and James Smith, who is executive editor of the same two publications. As for the Tunxis staffers this year, well, you’re stuck with just me…for reasons that I hope to make clear in the next few minutes.
Both Mike Schroeder and Jim Smith seem to have been born, as Jim once said of himself, with printer’s ink in their veins.
Mike Schroeder reports that he’s been in the newspaper and publishing business since 6th grade when he began producing a two-cent-per-copy, carbon-paper newsletter. He was editor of his high school newspaper, and later of his college newspaper, The Daily Trojan at the University of Southern California. He spent 15 years at Newsday, the great daily newspaper of Long Island. Since then, he has worked on startup publications in New York, Boston, and Israel—the latter of which was published in Hebrew, which I’m pretty sure is not his first language.
Today, as I said, he’s publisher of The Herald and The Press. He says that, as publisher, he focuses primarily on the business side of the publications, but he’s always willing to write an editorial or story when he’s really fired up or (this is his own quotation) “when we’re short on staff and have a hole to fill”—an assessment that shows that he really does understand the complexities of producing a local newspapers with limited resources.
In his communities, he is active in Rotary and is on the board of Long Island Youth Mentoring, the New Britain Symphony, the Museum of American Art, and the New Britain Chamber of Commerce. During the week, he lives in an apartment in Bristol and commutes weekends to Long Island where he lives with his wife, Janet.
Jim Smith has been a part of Connecticut journalism for, as I count it, four decades. Jim was raised in New York in a newspaper family. He was at The Hartford Courant for 14 years. His first beat at The Courant was covering the city of Bristol. He worked there as city editor and sports editor. He’s been managing editor of the Register-Citizen in Torrington, The Day in New London, and The News-Times in Danbury, editor of The Connecticut Post in Bridgeport, executive editor of The Record Journal in Meriden, and currently executive editor of The Press and The Herald.
Jim has received the Distinguished Writing Award from the American Society of Newspaper Editors for a series of columns on the free press that have been compiled and published as a book, A Passion for Journalism: A Newspaper Editor Writes to His Readers. A Passion for Journalism was published by Plaidswede Publishing of Concord, N.H., which last year published his first novel. He’s been a Pulitzer Prize juror and president of the New England Society of Newspaper Editors. Currently, he’s on the executive committee of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.
Under his editorship, the New London, Danbury, Meriden, and Bridgeport publications all were named New England newspapers of the year in their various circulation categories.
Jim is also planning to retire effective December 31 of this year. This will let him pursue independent writing and editing projects and spend more time with the four daughters and two grandchildren that he shares with his wife, Jacky, who is managing editor of The News-Times in Danbury.
On a personal note, I have to say that I’m quite sure Jim has earned the right to retire. But I must also add that his retirement will be a loss to daily journalism in Connecticut.
AS FOR ME
As for me, I’m Bob Brown, professor of History and English here at Tunxis. I’m also, I have to confess, a recovering journalist. I spent a quarter-century in Connecticut journalism, working at The Courant, The Chronicle in Willimantic, the Journal Inquirer in Manchester and, most of those years, at The Bristol Press where I was reporter, columnist, editorial-page editor and, ultimately, editor.
I left The Press in 1996 and left journalism altogether in 1998 to come to Tunxis.
My decision to quit as editor of The Press was a wrenching and painful one, reached over more than a year. In the end, I left because I felt as if I had no choice. The newspaper had been acquired in the early 1990s by the Journal Register Company, a newspaper group based in Trenton, N.J. which also owned The New Haven Register and Register-Citizen in Torrington and would eventually acquire both The New Britain Herald and The Middletown Press.
It became clear to me quickly that the mission of the Journal Register Company was to squeeze out every penny of profit by cutting costs wherever possible even if it meant sacrificing the quality of the publications.
It was journalism, if you will, as practiced by bloodless beancounters.
A couple of examples cinched the point for me.
1—One of the fascinating elements in the production and distribution of a daily newspaper, at least before the age of the Internet, was this: Newspapers would buy the most advanced printing and production technology, requiring an increasingly skilled workforce, and then often rely for distribution on an 11-year-old kid with a bicycle.
The responsibility for getting the paper to those kids, and getting them to distribute it promptly, falls to the Circulation Department—and the key people in that operation really are the people called district managers, each of whom is responsible for distribution in a specific geographic area.
During the mid-1990s, The Press had five district managers. Over the course of several months in 1995, each of them left for another job. Because we were under a corporate hiring freeze, our circulation manager was told he could fill none of the positions, which meant there was no one in charge of dealing with the carriers or the complaints of readers who had not received their afternoon newspaper.
At that time, we were a newspaper essentially assembled at night and distributed early the next afternoon. Our circulation office closed at 6PM. All calls afterward were forwarded to our newsroom. For two weeks, I had one of our news clerks compile the names and numbers of people who had not gotten their newspaper. My memory is fading a bit now, but I’m pretty sure that we received well over 1,000 phone calls in a single week from more than 700 separate subscribers. And still, the hiring freeze continued.
2—For me the breaking point came in 1996. The hiring freeze had reduced the staff in the newsroom by 25 percent. Then came the order to begin publication of a Sunday newspaper—a 17 percent increase in workload with 25 percent fewer people.
It simply couldn’t be done either well or effectively. The end result would be a publication that reflected no credit on the people who put it together and offered nothing of value to the people who bought it.
I need to be clear on one point: There is nothing wrong, and everything right, with newspapers earning a healthy return on investment. A newspaper that loses money over a sustained period is a newspaper that eventually will cease to publish. Newspapers cannot FORCE citizens to subscribe. Government, blessedly, does not support newspapers through either taxation or subsidy.
It used to amuse me greatly when an outraged reader would call to object to a particular article or photograph and end by saying, “You just printed that so you could sell more papers.”
The fact is that everything that goes in a newspaper is designed to “sell papers.” The first job of a newspaper is to be read, and the way to do that is to convince people that they should buy the newspaper.
Beyond that, however, good journalists have always believed that the bottom line is not the only way to gauge a newspaper’s success. A good newspaper is a newspaper that informs, entertains, and comments on the news. It acts responsibly in gathering the news, adhering to generally accepted standards of fairness and social responsibility.
A good LOCAL newspaper, as Jim Smith has observed, performs another function: It is a mirror for the community. When the community looks at it on a daily basis, the community sees itself.
In the end, I concluded that the Journal Register Company, despite all kinds of lip service to the contrary, didn’t care about any of that other stuff—that its bottom-line only mentality had begun to affect the quality of the newspapers, that the damage would grow over time, that the communities would realize as much, and that eventually the communities would stop reading.
I didn’t want to participate in the gutting of a newspaper about which I cared a great deal, so I left and, though it gives no pleasure to say so, what I thought would happen is pretty much what happened.
In the summer of 1996, The Bristol Press had a circulation of approximately 22,000. By 2009, the number had fallen to well below 10,000. The Herald had faced an equally precipitous drop in readership. Not so coincidentally, the Journal Register Company found itself forced into bankruptcy. What happened in Connecticut had clearly been repeated in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Michigan where the company owned newspapers.
As part of its plan to reorganize, the company announced that it would close certain of its publications—including The Herald and The Press.
That event very nearly came to pass in January 2009.
The Press and The Herald were within days of closing their doors when a buyer emerged, Central Connecticut Communication, and the region met Mr. Schroeder for the first time.
As Mike Schroeder tells it, he had breakfast with a good friend who had read a New York Times article on the decline of local newspapers in New England, using The Bristol Press as its focus. His friend asked if he had ever thought about buying and publishing such newspapers. After first shrugging off the suggestion, he reconsidered. Less than a week later, he was in the area—meeting with the publisher of the two newspapers and with the mayors of the two cities. He came away satisfied that there was a chance that the two communities would give a fair trial to new ownership.
Negotiations began a week later and were concluded barely in time to keep the doors open.
Mike Schroeder himself describes the situation he faced: “A staff that didn’t know me and had taken a pounding over the past few years, working in decaying buildings that had more history than future in them, in an unforgiving economy and a rapidly declining industry.”
As he faced this reality, he also had a chance to take a good job out of journalism at a Fortune 500 company on Long Island.
He chose journalism and brought Jim Smith in as executive editor.
That was nearly two years ago. Anyone who reads the two newspapers can see a change: More professional publications, more local news, a clear focus on community journalism in all aspects from news to arts to sports.
The most obvious evidence of change is the most recent:
In October, The Herald was named best small newspaper in New England by the New England Newspaper and Press Association.
It seemed only natural to invite the publisher and executive editor to talk about how they did what they did, their vision for the newspapers and the communities they serve, and anything else that seems relevant about the process of rescuing newspapers during troubled times. I’ve suggested that Mike Schroeder speak first and provide an overview of what happened and what he hopes will happen in the future and that Jim Smith might talk specifically about the news operation. They’re free, of course, to do whatever they want.
First, Michael Schroder.